Our first time was a magical New Year's Eve in Naples, the city that really knows how to live this occasion. And of course the start of the affair was good food. Pasta with truffle sauce. We'd vaguely been aware of truffles before but they remained only an abstraction until that moment. Yes, the dish was good, but nothing to inspire spending exorbitant amounts of money for the stuff ourselves. Besides, how do rank amateurs figure out how to make a dish that measures up to the heavy reputation it carries. The caviar of the forest with matching price tag.
Then the Philly Book and the Cook Fair supplied us with a free sample of pasta with truffle sauce, yum! It workedwe bought some chopped black truffle concoction and a small jar of white truffle oil. They explained what they did to make the enticing samples that opened our wallet. It seemed simple enough, butter, cream, parmigiano, the black truffle jar, bingo! But when we did it, it just wasn't the same. A reasonably priced restaurant Ristorante Il Tartufo opened nearby in Manayunk. We went a few times and loved the truffle dishes, especially the fettuccine. Bob bought a little 50 cent truffle recipe book The 100 Best Truffle Recipes in Rome. Useless.
Truffles made their way onto the best seller list with delightful passages from Under the Tuscan Sun and The Hills of Tuscany, fairy tales for Americans dreaming of living as foreigners in rural Italy. We had our very own dream weekend with Valeria and Andrea in a barn summer apartment over livestock on a panoramic hill near Spoleto, another truffle center. They bought some ugly black truffles from their trusted supplier for pasta, but alas, there are no guarantees with these uncivilizable funghi, this batch was a dud. But we bought a few jars of mushroom-truffle spread that kept our truffle dreams alive back in philly, at least for a while.
And then Jamila went to an Italian wedding in Tuscany while vacationing at home in Belgium and brought us back a jar of Tartufitalia Salsa Tartufata (Mushroom and Truffle Sauce). And in our kitchen prepared the sauce for fresh fettuccine as explained to her. Mostly just adding cream to the jar in our favorite 4 qt chef's pan and then mixing with the pasta and parmigiano when ready. Yes! Finally a way to achieve that elusive taste in our own home, while doing it with diluted (i.e., cheaper) truffles.
So off to surf the net for a supplier of this product. By the year 2000 the web was mature enough to produce a quick solution. We called up the US importer for exactly what our empty jar of memories (and crucial search strings) used to hold. 15 bucks a pop, not cheap, but for truffles, reasonable for special occasions. A few days later the box of 4 7oz jars appeared at our door. Waiting for Jamila's advice by e-mail from Brussels for how to proceed.
The big box stores are typically reachable only by car, and this applies to Italy as well. Since bob is notoriously without wheels in Rome, it is a rare occasion that he finds himself at the Metro out in the burbs, their equivalent of Costco or B.J.'s, the big wholesaler shopper's clubs requiring an annual membership. The Italian version is a real trip, because even the cutrate food in Italy is of high quality. The best aged parmigiano reggiano at half the airport duty free prices, okay duty free is a rip-off even compared to the regular stores and supermarkets, but this was still a good deal at the Metro. Of course bob doesn't cook in Italy, so any food acquisitions must be hand carried back to the home kitchen, and glass containers merit carry-on treatment, so the choices must be careful and restrained. On the summer 2002 trip bob gets lucky after an afternoon beach visit with father and son friends who need to pick up dinner on the way home to mom. bob spots a plastic shrunk wrapped 6 pack of 130g "crema tartufata" jars, a bit smaller than the usual "salsa tartufata" (160g or 180g) jars, and made with mushrooms and white truffles instead of black. Looks like something new worth trying and worth transporting, and so cheap!
They sit around a while at home, but finally the need arises to feed the team with stuff on hand and ms_ani takes over and does the makeover. Same deal, saute a few pressed garlic cloves in olive oil, just a bit, then dumping in the light colored salsa tartufata, and maybe a half cup of lowfat milkno light cream was in stockand it turned out not to be necessary. The result was lighter colorwise and fatwise but no less flavorful. A pound of Carlino fresh fettuccine pop out of the freezer and into the pasta pot and suddenly dinner is ready. Some freshly ground parmigiano in the sauce, and then on each serving. We finish off the whole pound with only salad to break the intake. Yumm. Who said lowfat can't be tasty?
Well, every family has its less talented (maybe unlucky?) members. Apparently the New York branch of the family business got so in debt to the mother company in Italy by 2002 that drastic action had to be taken. A new generation of unsuspecting Urbani brothers were plucked out of their ordinary lives and promoted to co-directors of the restructured business: Urbani Truffles USA. A delightful truffle cooking demo by Peter and Christian were our pleasant surprise when we entered the Philly GreatBigFoodShow.Com sponsored by the Food Network, only to find nearly impassible isles filled with people and at least 100 of them in line at any free food sample spot worth sampling, and no Food Network celebrity show passes available for the next 6 hours. No Alton Brown or Giada de Laurentis for us, but in the other open demo areas program, the Urbani brothers were on only 30 minutes after we entered, so serendipity saved the day. Wondering why they both mispronounced tagliatelle (tag-li-a-te-lli instead of tal-ya-te-lli), the pasta they used for their truffle demo main course, bob asks Christian after the show about their connection with the Italian company and gets a short version story of their good fortune. They not only market the salsa tartufata on-line (still only 15 bucks a pop), but some interesting new products including tartufo butter, truffle puree and truffle fondue. Too bad our pasta diet is now rather limited due to the carb revolution. For the first time ever, we actually have some real Urbani bottled truffles given to us by a kind friend in Perugia. We'll have to figure out what to do with the stuff this time.
We checked back with Urbani USA in 2006. Its website had been down at least a year or more. Looks like another failure.
Meanwhile our favorite Roman food specialty store Castroni cola di Rienzo [Chinese website?] had a number of Tentazioni dell'Umbria tartufata products we grabbed up the day before our summer 2006 return flight through Heathrow London in turn only days before the liquid bomb terrorist plot threw a monkey wrench into airport security. Both white and black truffle tartufata sauces. Too bad self-importing is the still the only simple way for us to bring these products home. Back at home, we finally break open a small 1.5oz bottle of Urbani shaved black truffles (truffle carpaccio) given to us 2 summers earlier (with an expiration date 6 months later, i.e., expired 1.5 years, but that did not deter us for one moment), determined to break the whole truffle inaction curse. The idea was to make a simple sauce for some whole wheat cheese-filled ravioli from Carlino's: cream and shaved truffles, salt and pepper and parmigiano; we expanded on this by sautéing some pressed garlic in 1T each of oil and butter, and adding a little light cream left over in the fridge to warm up, and chopping up about 1oz of the truffles, adding them just before the al dente pasta. Then salt and pepper to taste. A plan confirmed by a few minutes of google activity and which met with success in our execution!