How one man started a 'truffle war' between Dubai's best restaurants
Truffles are a delicacy that have come to grace the finest of menus and at the most premium of prices. The most sought-after species is the white truffle, a seasonal fungus, found typically only between September and December each year. As the white truffle season kicks off in Italy, Dubai’s Italian restaurants play testament to this each year, with celebratory seasonal menus, master classes and more taking place at the likes of Armani/Ristorante and the newly launched Alta Badia.
Here, in the past two years, one man, a native Italian with 25 years’ experience trading in truffles, has dubbed himself the ‘truffle man’.
The gentleman in question, Massimo Vidoni, has made a name for himself on the restaurant scene, selling fresh truffles directly to restaurants, as well as truffle products (oils, salts, and even a variety of acacia honey with black truffle pieces and 23 carat gold flakes) from his company Italtouch. You may remember Massimo hit the pages of Time Out Dubai during last year’s white truffle season. His trading activities sparked something of a truffle war between prominent restaurants Zuma and BiCE Mare, who bought a whopping 349g and 503g worth of whole white truffles respectively. ‘This war really started, because Zuma was the first to buy, but then all the Italian restaurants started to say: “Massimo why didn’t you sell it to us,”’ he jokes.
This year, Massimo says, the tone of the truffle war has become less about obtaining the biggest and most expensive white truffles and more about the quantity of summer truffles being used on the menus. Newcomers to the scene like Cucina Mia in JBR are using as much as 3kg of fresh truffles a week he tells us, competing with the likes of heavy weights La Petite Maison, Roberto’s and BiCE Mare.
But for the man who sources truffles for the likes of three-Michelin star America chef Thomas Keller, Massimo’s trading in Dubai started out humbly and with entrepreneurial spirit. Massimo’s first useful contact with Zuma, he tells us, was made simply when he visited the bar for a drink. Business was conducted originally by walking into restaurants armed with small weighing scales purchased in Dragon Mart. ‘I was pulling truffles out of a bag and saying – do you want this? Zuma paid me cash on the first night.’
He continues: ‘Black truffles you find everywhere, also even in Spain and France, but white truffles are the king. They are only found between September and December, in two or three areas of Italy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Lombardy, and also in a small region of Slovenia [bordering on Italian Trieste].’ The less expensive summer truffles, he explains, have a mushroom flavour, and are black on the outside, but white inside: ‘When fresh, they are really white inside, paper white.’ The black winter truffles, in contrast are entirely black (inside and out), with a more nutty, almost chocolatey flavour. There is also, Massimo reveals, a cheaper imitation, which has been the subject of previous restaurant scandals in the US; Chinese black winter truffles and while the flavour cannot compete with the European ingredient, ‘with the eyes, it is almost impossible to tell the difference’, he adds.
Massimo’s life in truffles began in New York, where he was studying sales and marketing in the early 1990s, while working as a bus boy in an Italian restaurant. ‘Back then, all the Italians in restaurants, were Italian-Americans, you know, with no neck, like you see on The Sopranos.’ But there was, he adds, a distinction beginning to be made between North and Southern Italian cooking in restaurants, although still not much of a fine dining Italian scene. ‘If you wanted to take your girlfriend for dinner, you’d take her to a French restaurant, or a trattoria.’
Massimo returned to Italy during one Christmas holiday, and in this time, picked up 1kg of white truffles (‘it was cheaper, because it was the end of the white truffle season’) as a present for his boss. ‘At the time there was only one person getting it for everyone in New York.’ The restaurant began entrusting Massimo to source truffles from Italy and in time, he was selling to restaurants throughout New York. The chefs were primarily Italian and Massimo was able to build strong relationships with them. Massimo’s own business later grew to include restaurants across America, in Chicago, Las Vegas, as well as further afield in Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. Moves that took Massimo towards the Dubai market included an increase in the customs levy placed on truffles imported into the US, at 100 percent of the truffles’ worth, although he does still work with the US market.
‘People go crazy for it in America – I buy a kilo of truffles, it costs me $1,000, and they pay me $3,000,’ he says, joking that even sought-after illegal items do not get that kind of return. Like Dubai’s own truffle war, Massimo has seen a similar frenzy in New York. Back in 1992, Massimo sold a huge white truffle to New Jersey seafood restaurant Oceana. Like Dubai, it lead to an increased interest from Italian restaurants, who wondered why they hadn’t secured this prize, which in turn propelled Massimo’s truffle prowess into the media spotlight, with CNN reporting on this bizarre-smelling and ugly-looking yet expensive item arriving in New Jersey. ‘They hadn’t even unwrapped it at the airport, and already the guy at the back is holding his nose – it may be a delicacy, but the aroma is anything but delicate,’ the CNN reporter stated.
‘White truffles have always been something exclusive because they are only in season for a few months of the year, and you can’t cultivate them. There are certain trees that retain more truffle spores. Truffle hunters that are supposedly taking you with them to hunt for the truffles, will never take you where there are truffles, but they’ll have you looking and for hours in the cold,’ he adds.
Hunting for truffles, Massimo explains, is a family trade that is passed through generations and their location is a closely guarded secret. ‘They have maps from their fathers and so on – saying this is the place to go to hunt.’ And the act of buying from the hunters he reveals, is not quite in keeping with the glamour of this highly priced ingredient: ‘You have to go around with €40, 000 in your pocket at 3 o’clock in the morning and meet people under bridges and so on. If the truffles are broken, they’re worth less, so they might get a tooth pick and glue and cover it in some dirt to hide that.’ It may sound more like dealings with the underworld, than the makings of a Michelin-star menu, but then highly prized items always inspire passion. www.italtouch.com.
Seasonal truffle specials
Alta Badia The newly launched Italian eatery (previously Vu’s), celebrates ‘il tartufo bianco d’Alba’, aka Alba’s white truffle. Taking place only during the month of November, the kitchen will prepare a selection of recipes using this delicacy, all charged at market prices for fresh white truffles each day. Prices vary. Sun-Fri noon-3pm, 6pm-midnight. Until November 1-30. Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 319 8771).
Armani/Ristorante During a season of truffle-inspired events at Time Out Dubai’s best Italian restaurant of 2013, sample a seven-course degustation menu, featuring both white and black truffles. Uniquely, guests can opt for one of two menus, one classically prepared, or a second with more innovative Italian recipes. There is even a passion fruit sorbet with black truffle meringue on the dessert menu. Also on the schedule is a truffle master class taking place at Armani/Ristorante on Friday November 8. Dhs800 per person (seven courses). Dhs1,450 per person (grape pairing). Daily 7pm-11.30pm. Until November 30. Armani Hotel Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Downtown Dubai (04 888 3444).
Teatro This longstanding Italian institution introduces a temporary menu highlight, dubbed ‘truffle rhapsody at Teatro’. The promotion offers an à la carte selection of dishes, all of which will focus on black truffles. Prices vary. Daily 6pm-11.30pm. November 13-22. Towers Rotana Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 312 2202).
Ronda Locatelli Each year, in honour of the white truffle season, this celebrity chef-backed Italian restaurant launches a seasonal menu, which is dedicated to the king of truffles. The à la carte menu selection ranges from tagliolini (made in- house) to zabaglione for dessert, and all will feature white truffles. Just launched, the promotion runs until the end of the truffle season, which is typically the end of December. Prices vary. Daily noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm. Until (approximately) December 31. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).