Every cheese has a story. That’s what I learned after speaking with Angie and Jeff DiMeo, owners of the new artisanal cheese shop opening in Wayland Square this summer. Although the couple shares a love for this wondrous dairy product, the reason they want to open East Side Cheese & Provisions is that their vision is “so much more than cheese.”
Take, for instance, the story of Humboldt Fog. When asked on Instagram, if Angie and Jeff were a type of cheese, what cheese would they be, Angie chose Humboldt Fog: “At first, it’s light and crumbly, like fresh snow, with a line of ash that runs through it,” she explained. “As time goes on, it goes from fluffy to creamy and gooey. I love that it transforms, and it’s beautiful and delicious at all ages and stages.”
This soft-ripened goat cheese was actually conceived in a dream by its creator, Mary Keehn, while returning to California from France. She had a vision of a cheese accented with a thick line of ash reminiscent of the fog often blanketing the expansive Humboldt County coastline. Keehn had started raising goats in an effort to provide fresh, healthy milk for her children, and with the excess of milk she had, she began experimenting with cheeses. Thus, the Humboldt Fog was born.
It’s stories such as these that most of us don’t think about while picking up a wheel of cheese for a party. And that’s exactly what Angie and Jeff want to share with the community. A lot of their friends now are cheesemakers, and as Jeff says: “We’ll never tire of hearing their stories – that’ll be the focus of our shop.”
Angie and Jeff met in North Carolina, working for the same organic grocery store. Angie was recruited from her home state of Michigan, where she studied communications and marketing, while Jeff was working in merchandising. But Jeff’s history and love for cheese ran back to his early college years at Northeastern University. As a native of Smithfield, RI, Jeff fell in love with artisan cheeses through an entrepreneurship course at Bread & Circus, a small organic grocery store. Through the program, he had a chance to work in all of the departments, but the cheese counter became his favorite. “I would love to find a photo of Jeff at 19, working behind a cheese counter,” Angie says. “The cheese world is small – somebody out there has to have it!”
At that time, the specialty coordinator of Bread & Circus, Justin Jackson, acted as a mentor for Jeff. “He stuffed me with books, took me under his wing. But then I started buying books on my own,” Jeff said. He branched out and began visiting cheesemakers in person. The first local cheesemaker he visited was Great Hill Blue in in Marion, MA. He remembers seeing the process for the first time, talking to Tim and Mallory Stone, who told him their origin story, why they love their land, and why it makes the best cheese. A raw-milk blue cheese is their specialty, Jeff tells me.
When Bread & Circus was acquired by Whole Foods, Jeff stayed on and became the first regional specialty coordinator in the area, responsible for – among other things – designing both Providence Whole Foods’ cheese sections.
From there, he moved to New York to work at Forever Cheese, where he learned the importing business, focusing on importing cheese from the Mediterranean. He visited producers in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia – all around the Adriatic Region. To this day, Jeff’s absolute favorite cheese is anything that comes from the Basque region of Spain/France. “If you gave me a blind taste test of 100 cheeses, I could pick out the one from the Basque Region,” he says. The cheeses produced there all have a similar underlying flavor, he explains. “This is what it really means to have a ‘taste of place.’” They use primarily sheep’s milk, but rather than having a sharp flavor (like a pecorino), Jeff says it’s “delicate and beautiful.”
Jeff’s journey then took him to Vermont to work with a farmstead cheesemaker before someone from a past life reached out about a natural organic grocery store in Ashville, NC. They needed his help opening new stores, much like he did for Whole Foods in New England, and he accepted. Just like star-crossed cheese lovers, Jeff and Angie met, and soon they began their own food consulting agency. “I always thought I’d be in corporate America, but I’m glad I’m not,” Angie confesses.
At some point they realized, “If we’re consultants, we can live anywhere. Why not Rhode Island?” They made a pro/con list for the locations they were considering, and the answer was clear. “Rhode Island had everything we were looking for, everything we wanted,” Jeff said.
The couple moved to RI right before the pandemic, and over the past three years, they looked at over a dozen spaces until the perfect one emerged in Wayland Square – just a few doors down from where they used to live. One day in March, while sipping a warm drink across the street at L’Artisan Café, Angie saw a vacant sign in the window of the old Plaid & Stripe pet shop. By that afternoon, she and Jeff had signed their letter of intent.
“It’s a homecoming in many ways, [for Jeff] and for the Rhode Island community,” Angie says.
In addition to a cut and rack cheese store, where they plan to carry ~100 different cheeses, they will also carry an assortment of crackers, jams, pickled things, cured meats, pantry staples (pasta, condiments, sauces) – everything that goes with cheese, hence the “provisions” in their name. And, as a couple who gave up drinking alcohol during the pandemic, they plan to have a menu of exciting, zero-proof options.
I know what you’re all thinking: What about the cheese boards? “Cheese board creators of the world have made cheese popular over the years,” Angie laughs. “And we love a good cheese board – you can always find an excuse to have one.” They plan to have an online ordering system where you can order boards in advance to be picked up, as well as grab-and-go options of different sizes.
At 1,200 square feet, East Side Cheese & Provisions is not your average cheese store. “Because of the space, we plan to host classes and tastings, bingo, and trivia. We want it to be a destination.” They plan to leverage their contacts to come visit and educate the community, share their stories, and bring in wine experts to do a pairing classes. “Partnering with small producers is a core of why we exist,” Angie says. And there is, as I learned in a short conversation, so much to learn about cheese.
“I find it utterly amazing,” Jeff says, “that you can take the same four ingredients, and by manipulating temperature and time, you can create an endless amount of flavors and textures.” While they do plan to carry some big-name cheeses, they’re most excited to share the products made from small family farms. “There are truly magnificent cheesemakers out there that don’t produce enough cheese for a big market. I believe that’s where a lot of the magic lies – and they deserve a platform to tell their stories.”
17 S. Angell Street, PVD – set to open mid-July