Philly’s Big Cheese
The year 1939 was witness to inaugural events whose influence registers to this day. Moviegoers from coast to coast were swept up in the Technicolor magic of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Superhero extraordinaire Batman leapt onto comic book pages. Mass produced paperbacks showed up on bookstore shelves. It was a seminal time for television: FDR became the first president to broadcast a speech, and our own Philadelphia Iggles lined up against the Brooklyn eleven at Ebbets Field in the first televised NFL game. Much less heralded was the opening of immigrant brothers Joe and Danny Di Bruno’s store on 9th Street in South Philly’s Italian Market.
What began as a typical grocery supplying traditional products for the city’s expanding Italian community transitioned to the “House of Cheese” in 1965, a refocusing made necessary by increasing competition from supermarkets. Ironically, cheese marketed with the Di Bruno Bros. imprimatur can now be readily found in many area chains. Somewhere the old guys must be nodding in approval at the business savvy of the current generation. Di Bruno’s has become a culinary destination, the cheese monger of choice for a loyal and ever growing constituency, whether the shoulder-rubbing weekenders who pile into the original store, or those who stop by its three center city locations or suburban outpost.
To celebrate their diamond anniversary, and to validate writer Clifton Fadiman’s suggestion that “Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality”, the crew at PAVC has come up with wine and cheese pairings as a tribute to Joe and Danny’s legacy. And as a toast they and their entrepreneurial descendants can appreciate, we offer a rousing “Cent’anni!”
Testun al Barolo is a savory, mildly creamy washed rind cheese from Italy’s Piedmont. Made from pure sheep or goat’s milk, it’s aromatic and can be slightly grassy like many Alpine cheeses. What makes this unique is that it ripens in a rind coated with the husks of dried Nebbiolo grapes which imbue the cheese with wine-like, fruity flavors. Since the Testun is enhanced by the same grape that makes Barolo, the two would seem a natural but rather expensive pairing. For me, the balanced acidity and tannin, along with the ripe and juicy red and black berry flavors of Barbera, in particular the Damilano Barbera d’Asti 2009 ($15.99, #18440), on the other hand, amps up the vinous nature of the cheese, while this chunk of lactic goodness negates any dryness or mild barrel influences in the wine. For a Barbera, this one has the depth and finesse to match the complexity of the Testun.
I went with the Montgomery’s Farmhouse Cheddar, a semi-pungent, fairly mellow cheese with sweet notes that leaves a lovely, lingering trail on the taste buds. It’s a more refined effort that won’t wallop the senses as much as some “traditional” sharp cheddar. Going in, assuming I’d be sampling a more forward hard cheese, I wanted to show up big and, as it turned out, I lucked out by avoiding bringing a cannon to the knife fight. Typically, cheddar has strong and full flavors with a mouth-coating tendency, so I knew the job called for a red that could lean in with authority. The choice was the Rosenblum Cellars Harris Kratka Vineyard Zinfandel 2010 ($19.99 #33315), a current Chairman’s Selection. A pop-and-pour kind of wine, the Rosenblum is thick with dark fruit, ample black pepper spice and some impressive acidity. It reports for duty with guns drawn, but they’re Deadwood six-shooters rather than Dirty Harry Magnums. In a way, it’s a mellow Cali Zin – in that it doesn’t peddle monster fruit – with some tasty acid that plays foil to the cheese’s more intricate flavors. It’s a serendipitous pairing.
Though asking someone for their favorite cheese is almost as silly as asking for their favorite wine (what’s the context? mood? pairing?), if pressed, in most cases I’d probably say mine is Fiore Sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia, which also happens to be a popular ‘monger pick at Di Bruno. It’s sharp, as any well-aged Italian should be, and complex, with nutty, sweet and citrus notes. But what separates this from the best Tuscan pecorinos is its slight smokiness, imparted from traditional aging over open balsa-wood fires in Sardinian mountain huts. It’s not smoky like a smoked gouda, just a light, lingering wiff that adds complexity and intrigue. It’s also versatile, happily at home on a cheese plate or grated over pasta. As with most aged, hard cheeses, this pairs best with an assertive red, preferably from Sardinia or Central Italy. Umbria’s Rosso di Montefalco, a Sangiovese-based wine that always features some rustic Sagrantino, with its balance of savory qualities and drinkability jumps out as an easy pairing. I choose the the Perticaia Rosso di Montefalco 2010 (’07 available for $22.99, #17720), and was not disappointed. With air, the nose shows ripe cherry notes mixed with earth, and the palate’s hint of smoked paprika and firm but integrated acidity and tannin plays well off the smokiness and tang of the cheese.