A Culinary Journey

Emilio Mignucci
Emilio Mignucci

You have to love a true cheese connoisseur who describes himself as a grease-ball. He may pepper his conversation with references to hoagies and cheese steaks, but don’t let that fool you. Emilio Mignucci, 48, with his cousin Bill, owns the multi-million dollar Di Bruno Bros., which consists of five stores in the Philadelphia area and an online shop, dibruno.com, that’s pulling in a million dollars a year in sales. Mignucci also serves on the board of directors of the American Cheese Society, which is dedicated to promoting and supporting American cheeses.

Aged Asiago
Aged Asiago cheese Photo courtesy of Di Bruno Bros

It was in 1990 that Emilio and Bill took over the business started by their grandparents 75 years ago, and it’s clear that Mignucci is a man who loves his cheese, with the ability to talk simply and knowledgably not only about how food-service professionals should market cheese, but also about how customers can construct an eye-pleasing cheese plate for a dinner party. (Hint: never have an even number of cheeses on a plate. “It’s much more dramatic to have three or five, because the odd number stands out to the eye. The first thing you learn in culinary school is that if it’s visually appealing, it’s going to taste right,” explains Mignucci.) Cheese Connoisseur asked Mignucci to give us a personal tour of Italian cheeses: how to buy them, serve them and pair them with food and wine. Cin Cin!

Cheese Connoisseur: Probably the best-known Italian cheese is Gorgonzola. Do you remember your first taste?

Emilio Mignucci: It’s one of my favorites, because it was one of the first blues I ever ate. In my grandparents’ shop, there was Danish Blue, which is salty and firm, and there was Gorgonzola Dolce. Gorgonzola Dolce, to me, was always rich and creamy, and I just loved it. I would eat it on toasted bread with olive oil. It was like ice cream, because of the texture.

CC: Which Gorgonzolas do your customers buy most?

EM: Gorgonzola Dolce is still the king. Truth be told, blue is one of the biggest-selling categories. People who don’t like blue… just haven’t tasted a good blue. We try to convert them.

CC: How should people judge the quality?

EM: Wherever you go, never buy cheese from a store that doesn’t allow you to sample or that doesn’t move a lot of cheese. You’ll know after going into a place a few times whether they’re selling a lot. I wouldn’t go into a store to buy fish if they don’t keep selling out on a regular basis. It’s the same with cheese. You want to make sure that the cheese is healthy. They’re ever evolving — they’re living bacteria and organisms that continue to change.

That’s not to say, though, that Gorgonzola doesn’t range to mild and sweet to a more intensely flavored cheese. It does, over time. The flavor will just continue to develop. You may be trying older Gorgonzola, when you actually prefer it younger and sweeter. Or you might not like it because it’s young and sweet and you want something with funkiness to it.

Auricchio Provolone
Auricchio Provolone Photo courtesy of Di Bruno Bros

CC: Makes sense. What wine do you suggest people drink with the Dolce?

EM: You can go two ways. When it’s younger and sweeter, I like it with a nice Prosecco, which has a light body. I’ll make a crostini and smear the Gorgonzola on it, and put fresh fig on top. Serve that with a sparkling wine. When it gets a little older, and I’m having a grilled steak in the summer with a more intense flavored Gorgonzola melted on top, then I’ll have a nice hearty red. I prefer to stay away from the heavy tannic wines because they overpower what you’re eating. I really prefer a young, rich Gorgonzola and a sparkling Prosecco.

CC: Let’s talk about Taleggio.

EM: Taleggio is a cow’s milk cheese like Gorgonzola. It’s a D.O.C. cheese, so it’s protected. [D.O.C stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a set of Italian laws formulated to protect the names, origins, and production methods of certain Italian foods and wines]. With traditional Taleggio, the rind is brushed with a stiff whisk that has little brine on it, so you’ll have striation lines on the rinds. Then it’s put in a cave or refrigerated with a lot of air circulation to dry the rind as it’s aging. The brine solution reacts with the bacteria in the cheese to create a rich mottling on top and a little blue molding will occur inside the lines that form. As it dries, it breaks down the curds to make it runny and creamy. That brine has an odor and allows the cheese to develop. It’s like bacon, but not as smoky. It adds a little meatiness to the cheese. I love a slice of that on an Italian roll. Put long-stem artichokes and roasted tomatoes on top, and it’s a great sandwich.

CC: Which Taleggio producers do you like?

EM: We just started using Mauri four years ago, and it’s been a happy marriage.

I went to visit them this summer in Lombardy. They updated their facility, dug it into the mountains, and so they’re making good Taleggio all year-round. It’s not very expensive, at $20/lb. When you can get a traditional cheese for that price, it’s a great deal. It’s the same with the Gorgonzola. There’s value in those cheeses, because they have a name and a tradition, and they’re always going to be made a certain way.

CC: What kind of wine goes well with Taleggio?

EM: You can start with something light, like a Pinot Grigio. It’s also okay to have something with a little more body, like a Sauvignon Blanc because the brine helps to balance out the minerality of the wine. Or if you want to do a young Pinot Noir-based wine, it’ll pick up the rind, which is very edible and very delicious.

CC: Now I have to ask you about what I understand is your favorite cheese: Provolone.

EM: We all have something that makes us feel good. For me, growing up in an Italian household, we always had chunks of Provolone in the house. When we were snacking, it was, “Pull out the pepperoni and the Provolone.” One of my favorites over the last 17 years has been a domestic one that we get from Grande. Their Provolone is just always darn delicious, so versatile. You can shave it and throw it in a hoagie with prosciutto.

CC: On a hamburger, as well?

EM: Oh, yeah. I grew up in south Philadelphia, around the corner from Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks, the famous cheesesteak shops. People would stand in line to get cheese-steaks with Cheez Whiz, and I’ve never liked Cheez Whiz. Growing up, I only had Provolone on my sandwiches. So I put Provolone on everything — chicken cutlets, etc. Or I cut slices to put in a sandwich. I also chop it up and throw it in salads.

CC: Do you have provolone in your refrigerator at home?

EM: Always. We’re never without it.

CC: What other cheeses are in the fridge?

EM: I love to cook with Gorgonzola, to make cream sauce for tortellini or pasta, or for putting on top of steaks. There’s always something soft and creamy that’s going to be seasonal. Now it’s Winnimere, from Jasper Hill Farm. It comes out from January through March, so it’s very seasonal. When it’s over,

I’ll go back to (Jasper Hill’s) Harbison, which is another soft cheese. I always need a table Pecorino from Italy, because I’m a grease-ball and Italian and I love my Pecorinos. Ginepro is one of my favorites; it’s washed with juniper and balsamic. It’s a four-pound wheel, and I love to shave it in salads and just eat pieces of it. It’s great with gin, so I like to make a gin and tonic or just a gin martini.

CC: That does sound good. Let’s talk about Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Di Bruno Bros

EM: It’s the king of cheese. That’s always in my fridge, too. When we were kids, we went to my grandmother’s house for dinner during the holidays. In order to entice us to finish our dinner, we got to have chunks of Reggiano for dessert. In our house, we didn’t grate Reggiano on our plates. We ate it as a snacking cheese, because it was the most expensive cheese that my grandfather would bring home. It would be broken into nuggets with some nuts and fresh fruit, and that was dessert.

CC: That sounds like the way to go.

EM: It is. Listen, I know a lot of people like it grated, but I feel like you’re doing it a disservice to grate it. We sell two Reggianos in our store: a 24-month that’s export quality, but one of our best sellers is a Parmigiano-Reggiano that we import from Giorgio Cravero in Italy. He’s a fifth generation “stagionatura” (ager of select Parmigiano-Reggiano) and this is our premium Parm. The beauty of this cheese is that it’s usually selected from the winter months when the cows are feeding on hay, so it’s consistent in flavor and quality. Over the aging period, the cheese gets two full summers of aging up to 36 months. Cravero believes it makes a difference. When you taste it, you’re a believer, too.

CC: What’s good to drink with it?

EM: People like to drink red wine with Parmigiano-Reggiano, but for me it’s Prosecco. The odor of the cheese has a sweet cream smell to it, and it’s spectacular when you drink it with the Prosecco.

CC: What about Asiago?

EM: In Italy, you get Asiago Pressato or Asiago Fresco, which is a young cheese, about three months old. The Fresco is soft and creamy and used for paninis, cream sauce, or as a snack with salami. And then you have the Asiago Stravecchio, which is nine months old. That’s going to be sharper, more intensely flavored. You just break off pieces of that to eat. They’re both very delicious, just different. The Pressato or the Fresco has higher acid, so you need to serve crusty bread to counter the acid.

CC: And what wine pairs well with it?

EM: A white wine is always delicious, like a Gruner Veltliner. The more aged the cheese, the heartier the wine. There are some good Trentino reds that work for that, from Legrein.

CC: Mozzarella di Buffala?

EM: It doesn’t get much better when you’re talking about Mozzarella. It’s soft, creamy, and should be runny with a slightly sour flavor to it. It’s important to have that taste because it tells you how fresh the cheese is.

CC: Just a hint of sour?

EM: Yeah, it shouldn’t be over-the-top sour, sparkling sour, or effervescent. It should be a rich, creamy, slightly sour, bordering on losing the sourness.

CC: You have to choose it carefully, then.

EM: Yes. We get it flown in overnight every week. Again, make sure you’re buying from a place that sells a lot of Mozzarella di Buffala, because it needs to be fresh. And eat it within a day or two. That’s when it’s really best.

CC: Our final cheese is Fontina Val d’Aosta.

EM: It comes from northern Italy, so it’s a typical mountain-style cheese, like others from Switzerland. It’s smelly, very stinky from the brine. It’s used typically as a melted cheese, like in Swiss fondues. During the holidays, there’s a dish called Fonduta, made with local wine, shaved white truffles, and smoked meat from the area. You get the speck, salami, dark bread, and vegetables, and dip it into the Fonduta. It makes a great party.

CC: In the next year, what trends do you expect to see in the cheese world?

EM: What you’re starting to see now is a lot of the young European cheesemakers are starting to make new cheeses outside the box. For instance, the fellas who raise water buffalo could have just gone into the Buffalo Mozzarella business. But they didn’t do that; they decided unique cheeses were for them, like Taleggio with buffalo milk, so they’re making all of these other types of cheeses with buffalo milk. Not D.O.C. cheeses, but using their milk in those styles. The cheese world is becom-ing much more sophisticated as we go along. I’ve been at this for 25 years, and what I’ve seen in that time is mind-blowing.

Burrata With Heirloom Tomatoes

Serves 4

Burrata With Heirloom Tomatoes
Burrata With Heirloom Tomatoes Jason Varney

1 lb heirloom tomatoes cut into bite-size pieces (or about 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes)
8  basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
¾ cup balsamic vinegar
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Burrata, about 12 oz each
Loaf of rustic Italian bread, cut in thick slices and grilled or toasted

Toss the tomatoes with the basil and balsamic, let them sit. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat for about a minute, add minced garlic. You don’t want it to brown, so as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle, remove the pan from the burner.

Pour the hot garlic oil over the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the tomato mixture on four plates, and slice the Burrata vertically in half. There’s cream inside, so make sure you do this on a cutting board or plate. Arrange the halved Burrata on top of the tomatoes. Serve with thick slices of grilled or toasted bread.CC

Source: Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese by Tenaya Darlington

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