I MAY SEEM THE INTERNATIONAL BON VIVANT gourmand—my dog thinks so, anyway—but I spent many years trying to decide what the big deal was with truffles. It’s not just that I wasn’t sure if I liked the taste, it’s that I wasn’t even sure what the taste was—they were had in such parsimonious quantities, in a sauce or cheese (where they were probably bits of black olive) or truffle oil (where they were synthetic) that I got to a ripe age without really knowing what they were like.
Finally, a few years ago at a sort-of-restaurant in Rome—the nightly pop-up inside the cheese and charcuterie shop of Salumeria Roscioli—I had the chance to try the archetypal “rain” of in-season white Alba truffles shaved gold-leaf-thin over burrata, bought by the gram (and converted to Euros—frankly, I have no idea what I actually spent). At last I understood the secret of the truffle’s taste.
Which is that it’s about the aroma, not taste (and certainly not texture, which is like thinly shaved eraser). A great truffle dish doesn’t taste of truffles—it arrives in an intoxicating cloud of truffles, perfuming the area with its truffulousness, that haunting combination of gooey Camembert and sidewall tire that commands absurd prices for a fungus. Which is why it’s often best put on simple things where it can be the diva—burrata, pasta, scrambled eggs. Among many others, as Eataly is demonstrating this month.
As a promotion with Urbani, the company that dominates the white truffle market in Italy, Eataly Chicago has converted its event space (which started life as Carne, the restaurant devoted to red meat) into a truffle restaurant, Il Tartufo, through December 6. You have a wide range of choices of things with which to eat your tuber shavings, concentrated on three menus—a bar menu of small snacks, a lunch and dinner menu of Italian dishes, and a brunch menu. How much truffle you want to work into all of this is your choice—you can order it as a supplement for $33 for four grams, to be spread as you wish on the things you order, or you can have a whole truffle-ized tasting menu of five courses for $115 (that’s $55 for food—and another $60 for the rain of truffles over it).
Nor is this your only chance to luxuriate in truffle perfume—this Sunday, in time for Thanksgiving shopping, they’ll be selling truffles at cost in-store. (Be sure to get the proper shaving equipment—this is no ingredient to hack up with a dull kitchen knife.)
THE CHEF BEHIND THIS WHITE truffle explosion is Riccardo Orfino, a blue-eyed, red-bearded Italian who worked at two-Michelin-star Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia and LadyBù in Milan. He’ll be here through early December before returning to New York to open the next Eataly in the World Trade Center. I asked him how he decided what to serve with truffles. “All the dishes on the menu are typical dishes from the fall season in Italy,” he said. In particular they are typical of Piemonte, the mountainous north, which is cattle country and also where Alba truffles come from. So while beef and truffles may seem unusual to us, that’s normal in Alba—”In the menu you can find agnolotti in a rich beef broth Piemonte style, and the brasato [braised beef] is a typical way to serve truffles in this season in Piemonte.”
“It’s difficult to be simple. This is how we think about the food in Italy. I come from Italy, actually now I live in New York City, but I am only six months, so I am young in the United States,” he explains.
Eataly had already distributed pictures of truffle-covered pastas to the press, so I agreed with the idea of concentrating on some of the more unusual dishes. Bruschetta with mushroom-truffle spread and lardo, from the bar menu, was strong with truffle flavor accentuated by the earthy umami of the more plebeian mushrooms. I was less impressed with steak tartare—the tartare was nicely chopped, but even with truffles making the garnish look like a tiny Christmas tree with truffle tinsel, the meat with its sunchoke purée on top seemed underseasoned.
Turning to the lunch and dinner menu, the Nebbiolo wine sauce on a short rib overpowered the truffles, until Orfino pointed out to forget about them with the meat and scoop them up with the mashed potatoes—then you got the familiar effect of something mild being made transcendent by the truffles. Surprisingly, the one that really wowed me was the one that sounded the most ridiculous—fior de latte gelato (basically, a plain cream flavor) topped with shavings, which gave it a bleu cheese-like complexity and funk. Maybe not for everyone, but I thought it was pretty wonderful; I was glad I had been given the chance to taste some more unconventional uses of truffle for that one alone.
So should you spring for tiny bits of fungus on your pasta, or steak, or whatever you have? I think so, even if you have to eat cereal for dinner the rest of the month—when is it ever going to be more reasonable to have this experience? But forget my thousand words; go to the pictures and decide for yourself. Here’s a little gallery of truffle excess at Eataly; click the two-way arrow to expand the photos to full screen truftacular.
Gallery: Truffles at Eataly
Michael Gebert is a fun guy as editor of Fooditor.
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