Over the last 15 years, restaurants and chefs have gotten most of the credit for the blossoming of Philadelphia's vibrant food scene. But for local home cooks, no single institution has had a greater impact on boosting the quality of the city's ingredients - and in particular, its cheese boards - than Di Bruno Bros.
The Di Bruno's at 930 S. 9th St. has been a jam-packed, 900-square-foot nook of cheese-and-salami bliss since 1939, a gem of South Philly authenticity that remains one of the priceless beating hearts of the Italian Market. But when third-generation cousins Emilio and William "Billy" Mignucci Jr. took the risk in 2000 to expand in a big way to a bi-level mega-store near Rittenhouse Square, it finally gave Philadelphia the vast gourmet retail palace it had been missing.
The store's cheese counter, in particular, stocked with hundreds of rare (and often seriously pricey) craft cheeses from around the globe, has few rivals anywhere - not just in this city, but in America. Now with a new book, Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese (Running Press, $25), this Philadelphia icon has a chance to make a convincing case for such status on a national stage.
The family's story is there. And so are tips on history, tasting, and pairings from several of the savvy, outgoing, informed, and well-tattooed cheesemongers, such as Hunter Fike and Ezekiel Ferguson, who have won over legions of devoted cheese fans with a perfect storm of patience, charm, and free samples.
But the star of this book, it turns out, is author Tenaya Darlington. An associate professor of English at St. Joseph's University by day, Darlington is a "cheese courtesan" in her alternate life, a witty and engaging wordsmith who found her curd calling online by crafting a cheese blog called "Madame Fromage." The blog caught Billy's eye, and their writing partnership was born.
She's relatively new to the cheese-writing field, having experienced that first cheese "baptism" only seven years ago. But "that spoonful of [Carles] Roquefort hit my tongue, turned my mouth silky, and popped my eyes open with its wild, sweet fire."
And this book shows the former journalist, once food editor of a weekly newspaper in Wisconsin, to be a remarkably quick study - as well as a passionate one who doesn't shy from indulging in both the sensuality and poetry of cheese. Literally.
When eating Spanish Mahon, she writes: "Break out the sherry and the love poems. (We suggest Federico García Lorca's "Romance Sonámbulo" as an ideal pairing)." And then, of course, "Light some skull candles."
Why do we need another cheese book? Few fields have grown and evolved as dynamically as the American cheese world in the last decade, rising to 800 licensed artisan cheesemakers in the United States from only about 150 in 2000.
Darlington presents a smartly curated guide to that changed landscape, seamlessly melding both Old World classics like Ossau-Iraty and Epoisses with New World stars like Red Hawk and Hummingbird from Chester County's Doe Run into a 170-cheese lineup that is without a clunker. If there's any flaw, she could be accused of being a homer - with more Pennsylvania cheesemakers represented than most other authors might choose.
Then again, Di Bruno's has helped fill that essential role as a main stage to showcase and promote the local cheese scene. So, that regional personality is legitimately represented.
The book is full of authoritative and engaging advice on how to use cheese that should appeal to all levels of knowledge. There are very lucid discussions on "terroir," and a Cheese 101 on "How to taste cheese." (Sniff, taste, take notes.) There are sidebars on controversial issues such as the debate over raw versus pasteurized milk. There is excellent advice on building cheese boards, and detailed information on beverage pairings, with a stronger emphasis on beer than one might have seen in 2000.
Philadelphia-based photographer Jason Varney fills The House of Cheese with portraits so luscious, you can practically feel the creaminess of each blue wedge melt on your tongue. I can smell the piquant perspiration of that well-aged Testun al Barolo.
More important, Darlington's prose brings it all to life. Whereas previous benchmarks in the cheese-book genre have focused on pure encyclopedic comprehensiveness (Steve Jenkins' classic Cheese Primer, Workman, 1996) or the sommelierlike seriousness of professional monger Max McCalman's gorgeous Cheese (Potter, 2005), Darlington does due diligence on the details, but her writing is also simply fun to read.
Instead of organizing the book by traditional technical categories, she creatively divides her flock of curds into personality types, including Baby Faces (whiffy, unaged cheese), Vixens (rich, decadent), Stinkers (rare, boozy), Rockstars (rare, revered) and Pierced Punks (the blues.)
In the introduction, titled "How To Pick A Hunk," she writes: "What you hold in your hand is essentially a matchmaker's directory to the most luscious dairy in the world . . . . It doesn't matter if you're still in a relationship with Velveeta, as long as you have an open mind."
What happens then is the kind of transformative and personal cheese discovery that Di Bruno's and its mongers have been hand-selling to Philadelphians for 74 years. And as the pages unfold with one irresistible portrait after another - from the "floofy monster" of Mrs. Kirkham's Tasty Lancashire and the "handsome Vermonter" of Jasper Hill's Moses Sleeper to the "rambunctious blue fox" of Stichelton - it's an experience Madame Fromage conveys to the rest of the world with her own appealing style.
Manchego and Marcona Almond Pesto
Makes 11/4 cups
3 ounces arugula (about 2 cups, packed)
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup roasted Marcona almonds
1/4 pound Manchego, grated (11/2 cups)
2 small garlic cloves
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Place everything but the olive oil in a food processor or blender and combine until roughly chopped. Then, with the blade running, slowly add the olive oil until the mixture is well combined. For a rough pesto, use a mortar and pestle.
Note: Marcona almonds are available at many grocery and specialty food stores. If you can't find them, substitute toasted almonds, preferably skinless.
Per two-tablespoon serving: 118 calories, 1 gram protein,
2 grams carbohydrates, no sugar, 13 grams fat, no cholesterol, 61 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Pickled Feta With Cerignola Olives and Strawberries
Makes 6-8 servings
For the pickle:
3 cups Champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1 medium shallot, sliced
4 whole garlic cloves
4 springs cilantro
2 pounds feta, diced or crumbled
For the salad:
1 pound Cerignola olives (red, green, or black), pitted and cut in half
1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and cut in quarters
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
12 ounces baby spinach
Salt and white pepper
1. To prepare the pickle, combine the vinegar, 3 cups of water, sugar, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, shallot, garlic, and cilantro in a small saucepan. Bring the pickling liquid to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool completely.
2. Place the feta in a large mixing bowl or divide it between two 1-quart jars, and pour the cool pickling solution over the cheese. Make sure the feta is completely submerged. (If you use quart jars, you will have a little bit of extra brine left over, which you can use for a salad dressing.) Cover the feta and refrigerate it for at least five days.
3. To prepare the salad, remove the pickled feta from the liquid and drain it on paper towels. In a salad bowl, toss the olives, strawberries, olive oil, chopped cilantro, and spinach. Stir in the feta, then season with salt and pepper, if desired.
Note: This dish should be served fresh, as the strawberries will begin to break down and lose color over time. Use any leftover pickling solution to drizzle over salad greens.
Per serving (based on 8): 461 calories, 18 gram protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 1,868 milligrams sodium, 4 gram dietary fiber.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.