IT ONLY TOOK a few dimes to get the old-timers angry.
When cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci took over the narrow and jam-packed Di Bruno Bros. cheese store on 9th Street in the heart of the Italian Market 20 years ago, one of its signature items, a grated sheep’s milk cheese called locatelli, sold for $3.49 a pound. The price hadn’t gone up in years. Bill’s grandfather Danny Di Bruno and Danny’s brother Joe had run the store since 1939. With the mortgage long paid off and a loyal following of customers, they felt comfortable drifting toward retirement buying the imported cheese from Italy for about three bucks and only marking it up 50 cents.
Bill and Emilio were both 21 years old at the time. They had scraped together enough borrowed money to buy the store from Danny and Joe, paying an amount that was acceptable to not only the old guys, but also their combined 11 children, who, until that moment, had not shown much interest in Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. The new young proprietors needed larger profit margins so they could start paying off their debt as they learned to run the business. One day, they pushed the price of locatelli up to $3.79.
“My God, the backlash!” Emilio remembers. “People wanted to kill us for raising the price 30 cents. We were thinking, ‘Are these people crazy?’ They’d come in and yell at us — ‘You’re tryin’ to get rich quick.’”
As it turned out, the Mignucci cousins (Emilio’s older brother, Billy, is also a partner these days, but stays in the background) have become kind of rich pretty quick. Two decades on, Di Bruno’s has far outgrown its Italian Market roots and is on the verge of opening its fourth retail outlet, at the Ardmore Farmers Market in Suburban Square, this month. Venturing into the Waspy and manicured suburbs, something that would have been unthinkable to the gritty, ethnic South Philly souls of the founding brothers — “Danny and Joe would be spinning in their graves,” says Bill Mignucci — is the latest expansion of a company that now includes a wholesale division, online mail order, a catering operation, an outpost in the Market & Shops at Comcast Center, and a 19,000-square-foot store not far off Rittenhouse Square that has established Di Bruno’s as this city’s answer to the great high-end food shops such as Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s and Zabar’s.
Fueled by a bred-in-the-bone work ethic, buoyed by a bubble in consumer behavior, the Mignuccis — Bill as president and Emilio taking the more fanciful title of “vice president and director of culinary pioneering” — now control one of the largest family-owned businesses in the region, with up to 175 employees during busy holiday seasons and well over $20 million in annual sales. The Mignucci boys may have created the most successful enterprise based on cheese since Lawrence Welk.
But while the Mignuccis long ago transcended the South Philly storefront culture that gave them life, something about 9th Street keeps pulling them back. In addition to striking out into the suburban market, the cousins have hatched some ambitious designs to upgrade their original stake hold in the Italian Market, a project that could help preserve — even while drastically altering — that uniquely Philadelphia landmark, whose demise has been heralded since the Mignucci boys were born.