Apr 042015
"Pecorella," almond paste lamb, a specialty of Sicily, at our al fresco lunch, Ragusa. Photo: Julia della Croce

“Pecorella,” almond paste lamb, a specialty of Sicily, at our al fresco lunch, Azienda Agricola Mandranova, Palma di Montechiaro (Agrigento). Photo: Julia della Croce

Special dolci are an essential part of Easter celebrations in Italy and Sicily in particular, where the Arab sweet tooth pervades. At this time several years ago, I was in Agrigento sampling the island’s quiddities with the legendary restaurateur Tony May (Palio, Gemelli, San Domenico, SD26) and a group of Italian chefs. We had lunch al fresco one afternoon at the estate of olive oil producers, where this traditional Easter sweet dominated the dessert table. Called pecorelle, “little lambs,” these artful confections are fashioned of almond paste and decorated with chocolate and tinted sugar. The lambs represent eternal life, the Easter theme, with the red flower symbolizing the Resurrection, Jesus Christ rising from the tomb. Despite the elaborate work that goes into them, they are meant to be eaten for their promise of living forever. Auguri di Pasqua!


Dec 102014

The other day, I published an article in Zester Daily about the monster truffle that was found in Umbria. What I didn’t say was that it wasn’t until the night before it was to be previewed at Sotheby’s that an invitation landed in my inbox. At close to midnight I was waking my husband up to see if he wanted to play hooky from his work the next morning and take a drive into New York City to look at it. After all, it’s not every day that we have the chance to see a four-pound truffle, even if we wouldn’t be lucky enough to taste it. Next, I texted my friend, graphic designer and buon gustaio (the elegant Italian word for “foodie”), Michael LaPlaca, who, it so happens, lives in Umbria most of the time. A few years ago he bought an abandoned 17th century wreck in Bettona and restored it to its rightful splendor, adopting the great green heart of Italy as home. Today, he runs a B&B in his stunning Palazzo Fiumi-LaPlaca, which I had the good fortune to visit recently (and that you may very well want to visit, too). Not surprisingly, he is Umbria-proud. Just his luck, he was in New York for the holidays. Did he want to come? He sure did, and here’s a funny story he wrote about our adventure.

The World’s Largest White Truffle

The three of us at Sotheby's, TBTW on the alter. (Nat is taking the picture).

The three of us at Sotheby’s, TBTW on the alter. Nat is taking the picture. At left, TBTW seller, Gabriel Sabatino.

That it weighed in at 1.89 kilos (or 4.16 pounds) is one thing. That we braved a frigid morning driving an hour and a half to see it in person was quite another. Arriving early, amazing in its own right given the commuter traffic we encountered, we were soon warming ourselves and chatting over watered down cappuccinos on the 10th floor of Sotheby’s Auction House on York Avenue in Manhattan, waiting for the unveiling.
Of course the conversation was about truffles.

Knowing that most white truffles are from Piedmonte, it was exciting that this enormous specimen hailed from Umbria – my region. Julia, Nat, and I speculated what one could do with more than 4 pounds of truffle. Given that it had a shelf life of a little more than two weeks (if cared for properly), whatever one was planning, the buyer would need to get the invitations out fast.

“Tagliatelle for thousands,” said Julia. She recommended a simple butter sauce with shaved truffles on top.

We paused to call up the image, aroma, and taste from our culinary data banks.

“Gnocchi in a cream sauce topped with truffle,” added Nat.

We agreed that would be divine too.

They turned toward me to see where my truffle fantasy lay. I needed to pause a tad longer because their two suggestions were two of my favorites as well and I was thinking about the gnocchi covered in the cream sauce nestled in a parmigiana basket. . . However, It didn’t take long for my face to brighten as I almost blurted out.“Scrambled eggs with barbozza.” This time I thought I heard a little gasp. But that could have been me.Although simple, I’d at least want a couple servings of an over the top, Umbrian style, bacon and eggs. Yes, we Americans are traditionalists even where truffles are concerned.
Agreement and nods all around.

Our fantasies all leaned on the simple side – Julia says that classics are “classics” for a reason – knowing that letting the fresh taste of the truffle come out was the important thing. Then we all sort of glazed over in our own little happy food places while we drained our cappuccinos.
At 9:30 we headed down to the Seventh floor for the event.

We were directed to the front of the auction room where about 20 people were standing near a long table beneath a large gold Sotheby’s logo. There was a small platform in the center of the table flanked by an apple, an orange, and various size bottles of wine that, we were told, were part of the following day’s fine wine sale. (Any of which would make a lovely compliment to a truffle dish, it was pointed out.)

Introductions were made and Gabriel Balestra, family member and representative of the Umbria truffle concern that was in charge of the World’s Largest White Truffle, spoke proudly of the discovery, the truffle hunter, and the well rewarded truffle dog who really was the hero of the story.

After a brief Q & A about truffles, the moment we had been waiting for arrived. Two men brought in a square black and metal trimmed carrying case. (I half expected to see it hand cuffed to one of them.) They opened the box and produced a striped cloth bundle about the size of a foot ball. Placing it on the table they carefully unwrapped the cloth and moist paper towels to reveal the enormous prize and placed it on the platform between the apple and orange to the clicks of professional cameras and smart phones.

It had flown halfway around the world from its humble beginnings buried beneath a gnarled old tree deep in an undisclosed public forest in an undisclosed corner of Umbria to arrive on New York’s Upper East Side to be, for however briefly, the talk of the town.
We were allowed to get up close. To get our “I can’t believe I’m actually in front of the WLWT” shots. Someone even took a selfie with it, which I thought was a bit much. When the paparazzi had backed off, I approached and waved my hand over it to bring the distinct truffle whiff my way.

“How wonderful,” I said. To which Gabriel nodded approvingly.

A few more questions and photo ops and it was time to put the WLWT back in its case. We were told it could only be out for 10 minutes so it would not loose moisture and therefore, precious weight. It was then rewrapped with the same care and placed back in its special case to await its future, which would of course mean its demise.

On the way back to the parking lot, we speculated as to how much the WLWT would bring. The buzz was that an offer of a million dollars had already been refused.
We wondered how high could it go and each of us gave a guess. Being a pessimist, I wanted to say $100,000 but weakly yielding to peer pressure and auction house hype and instead said $250,000. The world was fickle and this was New York after all — a place where one could even be talking about spending a million dollars on an Umbrian fungus in the first place.

(The auction was held today (Dec. 6, 2014) and the WLWT went for a mere $61,000. But given the 22.5% buyer’s premium and the cost of the private jet to transport the truffle to the kitchen of its new owner (paid for by the buyer) I’m guessing the truffle was going to cost the buyer around $85,000. But I really want to know, as I’m sure you do too, what they make with it.)

Michael LaPlaca is the proprietor of A Week in Umbria, which should be on the top of everyone’s “Places to go before I die” list.
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Nov 022014
Rocky Mountain High

Boulder is a serious food town where you can find everything from Colorado bison ragù to mule foot pork chops, local pecorino to real Venice-style gelato. I was there recently for the Chefs Collaborative Summit, a meeting of renowned chefs and like-minded professionals who are in the business of food—growing it, producing it, cooking it, selling it and writing about it. Many I spoke to told me that they have learned their trades from Italy’s artisans whose ancient food traditions have inspired them. Why that is, will be the subject of future articles, but here are some of the highlights of […more…]

Oct 082014
There's Good News in the World, Too: Gelato Explosion!

In my recent article for Zester Daily, I wrote about the gelato explosion. One thing is for sure, gelato is on the move from its Italian home base as more and more entrepreneurs set up shop all over the world using Italy’s state-of-the-art equipment, designed for small-batch, artisan production. Following up on my last post about Rimini, here’s the scoop about why I was in that famous beach resort last month. No, it wasn’t to sunbathe or take in the nightclubs. It was to join the World Gelato Tour which, after circling the globe and picking finalists along the way—including […more…]

Sep 242014
Fellini Drawings Disappear

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Sep 222014
Rimini. Falling into Fellini

This is where the Gelato World Tour landed after sweeping through four continents. I’ll be reporting on the results of the contest that brought me here for the “world’s best gelato” in an upcoming post, but here’s another side of this splashy seaside town on the Costa del Sole than its appetite for gelato, famed night life, and nine miles of beaches. Rimini is where the  journalist, illustrator, script writer, and finally, legendary film director, Federico Fellini, was born. He never forgot this ancient Roman town on the Adriatic, and it never forgot him. Everything from the airport to the piazzale, […more…]

Readers Write: About that Peppery Steak Salad Scented with Olive Oil…

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Aug 102014
Readers Write: About that Peppery Steak Salad Scented with Olive Oil...

The recipe in my last post for a quick and easy steak and potato dish (read here) seemed to be especially popular, and some of you sent me comments and variations. I’m passing some of them along here. One more thing…do wash it all down with a nice Pugliese red. Salute! Great recipe, Julia–reminds me of Tuscan tagliata di bistecca. And perfect for a no-nonsense meal on a hot summer night. You reminded me that the great teaching chef Bill Briwa from the CIA (you know which one of those I mean) experimented with beef and olive oil and found […more…]

Aug 022014
Steak and Potatoes Take on New Meaning Doused with Bold Olive Oils

After my recent travels to Puglia, Italy’s southernmost region, I’ve had its big, bold olive oils on my mind. The province of Bari, founded well before the 8th century BC when it was absorbed by Magna Graecia, has lived on olive oil for millennia. Today the area still makes most of Italy’s olive oils. Drive past places with names like Cassano delle Murge, Bitetto, Bitonto, Bitritto, and Binetto, and you see nothing but forests of olive trees and billows of sky, interrupted now and then by towns undisturbed by tourism. But where once, production was geared toward quantity to meet Europe’s […more…]

Jun 152014
Toritto, Puglia: An Afternoon in My Father's Land

My father left his native Toritto as an infant in his mother’s arms in 1909. With his young parents and grandmother, he sailed for Ellis Island in steerage. The family said that in those bleak times in Puglia, they had survived by eating the wild greens that grew in the fields where they had toiled. Although he returned to Italy many times as an adult, especially to the Carrara quarries to buy marble for his shop in America, my father never went back to where he was born. What kindled his memory was the food he was raised on. His […more…]