Truffles take over the menu at NYC restaurants

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It’s truffle season — and prices for the prized tubers have gotten more astronomical than ever.

A pound of white truffles — the most rare and sought-after, rooted up by keen-nosed dogs and pigs in northern Italy’s Piedmont region — have lately hit all-time highs between $4,500 and $5,000 a pound at wholesale.

That’s up from the $1,200-$2,500 range in 2019, said Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani Truffles USA. He blames a piddling harvest on an unusually hot, dry summer in northern Italy, along with pandemic-related supply chain issues that have doubled shipping costs.

Nevertheless, restaurants haven’t stopped buying the earthy-smelling tubers and shaving them onto everything from pizza to eggs and pasta — and their truffle-obsessed customers are swallowing the sky-high prices.

At Lucciola, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Vanessa Genao, 36, and her husband Eduardo Genao, 38, drove in from Hoboken, NJ on Friday night to treat themselves after getting an email that the eatery had just gotten a fresh shipment.

“We usually go to Italy every November for truffle season, but this year we bought a house,” said Vanessa, a regional manager for Starbucks. “We had dinner plans but we canceled and came here as soon as we got the email.”

Massari has a special three-course truffle menu for $249 at Lucciola.
Massari has a special three-course truffle menu for $249 at Lucciola.
Stephen Yang

Lucciola’s chef and owner Michele Casadei Massari may have the most cost-efficient truffle menu: $249 for three courses plus dessert, with tax and tip extra. He has only raised dishes by $10: Beef carpaccio with truffles went up from $59 to $69 while braised beef cheeks with truffles increased from $119 to $129.

“When people order truffles, they tend to order more expensive wines, so it makes up for what I might lose on the truffles,” he said.

Not all restaurants are opting to take the upfront hit. At 15 East @ Tocqueville, chef and owner Marco Moreira upped his eggs with five grams of white truffles from $175 to $275.

Tanya Bastianich, a partner at Babbo, says the famed Italian eatery is taking as gracious an approach as it can. This year, Babbo will stick to its usual truffle budget of $75,000, but will get a smaller haul for its money. On Nov. 18, it will go forward with its usual $1000-per-person truffle dinner with tax and tip extra — and expect forty covers. That’s in addition to the usual seasonal offerings of a la carte shavings on dishes.

“We don’t pass along the price surge to the guest,” Bastianich said. “If we did, fewer guests would enjoy them, and that is not what we are about.”

Babbo’s dinner was canceled last year because of COVID, she adds, and the restaurant didn’t want to cancel again this year because of high prices and scarcity.

This year’s truffle shortage has mainly been caused by the weather — but there are other factors too.

Tagliatelle with white truffles.
Tagliatelle with white truffles at Lucciola.
Riccardo Piazza

“This summer was hot and dry, with no rain in May, June and July,” Giordano said. “There was no water, so the truffles weren’t growing and the quality wasn’t great.”

“Before, only foodies knew about truffles,” Giordano added. “But more people are traveling now, and thanks to the internet, there are new markets — from South America to more cities in the United States.”

There’s an additional factor: local wineries in Italy are expanding, which means there is less space for truffles to grow. That might make future truffle scarcities the norm.

“The top quality truffles are always sold out. Maybe some people will buy a little less, but restaurants are still requesting truffles,” Giordano said.

Braised beef cheeks with polenta and white truffles.
Braised beef cheeks with polenta and white truffles at Lucciola.
Riccardo Piazza

Raffaele Ruggeri, owner of Bice Cucina in Midtown and the recently opened second outpost in Soho, says that normally he would launch his truffle menu on Nov. 1, but this year he is waiting until Nov. 4, as prices might slightly decrease.

His dishes are fairly reasonable, all things considered: $65 for asparagus and a sunny side up egg with white truffle; $75 for a taglioni with butter and truffle; $95 for risotto with parmesan and truffle; and $105 for tagliata with angus beef, wild porcini, rosemary, garlic and truffle.

These were the 2019 prices based on the purchase of truffles at around $2400 a pound, he said, adding that he expects those prices per dish might increase by 10 or 20 percent.

Beef carpaccio with white truffles.
Beef carpaccio with white truffles at Lucciola.
Riccardo Piazza

“I will be buying the truffles next week,” Ruggeri said. “It is always a dance with truffles. And they need to taste right. When there isn’t enough rain they can lose their flavor.”

Ruggeri said he’ll only be serving truffles in Soho this year. Still, he and his customers are so truffle-crazed that he says he is even considering creating a truffle gelato for dessert.

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