Several years ago, I fell in love with the people and the food culture of Philadelphia, thanks to Tenaya Darlington, a.k.a Madame Fromage, and Emilio Mignucci, owner of the legendary specialty food store, DiBruno Bros. The city’s neighborhoods struck me as diverse and authentic, full of both critically acclaimed restaurants and cozy taco stands. Outside the city, the beautiful farms and rolling hills of Chester County remind me of the rural countryside, where I grew up, in the Midwest.
A visit with Sue Miller, the region’s “cheese godmother”, uncovered unique adventures rarely found from a simple google map search for cheese, food and wine producers. I stumbled into unfamiliar areas, made friends with local foodies and cheesemongers, and over time—and usually a cheese plate or two— intriguing people and places materialized.
I was lucky to experience the Italian Market neighborhood with Emilio Mignucci and meeting the head baker at Sarcone’s, the city’s eponymous source for hoagie rolls. Emilio grew up down the street from the bakery, and when he led our group through this fascinating neighborhood, he didn’t just point out his favorite shops, he led us into each store to meet the owners – and in some cases, to drink an espresso.
At Sarcone’s, we filled our bellies with Italian cookies and warm rolls, while Emilio regaled us with stories: “My mom used to make me peanut butter sandwiches on Sarcone’s rolls,” he laughed, tipping his cap to the women behind the counter. “Until I went to high school, I never tasted any other kind of white bread!”
Walking down Ninth Street, I saw what wasn’t there. Emilio’s stories painted the picture of an old-world neighborhood where soup wafted out the window and kids were always up to something, but never far from the watchful eye of everyone else’s mother.
Wherever we went, locals welcomed us as friends– like Sam and Stacey Kennedy of The Farm at Doe Run, who invited us into their farmhouse kitchen on a rainy afternoon when we were supposed to tour their fields and watch them make cheese. Instead, they insisted we kick off our wet boots and join them for a snack. In their dining room, they unwrapped their entire line of cheeses for sampling – including their recent award-winner St Malachi Reserve – and popped bottles of local beer and hard cider.
Cheesemakers at The Farm at Doe Run
Sam, a former chef, and Stacey, a former marketing guru, left their jobs to dedicate their lives to making cheese. As the rain continued, we grabbed a mix of umbrellas and rain jackets as they graciously gave us a tour of their beautiful aging caves and dairy. Their passion was truly infectious.
The Inn at Grace Winery is a step away from a royal estate. It belongs to wine-lover Chris Le Vine, the nephew of the late Grace Kelly. I had toured the property and fallen hard for the flowering grounds and the beautiful historic seven-bedroom house. When Chris suggested a tour of the estate, a local cheese-and-wine pairing, and a cooking class, I knew Grace Winery was the perfect location for us to set up camp.
I also met food artist Mike Geno in his painting studio for drinks, sipped tea with tea specialist Alexis Siemons, peered into the world of exotic mushrooms at The Woodlands at Phillips and dined at the famous Talua’s Table in Kennett Square. Cheesemaker Sue Miller and her sons even invited us to join them for a lunch overlooking their cows in the pasture. As we enjoyed our picnic, we learned about the challenges and joys of operating a small, first-generation dairy farm. Of course, we tasted Sue’s legendary blue cheese, which I first sampled in Di Bruno Bros. I wasn’t surprised when Sue told us, “Emilio Mignucci was my first mentor, and DiBrunos’ was the first cheese counter to sell my cheese.” That’s the spirit of Philadelphia!
One of my favorite meals was Chef Scott’s vineyard supper. There’s nothing more stunning than entering a vineyard at dusk, wine glass in hand, and seeing a long table set with flowers by every place card. Add twinkling lights and you’ve got a magical evening. Each course was served beautifully on locally sourced serving ware from woodworker John Luttman of Artifaqt design. One guest was so moved by the lacquered chicken served on a hand-hewn platter that she purchased the dish as a souvenir!
The talented artisans in this city can be better understood by a trip through Artisan Exchange in West Chester, PA. It’s an incubator space for food businesses that on Saturday morning functions as a farmers’ market. Drawing immigrant entrepreneurs is one goal of the space, along with supporting them as they learn about packaging and distribution. As I walked through the stands, samosa in one hand and Russian borscht in my other, I felt that the spirit of Cheese Journeys had been realized—right in my own backyard!