This past week, we had the opportunity to gather at the famous (perhaps infamous) Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia to preview and sample the latest of what this iconic specialty food purveyor had to offer. Tucked in the always bustling Italian Market neighborhood of Philly, the Di Bruno’s 9th Street Location is everything you want in a great specialty foods store: unassuming on the outside yet when you step it, it’s a veritable playground of jams, bread, olive oils, vinegars, cocktail bitters, chocolate, charcuterie, and of course, cheese!
Although one of the smallest of the Di Bruno’s stores, it’s packed with everything you could want, including a rather formidable cheese case, but more importantly, with a staff that helps you find it. Along with about 15 others, we had the opportunity to nibble our way through literally anything in the store.
The premise of the evening was to showcase products from the Holiday Gifts that Di Bruno’s is offering this season (and which you can order online), and nearly every bite we sampled was composed of items from one of their many baskets. And, what would bites be without sips!
Each course was paired with rather delicious wines from Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Forth, PA, just 35 minutes from Philadelphia. New to me, this family run winery uses all locally grown Pennsylvania grapes to produce their wines. To cover everything we sampled would be crazy so I’m going to walk you through some of my favorite things from the night.
The first nibble was a twist on the classic flavors of puttanesca. On top of crackers, chopped cerignola olives, capers, roasted red peppers, and tomatoes held up a thin, salty strip of anchovy and a shaving of parmigiano. Paired with the Penns Woods Pinot Grigio (my favorite wine of the night), it was the perfect creative start to the night.
Things started to get serious (in a good way) when we got to one of the signature Di Bruno items, burrata. Made in the traditional method of wrapping stretched mozzarella around the previous days’ curds, Di Bruno’s wraps their burrata in leeks for perfect bundles. When you cut in, the inside of the burrata is creamy with luscious shreds of mozzarella surrounding it. Possibly the most shocking stat of the night was that in a week, Di Bruno’s produces about 6000 pounds of mozzarella and burrata entirely by hand so it’s fresh at all of their stores every day. I could have made a night of just this.
During the next course, a cheese tasting plate of 3-year cheddar, mustard, Pecorino al tartufo (delicious, by the way), and a few other cheeses, I took the opportunity to venture away from the crowd huddled around plates and glasses towards the back of the store to explore some of the nooks and crannies. Amongst the shelves and coolers was a preview of what the gift boxes would look like this year. Round in shape and similar to a hat box, an unwrapping of the ribbon unveils a layered arrangement of different items, snuggled together with shreds of brown paper so under every piece there’s another discovery. These would make great gifts for the gourmande friend, family member, or even business colleague.
Throughout the evening, one thing became increasingly apparent. The thing that makes Di Bruno’s the most special is not the cheese, it’s not the food … it’s the people. It’s people like co-owner Emilio, whose passion and commitment to carrying on the family tradition of quality products and service is infectious. For him, it’s not just about selling product, it’s about creating an experience.
It’s people like cheesemonger Joe, who will take 20 minutes to talk to you about – and offer you tastes of – the best cheeses for mac ‘n’ cheese. And who know not only what every item in the store is, but the stories and the people behind them (and will let / make you taste literally anything). When you talk with them for a few minutes, it becomes immediately obvious that they truly care about and love what they do and are willing to take the time to help you do the same.
Now, back to the cheese. Another highlight of the evening was the chance to do a vertical tasting of parmigiano (later drizzled with several thick, syrupy aged balsamic vinegars) to highlight the differences that age and production method can make. In the picture above, from bottom to top, we tasted:
Grana Padano Riserva, Aged 20 months: unlike most commercially available granas which are aged less, this one had a creamy, almost sweet flavor with a distinct nuttiness that makes it great for grating or eating on its own.
House Parmigiano, Export Quality: the #1 selling parmiggiano in the Di Bruno’s collection. Nutty and versatile.
30 month Parmigiano: complex, pungent, and delicious.
One of the interesting things I learned during this tasting was that while all parmiggiano is part of the grana family of cheese, most of it actually gets exported outside of Italy with Grana Padano being consumed most frequently domestically. (Coincidentally, Grana is actually my cheese of choice for cooking Italian food at home…plus it’s usually less expensive).
Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk dessert. This was probably the most surprising taste for me of the entire night, bringing together two flavors I never imagined should be uttered in the same sentence – blue cheese and chocolate. Here, it was specifically a milder Blu di Bufala cheese on top of a small square of Di Bruno Bros. Salted Peanut Chocolate Bar. The nuttiness in the cheese complemented the peanuts in the chocolate perfectly. I’m going to have to make this again at home.
If you ever find yourself in Philadelphia, make a visit to Di Bruno Bros. a priority. Let the cheesemongers guide you, ask lots of questions, and taste as much as you can. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn and appreciate in a short period of time. Not going to make it to the City of Brotherly Love anytime soon? Head over to the Di Bruno’s website to see how you can order some of their products at home.
Vijay Nathan is the Co-Founder, Editor, and Chief Nosher of NoshOn.It, a destination website to discover recipes you’ll crave from new food bloggers you’ll love. He is passionate about helping people realize that anyone can be a great cook with just a little bit on inspiration and education. And he’ll fight you for that last piece of bacon. Send him a high-five on Twitter!