Fall is here and towns all over Italy are celebrating local products and seasonal fare. Visitors to Italy can find food festivals throughout the country, celebrating autumn’s bounties such as truffles, mushrooms, chestnuts, and chocolate.
If you eat truffles in high-end American restaurants, you’ll easily pay hundreds of dollars for a few shavings.
In Italy, especially during the truffle hunting season and the Alba International White Truffle fair, it seems like there’s so many in circulation, it’s hard to understand why prices are so high!
Truffles Cannot be Grown, Only Found
Finding a fist-sized white truffle—white truffles are rarer than black summer truffles—is no easy feat. They’re so hard to come by that truffle hunters go out at night to keep anyone form following them to their best truffle foraging grove.
Dogs—not pigs, who might eat the truffles they find—paw at the ground when they find the scent—and truffle hunters unearth their prize with a special, spade-like digging tool.
And while truffle hunts for tourists can make the whole thing look simple, digging up handfuls of black truffles in just a couple hours, it can take trained truffle hunters and their dogs weeks to come upon the massive truffles you see at the market, often pulling 12-or-more-hour days all the while.
The International Truffle Fair
In the end, the hunt is worth it though. At the international fair, white truffles can fetch 3,000 euros a kilo!
When I saw hunters selling their wares out of the trunk of their car on the side of the road, though, the truffles were going for 250 euro a kilo.
For consumer, it is a huge savings to get them from the source, before they go through layers of middlemen at the markets and restaurants to finally reach your plate.
Cooking with Real Truffles at Home
For cooking yourself, it’s best to get the grated truffles stored in oil, but if you get your hands on the real thing, there are two perfect ways to enjoy it.
In our newsletter, we showcased a recipe for Tajarin with Truffles, the traditional handmade Piemontese pasta that is the best loved accompaniment for these treasured tubers.
But my favorite way to enjoy them—which also happens to be the most simple—is grated over fried eggs.
But in Italy, they seem to have a dizzying number of names for places that, ostensibly, all seem like sit down restaurants: trattoria, ristorante, osteria, enoteca, and the list goes on.
When you're out in Italy, how do you know what you're getting? There are basically five grades of sit-down restaurant, two types of wine bars, and two main types of take-out place.
- Ristorante - This is the top grade of Italian dining establishments, with conscientious service, fine dining plating and dishes, and often a well-known chef.
- Trattoria - Trattorias are wonderful casual places to eat, whether for a pre-set lunch menu or a dinner out. They focus on typical Italian fare, without the fusion flare you may see in ristorantes.
- Osteria - Osterias are much like trattorias, but a bit more casual with a focus on regional specialties.
- Tavola Calda - In a tavola calda, there is typically no table service. You choose your food from a cafeteria style serving set up. These are primarily in Florence.
- Pizzeria - In Italy, pizzarias are sit-down restaurants that predominantly serve pizza with wine, a variety of salads, and a few pasta selections.
- Enoteca - For a more formal wine tasting experience in line with American wine bars, head to an enoteca. Today, many are high-design and high-tech, though the food options are typically limited.
- Taverna - Tavernas are more old-fashioned, like an Italian version of a British pub, with wine instead of beer. Food is very traditional, simple fare.
- Pizza a taglio - For a slice of pizza on the run, look for a pizza a taglio (literally: by the slice). There may be limited seating, but squares of pizza, calzones, and occasionally some desserts are packaged up to take away.
- Rosticceria - Unlike pizza a taglio places, which expect people to be eating their food on the go, rosticcerias typically serve hot food, primarily meat and roast vegetable dishes, to take and eat at home. If you're looking for an entire chicken, this is the place.
This month, I headed to the Veneto, the region surrounding Venice, for the Buy Venice show, an excellent place to find stunning, artisanally-made Italian products.
While I have certainly found many new items for my “Things I Love” column in the newsletter, especially these Le Furlane hand-made slippers sold under the Rialto, I have to tell you about something even better than a new pair of earrings or gourmet food to tuck in your luggage:
Fall in Italy is when food gets serious.
Both in terms of work load—it’s wine harvest time!—and in terms of flavors.
The richest produce that comes out of Italy, from olive oil to truffles to figs to the deep purple grapes that flavor schiacciata, makes its appearance in the fall.
So it’s little surprise that some of the most important food festivals on the Italian calendar fall at the same time.