Philadelphia is a city largely unfamiliar to me, so my associations with “The Birthplace of America” have always been limited, to say the least: cheesesteaks, Rocky Balboa, the Liberty Bell… you get the picture. But two weeks ago, I had the chance to explore Philly’s food culture and was fortunate to spend time in one of the best cheese markets on the East Coast: Di Bruno Bros. Now, any time I pass through Philly in the future, I’ll certainly be swinging into a Di Bruno Bros. location… the only question will be, which one?
Di Bruno Bros. is a family-owned cheese-centric specialty food mini-empire founded by brothers Danny and Joe in 1939. They started with one small grocery store in the Italian Market neighborhood and the business has since expanded to five unique locations, each offering something distinctive.
I first met up with third-generation co-owner Emilio Mignucci for a tour of their Rittenhouse Square location. It’s a super-modern European-style specialty market with a coffee bar, pristine meat and seafood counters and painstakingly curated specialty staples such as oils, vinegars and fresh produce. A giant central island showcases house-made prepared foods, artisan breads, hand-sliced charcuterie and smoked fish – everything one might need for a spectacular meal. If your mouth starts watering at the sight of all the delicacies, you can pop upstairs to grab a drink, a snack or a meal at their large second-story café.
In the rear of the store was my ultimate destination: the cheese counter. It boasted a wide selection and was staffed by three engaging, knowledgeable mongers. We sampled excellent local offerings, such as Seven Sisters from The Farm at Doe Run, then tasted a couple of outstanding artisanal imports. All of their wheels were in great shape and the counters were immaculately clean – two very important criteria for judging cheese shops! This location features Di Bruno Bros.’ largest cheese cave, staffed by their own affineur, Rich Morillo. Emilio explained how important it is to his company to hire only the best mongers and to provide them with continuing education, a rarity in the world of fromageries. Rittenhouse Square is an excellent example of a first-rate contemporary specialty market with heart, fueled by the Di Bruno successors’ goal of upholding their family’s culinary traditions on a larger scale.
After exploring the flagship location, Emilio brought me to the original store on S. 9th Street in the historic Italian Market neighborhood. As opposed to Rittenhouse, it’s a tiny store, and upon entering I was bowled over by the mouthwatering aroma of good cheese. As a veteran cheese guy, I immediately knew I’d like this place. Along the right-hand wall is a cherry-picked assortment of cheese accompaniments, ranging from crackers, chocolate, jams and coffee – anything that pairs with cheese and charcuterie. On the left, there’s an outstanding variety of antipasti, many of the items made in-house.
Then came the cheese. The relatively small selection reminded me that a cheese shop isn’t necessarily defined by a huge range of cheeses, but by the sub-par ones (and none of those are offered here). The mongers treated me to six samples of their top cheeses-of-the-moment, a few of which I wasn’t so familiar with (never fails to impress!). All were delectable: a deeply flavorful Gouda, an aged pecorino so nuanced that I can still recall the taste in my mouth, and a perfectly matured blue. I’m convinced I’d have loved any cheese they handed me; these mongers knew their stuff.
As much as I enjoyed the grandeur of Rittenhouse Square, if I lived in Philly, the Italian Market would be my stomping ground. I’d swing by once a week just to keep my larder stocked. I’d want to build a relationship with these mongers, to let them get to know my tastes and trust their suggestions. It’s where I’d buy my cheese if I wanted to impress someone with a cheese plate, or to seek out the secret ingredient for a special meal.
As we paused outside to conclude the tour, I realized I’d only been to two of the five Di Bruno locations – what might the others have in store?
What struck me most about the Di Bruno Bros. operation was their attitude. Not only are the owners fastidious about the quality of their products, but they also honestly care about their workforce and their community. The staff continuously called out to Emilio as we walked through the stores, and he had relaxed, personal exchanges with each of them (If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know how rare it is to love your boss – it’s almost unheard of). Emilio spoke with equal affection for the workers who’ve stayed with Di Bruno for decades and those who’ve moved on to other cites or stayed in Philly to open their own small businesses, not in a cheesy, sentimental way, but with an unpretentious, let’s-help-pull-everyone-up-by-their-bootstraps outlook. It’s this mentality that seems to have kept the business thriving for all these years: an extremely successful immigrant family continuing to pay it forward.
It’s great to see someone keeping it old school.