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

WHO KNOWS what kind of reaction the Mignucci cousins will get when they unveil their plan to stop talking to walls and start building some new ones on 9th Street. Late last year, an architect and a real-estate advisory firm hired by Di Bruno’s completed a feasibility study for a $7 million mixed-use development on an empty lot the family owns just north of its current Italian Market store. The plan for a sleek, modern five-story building right now is little more than a set of drawings and cost estimates, but Bill Mignucci has already started searching for a financing partner. As planned, the glassy new structure would house a two-story Di Bruno’s “destination store,” and apartments above that. The concept of street-level retail with living space above is not a radical notion. In its heyday, that’s what the market was — a bustling, 24/7 mash-up. But over the years, upstairs spaces emptied of people and were reserved for storage. Despite some new restaurants that have opened recently, 9th Street can seem very deserted at night.

In spirit, the new Di Bruno’s concept is quite similar to what the Passyunk Square Civic Association hopes New York-based Midwood Real Estate will build on that huge empty lot it owns below Washington Avenue. While neither building is a radical modernist architectural statement, in the context of 9th Street they will seem like spaceships dropped into a Western town — aliens meet cowboys. If both buildings are built, the look and feel of the Italian Market will be drastically altered. Whether that’s for the better will be much debated, because, of course, it’s the Italian Market. And someday, somehow, the cousins are going to have to break the news that their new building will block the view of Frank Rizzo’s mural.

Bill and Emilio Mignucci are long out of diapers. They charge nearly 13 bucks for a pound of locatelli these days, and they sell tons of it. Their next few business moves could affect the fates of all those who watched them grow up on 9th Street, and grow well beyond it. “The future of the market is up for grabs,” Bill says. “I certainly wouldn’t predict its demise, but uncertainty is not good. I think the best days are ahead. And I’m trying to get other people to believe it.”