Joseph A. Rigotti

Two decades after taking over the family cheese shop on 9th Street, cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci have turned Di Bruno Bros. into a $20 million foodie empire. For their next trick: saving the Italian market

IN THE PECULIAR ECOSYSTEM that is the Italian Market, Di Bruno Bros. could easily have died and disappeared like so many other family-run businesses whose names are now barely remembered by the shrinking population of old-timers: Giunta’s butcher shop, Pete’s Poultry, Lombardo’s Seafood. From a post-war pinnacle, when the market was a daily destination of all those stay-at-home housewives with growing families, through the quiet, slow-motion upheaval that brought the rise of two-career couples, shiny spic-and-span supermarkets and the suburban diaspora of the second- and third-generation ethnic South Philly natives, the crowded strip of 9th Street stretching from Ellsworth to Christian showed remarkable resilience in the midst of inexorable decay.

At the start of their sixth decade in the grueling, seven-days-a-week world of shop-keeping, Danny and Joe Di Bruno were both tired and ailing. They’d built a solid business and between them raised a bunch of kids. But by 1990 none of the kids wanted to take over the old store. They’d established themselves in other careers and had families. A number had moved to the suburbs, just like many of their parents’ former customers.

Bill Mignucci was well aware of this when he dropped in to visit his grandfather and grandmother one night soon after he’d graduated from Drexel with a business degree. He’d been born in the neighborhood, but his family fled for South Jersey when he was 10.

“I went over to tell them that I was moving to California,” Bill remembers. “I was going to get an apartment in Redondo Beach. My buddies were already out there. The idea was to meet girls and have fun and find myself. In Los Angeles there was this farmers market right near CBS Studios. I figured I’d go work there. They were really lacking in cheese. They had, like, Jarlsberg.

“So I go to my grandmother’s, and I’m really there hoping to get a check for a couple hundred dollars to help fund my way. And my grandfather Danny said, ‘Why are you going there? Why don’t you take over Di Bruno’s?’ Those words … you can’t imagine. He had always said, ‘When I’m done, the business is done. The business dies with me.’

“We were drinking a gallon of Carlo Rossi paisano wine. My grandmother, who was very influential in my life, she looked at me. She never liked Di Bruno’s. You know, ‘My kids don’t know what it is to have a father. He’s married to the business.’ But she turned to me and said, ‘You’d be really good at this business.’”

Bill called his cousin Emilio, who’d lived in South Philly his whole life, studied at the Restaurant School, and turned an unpaid internship at DiLullo Centro, then one of the city’s hottest restaurants, into a line-cook job. “It was, like, in my blood — something with food,” Emilio says now. “I don’t think I had a choice but to go into the food business.” He went over to Danny Di Bruno’s that night and helped polish off the bottle of Carlo Rossi.