Sequestered behind Eataly’s marketplace of gastronomic fantasy is the Land of Oz, Mecca, and the Super Bowl for flush foodies, Il Tartufo.
Every year, during the fungal equinox known as truffle season, the pop up restaurant briefly appears and slakes Chicagoan’s appetite for the subterranean tuber.
Saturday, we braved weather that alternated between rain, wind, sleet and snow (commonly referred to in Chicago as November) to sample their earthy menu. Entering the foyer of Il Tartufo, you’re greeted immediately by The Precious, a shallow bowl crammed with both black and white truffles.
Pro tip: if you’re coming here for truffles, don’t skimp and buy the black ones. Yes, they cost half as much, but you’re here to be decadent…Go top shelf!
The hostess will accommodate you if you ask for her to raise the lid and allow a Luddite to smell their trophies of the forest. Her expression will change only imperceptibly when you linger too long with you face under the cover and try to pick out the individual aroma compounds. “Fresh hay? The woods after a spring rain? Garlic? Horseradish? My middle school gym uniform after spending Christmas break in my locker?”
“Sir, may I show you your table? Your party is waiting.”
The truth is, you will only get a tiny fraction of the heady aroma of a truffle by sniffing it whole. The real magic is coming.
At Il Tartufo, there’s several options on the menu, and truthfully, it would be hard to go wrong. But, of course, I have my opinion, which you can choose to ignore if you like. Here’s the thing about truffles. They’re selfish. And arrogant. They don’t like to share and they want to be the center of attention. You may have received a great promotion at work and are expecting your first child, the truffle will still make themselves the center of attention at Thanksgiving dinner even if they’re still living in mom’s basement and we know she’s paying your car insurance, Trevor! Truffles. Yeah, they’re the star. So don’t crowd them out with lots of other complex and overpowering flavors. Despite their reputation, truffles, especially the white truffle, are rather delicate. So a simple pasta or risotto will do.
With that said, we shared a few primi plates and I found the ricotta gnocchi to pair exquisitely with shaved white truffle. Some at the table agreed (they were obviously correct). Others, liked the chestnut flour tortaloni stuffed with butternut squash, which was also flawless, I just felt (correctly, of course) that the truffle had difficulty competing.
So, here is how you do it. You can either pay an extra $39 for 3 grams of white truffle to be shaved on your dish, which would be okay if you were getting just one dish, or you can buy a whole truffle for $11 per gram.
Here’s why buying the whole truffle is the way to go. Even a small white truffle at Il Tartufo weighs 10 grams. I know, I know, that’s $110 and you haven’t even ordered any pasta yet, but hear me out. One truffle can be shaved on three or four dishes, or, if you get a bigger one, even more. So one truffle will cover your whole table.
But that’s not the real reason you splurge on the whole truffle. With truffles, it’s all about ceremony. They wheel the truffle cart to your table and everyone oohs and aaahs over the selections. The Truffle Princess (let’s just agree that’s her title) plucks a specimen from the dish with her gloved hand and shows it to everyone at the table who, in turn, fawn over the rare fungus like a firstborn son. Then, she places The Anointed One on a scale. At this point you are certain to have two reactions. First reaction, how can that tiny little misshapen clump weigh over ten grams and, second reaction, that’s gonna be $115, and that’s on top of whatever you order.
We’d better be drinking tap water.
Stop thinking like that. This is a special treat. Maybe once in a lifetime. Get the white truffle, order a nice Barolo and continue with the ceremony, because the fun part is still to come.
The Truffle Princess will place The Anointed One on a bed of uncooked rice. Why, you may ask The Truffle Princess. To absorb His Royal Majesty’s moisture, of course. This is all for show, however, because even if you linger for two or three hours over your truffle banquet, immeasurable drying of The Anointed One will occur. Still, makes for a nice show.
And speaking of shows, here’s where it all comes together. The wine, the food, the grown up spore that costs more than your Air Jordans. That’s because it’s time to, and this is a quote from P. Diddy when he dined on truffles in New York’s Restaurant Daniel, to “shave this bitch.”
Shaped like a cheese slicer, a truffle mandolin, cuts The Anointed One paper thin, almost translucent, which allows you to get more slices for your truffle dollar. Best of all, The Truffle Princess let’s you do the honors yourself!
Once a few slices of truffle manna have fluttered onto your plate of pasta, take the time to take in the aroma. After the truffle skin has been breached you can truly take in the majesty of the so-called diamond of the kitchen. With the plate held within inches of your face, you now realize it is all worth it. No, wait. Take a bite. Yes, it is all worth it.
Pro tip: When you get down to that nub end of the truffle you’re not going to want to throw it away. Even though it’s the size of your fingernail, it’s probably worth $15. So, proceed carefully, that slicer is razor sharp and nothing ruins a perfectly elegant truffle dinner like the bloody stump of your thumb in the risotto.
Bonus: If you don’t finish your bottle, Il Tartufo let’s you take it with you along with your glasses (as long as your return them) and enjoy your wine while you shop Eataly’s sprawling market. Smart cannolis, those Italians. Drink and shop. Shop and drink.
Il Tartufo is open Wednesday through Sunday until the end of the year. Hours vary, closed some days, including Thanksgiving. The restaurant is inside Eataly, 43 East Ohio, Chicago, Il.