It’s no secret that Select Italy is an enthusiastic fan of everything white truffle, as is evidenced not only by the fact that we offer a full-day privately guided tour in Piedmont and a half-day in Le Marche dedicated to these magical ingredients, but also by the fact that we can’t help but keep writing about the full experience that dining with truffles offers. Take my own blog, published last December, about my first experience with tartufi bianchi: it happened at the Chicago fine dining Italian restaurant, Spiaggia, well-known for its superior plates as well as for being one of Obama’s favorite eating spots. That plate of pasta kissed with God’s gift to the sense of taste was mind-blowing, life-changing, and addictive.
It is the latter that most has me hankering for white truffles year after year, eagerly anticipating the season’s arrival and carefully selecting when and where I choose to give myself the gift of a truffle-adorned plate. This year, I choose to return to the first place I was introduced to these delicacies, but opted for a more casual experience at Cafe Spiaggia, which at the time boasted a truffle dish on their menu, as well.
The dinner started out fantastically with the option to order Barolo by the glass (Revello La Morra 2008, to be exact), allowing me to marry two of my favorite Piedmont delicacies without imposing the wine on my fiance, who preferred to pair his boar ragù with a Tua Rita’s “Perlato del Bosco” Sangiovese. With great anticipation, I ordered the strangozze with white truffles, and when it arrived allowed a good few minutes just to stare and appreciate the beauty of the plate. However, when I picked up my fork and took the first bite I realized that I wasn’t quite ported to the magical world of truffle happiness as in my first experience. The pasta was delicious, but perhaps not quite as divine, and I left the restaurant wondering if I had missed something.
I’m not usually one to write long comment emails to a restaurant, but in this case – since my love for white truffles is by now quite personal – I did write an email asking merely what might have happened to alter the taste or my experience. A few days went by and just when I thought I might not get a response, Chris Marchino, Executive Chef of Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, wrote back. His insight into the intricacies of white truffles were so pointed that we would like to share with our truffle-loving clients to shed some light on the delicate ways of this coveted ingredient.
First of all, thank you so much for your email. We really appreciate honest feedback, especially when it is thoughtful and well-articulated. It also became obvious through reading the Select Italy blog that you are skilled writers and avid foodies, just the kind of guests we love having at the restaurant. I’m sorry to hear that your second truffle experience quite produce the same result as your first. A few different thoughts came to mind while reading your email. Perhaps one or all of them could provide some insight into why there was such a discrepancy in your white truffle eating experiences.
My first thought was that it is entirely possible that the white truffle you ate on the second go around simply wasn’t as flavorful as the first, despite having a beautiful aroma. As I’m sure you already know, white truffles are very delicate ingredients. They are subject a lot of different environmental conditions during different phases of their life cycle. For example, the nutrient and moisture levels of the soil they are grow in contribute immensely to the flavor and aroma of the white truffle. How they are handled in transit to Chicago can also preserve or be detrimental to the flavor retention of the truffle. Here at the restaurant we do everything we can to keep them in a cool, dry, air tight environment. However, it is entirely possible that the truffle lost some of its flavor at some stage of its life leading up to being shaved on your pasta.
Secondly, I noticed that the photo on your blog is of a pasta from the dining room at Spiaggia. Whereas your second experience eating white truffles with us was in the cafe. Typically our white truffle pasta in the dining room, the “tajarin” is also made with a castelmagno (Italian cafe aged cheese) fonduta and a spoonful of fresh white truffle infused olive oil that we make in house from the trimmings of our white truffles. In the cafe, the strangozze is tossed with brown butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. The flavor difference in the two pastas is surprisingly dramatic. I could certainly see how if you tasted the dining room version, then the cafe version expecting the same flavor, you could be a bit disappointed.
As far as this year’s truffles  go, in general the ones we’ve seen have been very high quality compared to recent years. That said there are still duds here and there. We do our best to weed out the weaker truffles, but since we don’t have the luxury of taste testing every truffle, we rely on the aroma to tell us how good the truffle is. It could be that one snuck by us, but we would never knowingly serve a truffle that wasn’t of the highest attainable quality.”
So that’s why I love truffles so much – they’re basically like wine: need perfect conditions of harvest, shipment, storage, and serving to reach its peak flavor, and also prefer certain pairings over others to let it’s best attributes shine. And it mustn’t be a coincidence that they also like each other (see “Barolo” for pairing bliss!)…
Have you ever had a white truffle experience?