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Pricey Prize Shows Puck's a Real Fungi

A whopper of a white truffle--'a little craziness'--sets him back $19,000.

November 16, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wolfgang Puck is just back from Italy with an 827-gram white truffle (that weighs in at about 1.82 pounds), for which he paid a record $19,000 at the annual truffle festival in the town of Alba. The truffle is about the size of a small cantaloupe, but it's knobbly, like a petrified brain. "If I had a brain that large, I would never have bought the truffle," laughs Puck. "But every couple of years I have to have a folly--a little craziness, and this is for a good cause."

Nineteen truffles were auctioned on Sunday to benefit the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, which provides aid to the families of victims of the World Trade Center attacks who worked in the food service industry. The auction raised $50,000.

Bidders in Piedmont at the castle of Grinzane Cavour outside Alba were hooked up by live satellite feed with truffle enthusiasts in New York, London and Munich.

But Puck flew in to Italy, while fellow restaurateur Piero Selvaggio of Valentino in Santa Monica took the red-eye to New York to take part in the bidding at San Domenico restaurant at a lunch hosted by owner Tony May, who lost two restaurants in the World Trade Center.

Among the 65 participants were chefs Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Francesco Antonucci, along with Ivana Trump, anchorwoman Diane Sawyer and Gourmet Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl.

Worldwide demand for tuber magnatum Pico , the highly perfumed white truffle from the Piedmont region, sent prices spiking as high as $2,000 a pound. And that's just this year.

The new tradition is to hold a truffle auction for charity. For this third annual Asta Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco d'Alba, the bidding started with the smallest truffle, at 197 grams, and then slowly went up to the biggest, at 827 grams.

From New York, Piero Selvaggio zeroed in on two spectacular truffles, one weighing in at almost a pound. In all, he paid about $9,000. "I was so excited at this point, I was almost feverish. Strangely, I hadn't seen Wolf bidding yet from Italy."

But when the last, biggest truffle came up for bidding, Puck woke up. For a while, bidding was furious, and the price quickly soared. Someone representing the Jolly Hotel in New York was very active.

And there was a dog named Gunther IV, heir to the multimillion dollar fortune of a German woman and represented by a beautiful blond seated across from Puck at the castle in Grinzane Cavour.

"This truffle is too beautiful to go to a dog," Puck says he told the woman. "I'm going to bid everything it takes to get it." And he did.

How did he get the magnificent tuber through customs? He did declare it. It's just that he wrote everything in Italian on the declaration-- tartufo , Barolo, etc. When the customs agent wondered what was so expensive, he told him, "Oh, it's just something you put on the pasta."

When he and the tartufo arrived from the airport, the truffle had its own plastic foam carrying case, which was taped shut to hold in all its perfume. And when it was unveiled, everyone awaiting Puck at the airport had a turn putting their nose to it. The bigger the truffle, the longer it holds in its flavor and aroma. But every day, it shrinks infinitesimally. The sooner it's used, the better.

On Wednesday at Spago in Beverly Hills, Puck and executive chef Lee Hefter began offering the knobbly truffle as embellishment to a succession of dishes. For $100 per portion, patrons could have it shaved over risotto, agnolotti, pasta, pizza or calzone. The truffle had its own special waiter, who whisked a white linen napkin off the tuber and proceeded to shave it over the dish at the table.

By the end of that first night, about a fifth of the truffle's gnarled surface had been shaved away, meaning if he's lucky, Puck may have enough truffle to last through the weekend.

Meanwhile, over at Valentino, Piero Selvaggio should be just receiving his two truffles.

Let the festivities begin.

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