At 80 years old and aging nicely, Di Bruno Bros. “House of Cheese” has sliced enough prosciutto to wrap City Hall in sheer pink ribbons of imported Italian ham many times over. A stack of its Parmesan and pecorino contributions to Philly’s plates over the decades would rise, one massive wheel at a time, above the loftiest beacon on our skyline. (The ultimate sky-grater?) Its imported olive oil flows green through our veins. Its fresh mozzarella melts our red-gravy hearts.
The highly skilled mongers caring for Di Bruno’s vast trove of artisan cheese treasures — more than 600 varieties offered last year, from perfect Colston Bassett Stilton to rare Comté Sagesse and coveted stinkers like Rush Creek Reserve — have coaxed me into spending more money than I care to calculate. But quite simply, I cannot think of a single retail operation in this city more indispensable to a food-lover’s pantry than Di Bruno’s. This family-owned juggernaut, having grown from its humble Italian Market nook (still my favorite) to five retail locations and counting, is our olive-jeweled gateway to the world’s finest products.
But why, I always wondered, could Di Bruno’s kitchens never cook those stellar ingredients particularly well?
It’s a frustration I’ve pondered since DB’s current third-generation of ambitious leadership expanded to its mega-store off Rittenhouse Square in 2005 and dove more deeply into prepared foods and catering. I’ve been perpetually underwhelmed ever since by whatever premade hoagie, boxed salad, or panini-pressed grilled cheese I’ve ordered. The once-promising event and dining space on the floor above the market had devolved into a lifeless cafeteria.
The recent makeover of that space into the airy wine bar and nibble haven that is Alimentari, however, has been a stellar development. The handsome redesign by local firm Cohere — strong on leather banquettes, gleaming marble, warm wood, and artful nostalgia displays of foodstuffs and Di Bruno ancestors — has energized a sunny public space that was underutilized. It’s become a stylish new mezzanine to graze cheese boards, smoked salmon tartines, and sip the sunny afternoons away: “I just had a glass of prosecco before my facial,” said my friend Leah, popping by my table before heading out on possibly the most Rittenhouse phrase ever uttered.
Alimentari is perfect for that kind of spontaneous indulgence or a midafternoon snack catch-up with an old pal over a milky hunk of tangy buffalo mozzarella alongside some pink sheets of pistachio-studded mortadella. With former Tria co-owner Michael McCaulley now on board, ably directing both the service and a beverage program highlighted by well-chosen indie wines drawn from colleague Sande Friedman’s retail selection downstairs, there is no shortage of good drink. A golden Nascetta from Piedmont, perhaps, or a cherry-forward Sangiovese on draft? Time can slide by easily in a 96-seat room spacious and casual enough to feel unrushed.
Alimentari’s menu is actually a bit more substantial than that, with enough depth in its array of salads, preset platters, and deft small plates to build a satisfying lunch or light supper. The Mignucci family co-owners Emilio, brother Bill and cousin, Bill Jr., have created a fascinating hybrid here reminiscent of a common Euro concept, where the plates are composed primarily from the ingredients that are also for sale, and the menu steps just far enough into restaurant-level cooking without overextending its reach.
The arrival of chef Ashley James, 51, as the company’s culinary director has made a noticeable impact. The British-born James — who trained at a Michelin-starred destination in Bordeaux, then ran Four Seasons hotel restaurants in Mallorca, Singapore, Mexico, Buenos Aires, and Beverly Hills, along with a stint at the Starr catering group — may seem wildly overqualified to be making salami platters on Chestnut Street. But he is also tasked with upping Di Bruno’s catering and prepared foods game (still to come), and he has already conceived of appealing, flexible menus here that chefs Charles Vogt and Deidre Simmons have been able to execute consistently.
Some of the sandwiches are good bets for lunch. A grilled cheese duo is now one of my local favorites of the genre: Molten, washed-rind Taleggio and Reading raclette oozes out from between butter-crisped brioche beside a dip of perfect tomato soup touched with basil and deepened with Parmesan rinds. A grilled ham cheese was also decent, thanks to the rosemaried prosciutto cotto, but lacked the same buttery comfort.
The open-faced lunch tartines (oddly, called bruschette at dinner) are more elegant, yet still satisfying, with seedy Lost Bread Co. slices anchoring a salmon riff on avocado toast, beautifully constructed so every creamy green bite rippled with smoky waves of salmon, shaved radishes, and the sweet-tart crunch of pickled onions. The squash hummus tartine was notable because it was one of the few veggie-whipped hummuses I’ve not despised — its orange puree still silky with chickpeas, toasty pepitas adding snap, and the flavor of butternut not overwhelmed by the common overdose of pie spice.
A modest selection of composed salads are perfectly fine, with a seasonal panzanella (shaved Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, and dried cherries for winter) and citrusy Tuscan farro with currants and mint my top picks. But none is a reason in itself to come to Alimentari. Creating a more compelling signature salad is a worthy challenge James should take on to truly capitalize on Rittenhouse’s robust leaf-eating clientele.
The Roman taglio pizzas — a traditional style of pan pies premade on display trays and reheated to order — also could use tweaking. I enjoyed many of the toppings: the fennel-y nubs of sausage over whipped ricotta with peppery broccoli rabe; paper-thin ribbons of eggplant over tomato sauce with basil bread crumbs; shaved potato with onion soubise, pancetta, and rosemary; and my first-ever pizza topped with the Ossau-Iraty (interesting, even if l prefer this legendary Basque sheep cheese unmelted). But the crusts were inconsistent, aspiring to a delicate crunch and an airy crumb, but so tough and chewy on the bottom that biting through sent my toppings sliding.
I was more impressed by the affordable small plates, which show greater potential for ambitious cooked options than Alimentari has yet embraced. The golf ball-sized arancini had perfect centers of tomatoey risotto laced with warm mozzarella. A toothy orecchiette tumbled in a simple tomato sauce flared with Calabrian chili heat captured a minimalist magic that showcases the quality of the exceptional Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta for sale downstairs — worth the extra dollars for a bag.
Ironically, my least favorite item here should’ve been an easy home run, the “Nonna’s Meatballs.” But James confessed what I already knew: no actual nonnas were consulted or blasphemed by the disappointment of this kitchen-engineered recipe — so fatally soft with added ricotta and sauteed vegetables it was like eating meatball pudding.
The gnocchi with lamb showed more finesse — the Parisienne-style choux pastry dumplings holding their form just long enough to buoy the tenderly braised lamb ragù, then dissolve on the bite into the North African savor of a gravy perfumed with cumin-y harissa spice. I was equally impressed by the expertly crisped diamond of branzino over fregola Sarda, so good in its warm caper vinaigrette with cherry tomatoes and currants that my biggest complaint was I wanted more than just half a fillet. But at $14, it’s a perfect small-plate tease and priced accordingly.
Part of me wishes Alimentari would expand the small-plate options and embrace its full potential as an evening destination. It even makes sense considering a wine bar run by McCaulley has the promise to grow into the night.
Then again, with last call at 8:30 and closing time synced to the store downstairs, we’ll just have to be content with Alimentari becoming Rittenhouse’s ultimate lunch lounge and happy hour haven for aperativi, deep chocolate pudding and bomboloni desserts, and dream boards laden with mole-infused salami, Rotondo prosciutto as silken as pink chiffon, glossy gorgonzola dolce, and truffle-infused burrata drizzled with tomato jam.
The fact is that Alimentari was created as an amenity to bolster one of Philly’s finest food retail markets. Its great success is the feeling that to be there is to experience a world of its own.