"They worked at a store across the street and the guy made them work New Years Day," says Samantha as she cuts a piece of the finest pecorino I've ever had, drizzles it with a syrupy, reduced balsamic vinegar and hands it over. "The brothers said, "Next year we're not working on New Years," and so Di Bruno Bros was born." (The rest of the story can be found on Di Bruno's website). Since its founding in 1939 Di Bruno has become THE name in Philadelphia Italian specialty stores. This was ten years after my grandfather arrived in Philadelphia but no doubt the store on 9th Street maintains that old school feel that I'm searching for.
"We love for people to come in and be curious," Samantha says, asking us for the fifth time if there is anything else we want to taste. Though the family business has expanded with larger shops on 17th and Chestnut and recently at the Comcast Center, they encourage a more personal kind of shopping experience.
"It's about what you like," she says, "and most of the time we import items that you would never even know you liked. It takes time. Trial and error." She pauses, then reaches into the case. "Here, check this one out."
She sets a half wheel of cheese with yellowed, funky skin on the counter and explains that it is made in a donut shape with a hole in the middle so that it cooks more evenly. We inspect the cheese closely, taking in all of its nuances as if it is an unreleased iPhone on display. It is stinky, a bit gritty on the edges but smooth in the middle, deliciously creamy, and as I search for the words to describe the flavor (which never come) I realize I have never shopped this way before. I feel relaxed, like I am in someone's home. I'm at the kitchen table and they are pulling things out of the fridge and taking them off the stove for me to try, watching eagerly to see which ones I like. I now understand why Di Bruno's has been successful for so long.
For the visitor to Philadelphia or a local in search of high quality Italian specialty items, you can't go wrong with Di Bruno Bros. You might not recognize all of the items they carry, but go with an open mind. Just don't go on New Year's Day.
Thanks to Philadelphia Urban Adventures for the Italian Market tour.