When most Americans consider Philadelphia, a historic moment probably springs to mind. After all, it’s the birthplace of the nation, home to the Liberty Bell, and the site of the Declaration of Independence signing. A colorful cast of real and fictional characters is affiliated with the city, such as Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, Grace Kelly, Questlove, and Rocky Balboa. The metro area is quickly gaining a reputation as a dairy destination, too, thanks to a vibrant and growing cheese community.
Among Philly folks advancing the curds cause—and jokingly calling themselves the Rennet Rough Riders—are cheese portraitist Mike Geno; Birchrun Hills Farm cheesemaker Sue Miller; and Tenaya Darlington, a.k.a. Madame Fromage, a blogger and author who organizes a biennial Cheese Ball and leads tastings around town. “I can’t imagine moving to any other city, even in my home state of Wisconsin,” longtime resident Darlington says.
She attributes the unique cheese scene to the proximity of farmland to the city center, as well as to passionate makers and mongers who regularly collaborate, celebrate, and educate others about cheese. Many restaurants and shops now showcase artisan dairy front-and-center in entrées and deli cases. What does all this mean for visitors? A warm welcome, plenty of stellar local and international wedges and wheels, and cheesy dishes beyond the city’s namesake sandwich.
Di Bruno Bros.
This family business dates to 1939, when Italian-immigrant brothers Danny and Joe opened a humble corner grocery store in South Philly that evolved gradually into a specialty foods hotspot. Today there are four additional locations in and around the city, including the flagship Rittenhouse Square store, which houses Di Bruno’s largest cheese selection, an impressive array of meats and seafood, and a café. Those seeking a more intimate shopping experience with a taste of old-world charm should head to the original store at the Italian Market. “There’s certainly an ethos among everybody who works here that we’re charged with being ambassadors for cheese,” says retail operations manager and Certified Cheese Professional Rocco Rainone. “Here one monger guides you through everything: cheese, charcuterie, pairings with everything that you ask to try.” Recent samples included L’Amuse Signature Gouda with cashews coated in toffee and black lava sea salt and Hornbacher smeared with Tishbi onion-cabernet preserves—Rainone describes the latter as a “French onion soup” bite.
930 S. Ninth St.
215.922.2876; and other locations
Founded in 1973, this co-op grocery has two locations in almost-rural northwest Philly, both of which are open to the public and showcase a remarkable collection of local, sustainable, and organic products. Matt Budenstein, deli manager and cheesemonger at the Chestnut Hill outpost, strives to develop relationships with and sell products from as many local vendors as possible. “You can tell their stories and speak to their standards,” he says. Look for Calkins Creamery’s soft-ripened Noble Road, cultured butter from Valley Milkhouse (amazingly spreadable right out of the fridge), and The Farm at Doe Run’s bloomy-rind Hummingbird. The full-service grocery also carries bread, chocolates, crackers, pickles, produce, and preserves—Buddenstein recommends Three Springs Farm hot pepper jelly and peach jam and Tait Farms Celebration Chutney with nutmeg and cloves. Come spring, the 1,800-acre Wissahickon Valley Park—close to both Weavers Way markets—is a beautiful picnic spot.
8424 Germantown Ave.
559 Carpenter Ln.
Kensington Quarters is the only combination butcher shop, bar, restaurant, and teaching kitchen in Philly. Skilled staffers wrap cuts of meat, sausages, offal, stocks, charcuteries, and scrapple (a loaf of pork trimmings created by the Pennsylvania Dutch) and offer regular classes on whole-animal butchery. Non-meat eaters can stock up on eggs and produce, as well as cultured butter and raw cow’s and goat’s milk from Oasis, a collective of Lancaster County farmers. Also on offer: Seven Stars Farm organic yogurt, Conebella Farm sharp cheddar, Hidden Hills Boltonfeta, and The Camel’s Back, a tomme made from local sheep’s milk at Meadowset Farm. Cheesy menu highlights range from Cherry Grove Farm Buttercup Brie baked and drizzled with pine nut pesto and served with focaccia to zucchini ravioli with black truffle and curds. Enjoy drink specials and small plates at the spacious bar during happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.
1310 Frankford Ave.
Green Aisle Grocery
Food writer Adam Erace opened the original Green Aisle Grocery in 2009 with his brother Andrew in the South Philly neighborhood where they grew up. Today the three main locations stock produce, yogurt, ice cream, robust maple syrup produced by a Pennsylvania co-op, and raw milk from Hillacres Pride. The Eraces source cheeses from several local dairies; try thick, tangy chèvre from Apple Tree Goat Dairy and Millwood Springs Organic Blue, described by Erace as “the raciest, most pungent, salty, delicious blue with sweet cream undertones and great indigo marbling throughout.” Green Aisle also produces a line of spiced jams (curried apple-onion chutney; blueberry-cardamom) and nut butters—the best-selling pistachio variety was inspired by a similar spread Erace tasted on his Sicilian honeymoon. A large selection of bitters and mixers draws bartenders, restaurateurs, and tipplers, too.
1618 E. Passyunk Ave.
215.465.1411; and other locations
Ninth Street Italian Market
South Philly’s Italian Market, the country’s oldest open-air bazaar, celebrated its centennial in 2015. Many merchants have sold their wares on this roughly 10-block stretch of 9th Street for generations, including the D’Angelo Brothers butcher shop, where you’ll find unusual handmade sausages filled with rabbit, mustard, and cognac or kangaroo, fig, and dates, as well as more traditional varieties. Watch pasta filata being made at Claudio’s Mozzarella Store, then browse the impressive international cheese and salumi selection while maneuvering around giant hanging provolone logs at its specialty food shop next door. In addition to establishments brimming with fresh and frozen pasta, spices, produce, bread, olive oil, coffee, and other imported and domestic goods, the market also offers plenty of prepared foods to take away and meals to enjoy on-site. Paesano’s is known for Italian-style sandwiches—local cheese portraitist Mike Geno’s go-to is the Gustaio, made with roasted lamb sausage, cherry mostarda, Gorgonzola, and roasted fennel. “It’s the most gourmet thing I’ve ever had in a sandwich,” he says. “It’s ridiculously delicious.” For the peak experience, visit during the market’s annual festival on May 20–21, featuring four stages with live entertainment, 100 additional vendors, children’s events, and contests.
Ninth Street between Wharton and Fitzwater
Reading Terminal Market
Monopoly fans will appreciate the origins of this mart, which opened in 1892 under what was the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City station. The last train departed from the terminal in 1984, but the market still thrives today, with more than 75 vendors and restaurants selling hand-rolled Amish-style pretzels, fudge, hoagies, ribs, and other treats. Valley Shepherd Creamery stocks around 30 cheeses made on the farm in northern New Jersey, plus fresh mozzarella pulled on-site and an Instagram-worthy selection of grilled cheese sandwiches (the bestselling Shepherd Classic satisfies lingering childhood cravings). Sample imported beauties such as mellow, brown buttery Stärnächäs from Switzerland at the Downtown Cheese stall or local gems including Cloud 9 from Yellow Springs Farm and Thistle from Valley Milkhouse at Fair Food Farmstand. Desirous of more dairy? Grab a chocolate or Guatemalan ripple cone at Bassetts, America’s oldest ice cream company and the first merchant to sign a lease at the market.
51 N. 12th St.
Headhouse Farmers’ Market
The city’s oldest and largest farmers’ market is situated in the quaint Society Hill neighborhood, known for its cobblestone streets and historic row houses. The original brick head house (fire house), built in 1805 at the north end of the covered market, stands today, although the structure housing food stalls was reconstructed in the 1960s. Find raw-milk cheese standouts from Birchrun Hills Farm (snack on washed-rind Red Cat or Tomme Molé, coated in espresso, cocoa, cinnamon, and cayenne) and handmade goat cheese from Shellbark Hollow Farm in Chester County. There are breads and baked goods from High Street on Market, warming soups from Good Spoon Seasonal Foods, and chocolates almost too pretty to eat from John & Kira’s, plus produce, meat, seafood, maple syrup, French canelés, and more. Open Sundays from May to mid-December.
122 Lombard St.
Restaurants, Cafés & Bars
Don’t be fooled by the relaxed vibe—Tria Cafe takes its cheese program very seriously. A rotating menu of 16 wheels and wedges is organized into categories ranging from clean (fresh cheeses; ash-ripened Loire Valley styles) to stinky (washed rinds “hopefully offensive to someone in the room,” says Tria cheese director Sande Friedman). Build your own board: Each cheese is served with a different house-made accompaniment such as membrillo mustard or spiced honey with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. A recurring winter pairing is Rogue River Smokey Blue and chocolate-fig jam, a combination that Friedman likens to a s’more. The three cafés also offer salads, sandwiches, and myriad bruschetta options—pistachio-herb ricotta with lavender honey is heavenly. The educational Sunday School menus vary each weekend, featuring a cheese, wine by the glass, and pints that aren’t available on the regular menu with detailed write-ups for each.
123 S. 18th St.
215.972.8742; and other locations
John’s Roast Pork
The go-to spot for the city’s most iconic sandwich is intensely debated around town. Created in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, a South Philly hot dog vendor who founded Pat’s King of Steaks, the Philly cheesesteak is now famous across the country and beyond. (London is home to Liberty Cheesesteak Company, for one, while residents of Nice, France, get their fix at the Cheese Steak House). Key components are meat, bread, and, of course, cheese, and John’s Roast Pork gets it right across the board. Each sandwich is made to order, with wonderfully seasoned beef chopped up and grilled with (optional) onions on a long, seeded roll that’s crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. And while some diehards insist that Cheez Whiz is the only authentic topping, provolone is the way to go at John’s. The no-frills hoagie shack is also known for its namesake: pork that is boned, seasoned, and roasted daily in-house.
14 E. Snyder Ave.
Philadelphia native Marc Vetri opened his eponymous restaurant in 1998 after living and working in Bergamo, Italy, for several years. The chef was quickly singled out among critics for his simple yet elegant authentic Italian cooking, and in 2000 the restaurant earned (and has since retained) the Philadelphia Inquirer’s highest rating of four bells. While servers customize the $155 tasting menu after conversations with customers, “there are some things on the menu that we want everyone to have once,” Vetri says. First-timers are often encouraged to try signature offerings such as spinach gnocchi with brown butter and ricotta salata; almond tortellini; and sweet onion crêpes with white truffle and Parmigiano Reggiano sauce. Seasonal fare also makes an appearance—winter brings pasta with octopus ragù and smoked caciocavallo fondue, which Vetri describes as a “magical” dish that debunks the myth that fish and cheese don’t go together. The cheese cart features domestic selections as well as varieties imported from Italy, France, and Spain. Be sure to save room for dessert—Taleggio-strawberry Danish, hazelnut flan, or cheesecake, anyone?
1312 Spruce St.
Aimee Olexy’s farm-to-table restaurant—housed in a dramatic, high-ceilinged space on Washington Square—is beloved for its idyllic garden and stellar seasonal dishes. Curd nerds should head straight to the long counter at the back of the dining room. It’s almost a cheese altar, with candles and glass domes protecting a carefully curated array of wedges and wheels. The selections vary depending on the time of year—locally made Hickory on the Hill from The Farm at Doe Run and Shellbark Sharp from Shellbark Hollow Farm might mingle with European friends Artequeso Rosemary Manchego and Caseificio dell’Alta Langa Robiola Bosina— but the slate boards are always exquisitely arranged, filled with fruits, nuts, seeds, and jams. On the dinner menu, focaccia with whipped ricotta, farmstead bacon, and leeks is a hearty starter, while pasta fans have several choices— goat cheese gnocchi with sweet onion-parmesan fondue, spinach, and roasted mushrooms is top-notch. Next door, Talula’s Daily is a casual market and café with an oft-changing preset supper menu.
210 W. Washington Sq.
Locals, tourists, and Anglophiles alike flock to this inviting, British-inspired gastropub near Rittenhouse Square, opened by prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr in 2011. Rooms in the bi-level space each have a distinct feel—from the clubby, dog-themed upstairs bar to an intimate dining area and sunroom. Nosh on a cheese board of Red Leicester, Ticklemore goat cheese, and Shropshire Blue or go the comfort food route with mac and cheese made from Quicke’s cheddar and braised ham hocks. Afternoon tea tiers showcase dainty sandwiches: Aged cheddar on buttermilk crisps with whipped honey or soft triple cream on cheddar crackers topped with cauliflower piccalilli will tempt any turophile. The Dandelion serves cask beers such as Greene King, available only during colder months when kegs are shipped from England. There’s also sought-after Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from a nitro keg and Charlie Wells Bombardier on tap. Teetotalers, meanwhile, might sip Ribena soda, Fentimans Rose Lemonade, or Belvoir Elderflower Pressé.
124 S. 18th St.
Wedge + Fig
This BYOB café in historic Old City is a laid-back spot for a sightseeing break. Create your own grilled cheese sandwich with add-ons such as truffle honey, fried jalapeños, bacon, and sriracha, or try the panino of the day (chicken, Taleggio, apple-fig chutney, and red onion, if you’re lucky). Wine in tow? The staff will suggest spot-on pairings from among 20 to 30 domestic and international cheeses; pre-arranged boards are also available. Indulgent brunch choices include mac and cheese laced and topped with bacon; Cantal strata with spinach and shallots; and challah French toast with fresh fruit and ricotta. Don’t miss the cozy patio out back in warm weather.
160 N. Third St.
Joe Beddia, the man behind Bon Appetit’s favorite pizza in America, believes an amazing pie begins with the dough. “I use really good organic flour from Central Milling—36-hour fermentation gives it a chance to develop flavor,” he says. Eager customers line up at his unassuming, no-seats joint hoping to score one of 40 pizzas he makes nightly. Beddia cooks pies in a traditional gas deck oven; they emerge well done with a thin, crisp crust. And he doesn’t skimp on toppings. “If I’m putting all this time and effort into making a really great dough, I’m not going to use shitty tomatoes,” Beddia says. “I’m buying good cheese.” His mozzarella of choice is from Lioni Latticini in New Jersey, and he sprinkles finished pizzas with Old Gold from Hidden Hills Dairy in south-central Pennsylvania. “It has the flavor of a cave-aged gouda, a little caramely, a little nutty,” he says. Another standout pie boasts a fresh-cream base studded with vegetables such as asparagus and chives or rainbow chard and green garlic.
115 E. Girard Ave.
This spacious, hipster-friendly bar in a former auto-repair garage has an expected industrial feel with bonus quirky décor (see: a light fixture composed of snare drums and wine barrels draped with strands of white lights). The drink menu has a hyper-local focus, listing more than 100 regional spirits as well as a diverse selection of Keystone State wine and beer. Food offerings follow suit, including charcuterie from La Divisa Meats, Kensington Quarters, and Rieker’s Prime Meats, and cheeses from Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse, Birchrun Hills Farm, and Misty Creek Goat Dairy, among others. Carnivores can choose from three hoagies, made on rolls from Philly Bread; owner Jon Medlinsky says the Bologna Jawn with sweet-smoky Lancaster beef bologna, house-fermented kimchi, sesame aioli, pineapple preserves, pickled peppers, and greens is a favorite. When temperatures permit, play bocce in the large outdoor seating area.
2113 E. York St.
Crow & the Pitcher
Owner Michael Franco says Crow & the Pitcher was inspired by a relaxed, neighborhood bar in the south of France—“one you stumble upon, that’s not in a travel guide.” The restaurant’s historic cheese trolley—a remnant of Philadelphia’s now-shuttered French fine-dining institution Le Bec-Fin, where Franco served as general manager— typically contains a dozen ever- changing international varieties, from classic triple creams and blues to lesser known selections such as Weinkäse Lagrein, a cow’s milk cheese from northern Italy that’s soaked in wine with herbs and spices for several days, lending a meaty flavor reminiscent of mortadella. Chef Greg Headen is big on cheese, folding it into pommes frites with raclette sauce and cornichon relish and a burger crowned with applewood-smoked bacon and Fourme d’Ambert.
267 S. 19th St.
*Since publication of the Winter 2016-17 issue, Crow & the Pitcher changed its name to Baril.
2 thoughts on “Philly’s Cheese Stake”
Hi, I am the owner of JOHNS ROAST PORK. I would like to thank you for your kind words. If you ever come to the shop, please ask for me. Sincerely, John Bucci, Jr (owner Johns Roast Pork)
Hi John, My pleasure! The Philly cheesesteak at John’s Roast Pork came highly recommended and it more than exceeded my expectations! I will definitely stop in and say hello next time I’m in town. Best, Kristine Jannuzzi