White truffles are on the menu at NoMad.Stefano Giovannini
It’s high-spending heaven for lovers of white truffles. The aromatic uber-tubers, in season from October through December, are better, more abundant and cheaper than last year’s mostly miserable crop.
But “cheaper” is relative. Ordering white truffles in a restaurant can be a minefield of unpleasant surprises. Your wallet might shrink as your waistline explodes. And not all white truffles are created equal — paying attention to freshness, size and place of origin can make the difference between blissful memories and the feeling that you got ripped off.
Prized for their inimitably rich and rugged flavor, white truffles are the ultimate indulgence to celebrate the holidays, reward your spouse or lover, or just stuff your face with a deep-earth essence like no other. This year’s bumper crop is “just hitting its peak in terms of aroma and flavor,” Porter House executive chef Michael Lomonaco, who’s “been around white truffles almost all my life,” tells The Post.
They’re popping up all over town, from the super-pricey The Pool and The Grill to barbecue joint Pig Bleecker. Even bars are getting into the act, e.g., a “white truffle-infused” Aperol cocktail at the Williamsburg Hotel’s Water Tower lounge.
But they’re an extravagance however you choose to ingest them. Vittorio Giordano, vice president of leading importer Urbani Truffles USA, says he’s paying only half what he did last year, thanks to an abundant crop resulting from better weather in Italy. He’s selling twice as much than last year to New York restaurants. But not all of the price cut is passed on to New York restaurant customers, who pay 20 to 30 percent less than in 2017. On average, restaurants are charging about $7 per gram of white truffles — and most places heap about 10 grams onto your plate, tacking $60 to $125 onto your $20 to $30 risotto.
The best relatively affordable dish that I tried was at The NoMad, which offers what the menu describes as “a reasonable or ridiculous portion, at our cost” over risotto or tagliatelle with butter and Parmesan cheese — $32 for four grams or $64 for 8 grams above the basic dish’s $26 price. The truffles lent pungent nuance to the creamy dishes.
Even when prices are clearly stated, ordering white truffles can feel like bait-and-switch on a used-car lot. One recent weeknight, I leapt at the Babbo waiter’s offer of white truffles on ravioli-like pumpkin lune pasta. “Three grams for $30,” he said. But minutes later, a manager came by to say that the waiter “misspoke.” That was the price last week, when the Italian truffles were from one corner of Piemonte. Now they were from a different, better-tasting corner. The price was $60 for 3 ¹/₂ grams. They were delicious, but I wanted more for $60.
Babbo wasn’t trying to cheat, though. The mid-order price jump reflected the white-truffle world’s daily-shifting volatility.
“Everyone’s confused. It’s like a drug trade,” jokes Major Food Group chef Rich Torrisi, who runs The Pool. “It’s a very difficult thing for restaurants to navigate,” Torrisi adds.
Servers’ lack of basic knowledge doesn’t help. The waitress at Celestine in Dumbo twice told my friend Jordan Barowitz that a $70 fettuccine dish came with “five ounces of grated white truffles.” That would be a rare bargain. Five ounces are equivalent to nearly 142 grams — worth $1,960.
How can you trust them to shave the right amount onto your plate?
Yes, chuckles Torrisi: They know “from doing it hundreds of times.” OK, but since five grams runs between $90 and $110 at The Pool and sister restaurant The Grill, I just might want a scale to be brought out — which Torrisi says they can do.
If the waiter anywhere cheerily asks if you’d like “a sprinkle” and the menu says “market price,” ask how much it is per gram and how many grams they serve. A friend who treated me to lunch at The Four Seasons was flabbergasted when her single dish of tagliatelle with white truffles turned out to be $265.
When it comes to freshness, don’t settle for “very.” Ask what day they came in and say no if they’re more than 24 hours old. White truffles “lose their smell and taste with every passing day,” says Eric Ripert, executive chef of Le Bernardin.
Where are they from? Most waiters say “Alba,” the Piemontese village that’s the marketplace for white truffles from other parts of Italy as well. But beware those from Croatia — “They have black knots from the soil and smell like petroleum kerosene,” says Altamarea Group executive chef Michael White.
Also, ask to see a whole truffle from the kitchen. If it’s smaller than a golf ball, say no thanks. Without sufficient surface area, “They lose both their flavor and smell very quickly,” says Ripert.
One more caveat: white truffles, unlike the winter black Perigord variety, must be served raw. “They can’t be cooked at all, or they lose all their flavor,” Ripert says. And avoid dishes with “white truffle oil,” a mutant combination of olive oil and a chemical compound called 2,4-dithiapentane, which unscrupulous chefs sneak in to pump up the aroma of subpar truffles.
For all their mystique, leading chefs don’t all agree on exactly how white truffles taste. Ripert says good ones taste and smell “like Parmesan and garlic, a bit pungent, somewhat mushroomy.” Locanda Verde and Lafayette chef Andrew Carmellini calls it a “from-the-forest kind of flavor, wet leaves and bark. I don’t get garlic at all.” Lomonaco gets the Parmesan notes and adds that they should also be “earthy, mineral-y [and] limestone-y.”
But the mystery’s half the glory. Urbani’s Giordano says, “White truffles combine 120 different aromas. You can eat one every day for the rest of your life and never have a truffle that tastes the same.”
The wild price range for white truffles makes it hard to know if you’re getting a deal or getting robbed. Here’s what the delicacies cost across town.
Il Mulino Tribeca has the best price per gram that we found: $120 for an astounding 34 grams, shaved at the table, on tagliolini with champagne sauce ($60 for a half appetizer portion). How can they charge so little? “We sell a lot of it and we can absorb it,” the manager explained.
A generous smattering of truffles costs $150 at 3-Michelin-star Le Bernardin, where the tubers are only served on request — and on dishes chef Eric Ripert believes they especially suit, such as tuna carpaccio. “We just sprinkle the plate with them,” Ripert says. “I don’t care to make money on it.”
At Michael White’s upscale Italians, it’s $130 for 8 grams at Marea and $110 for 8 grams at Ai Fiori. It’s shaved onto your dish tableside.
If you want to try the tuber tons of different ways, Locanda Verde has you covered with the “trufflepalooza” section of their menu. It features three dishes — a scrambled egg crostino ($48), a ravioli ($63) and a risotto ($65) — each topped with 3 grams of white truffles (price included).
In Midtown, The Pool and The Grill will charge you from $90 to $110 for 5 grams of white truffles.
At Porter House, Michael Lomonaco says his team shaves white truffles in the kitchen because “we want to keep control.” Tagliatelle or risotto comes with an average 8 grams for $125 ($75 for a half portion).
Truffles are the obvious specialty at the West Village’s Oak Tuscan Truffle Lounge. They charge $60 for 10 grams of the stuff — but “I should charge $70,” says chef/owner Rudy Accornero.
Don Angie’s Sardinian potato dumplings come with 5 grams of the good stuff for $55.
The smallest portion we found was at Bistro Leon. There, the white truffle ravioli comes with a mere 1 1/2 grams of truffles for $28.
For a calorie splurge that rivals your financial splurge, Pig Bleecker wagyu cheeseburger topped with 5 to 6 grams of truffles for $75.