Here’s what most fine-dining denizens know about truffles: One, they are delicious. Two, they are expensive. Three, they come from Italy or France. That last detail, though? It’s simply not true.
It turns out there is an American truffle that’s been right under our noses all along, growing in the high altitudes of the Appalachian Mountains and now being shaved atop rich, buttery dishes at Centrolina, chef-owner Amy Brandwein’s well-regarded Italian dining room in downtown D.C.
She began using the truffles for the first time this October when local forager Jeffery Long brought them to her. She’s so smitten with them she’s ready to drop this bomb on the truffle world.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think they’re better than the white truffle and the black truffle,” she says. “And I’m saying that because I mean it.”
Brandwein describes them as the perfect cross between the delicate white truffle and the more robust black truffle.
“It’s just a crazy, crazy, crazy intoxicating smell,” she says. “They start off white and as they age they get darker, so they end up sort of like a black truffle — but the outside is like velvet brown. When you shave it, it tastes kind of like chocolate. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
Long confirms Brandwein is currently his only customer for what he calls the “Lagotto truffle,” named for the Italian dog breed Lagotto Romagnolo known for hunting the precious fungi. Long, who is very plugged into the truffle-hunting scene after 11 years of foraging the great Eastern white truffle (a.k.a. the Lagotto truffle), the yellow-furrowed truffle and the Appalachian truffle, says his Lagotto pup Este is one of maybe two truffle-hunting dogs on the East Coast.
Pedigree might matter with truffle-hunting canines who are able to root out the mature truffles that pack more flavor, but Brandwein says pedigree is less of a factor for diners who simply want the freshest, best-tasting truffle experience. But the less expensive American truffles, which have longer shelf lives and arrive a day or two after coming out of the ground, can be a tough sell.
“It doesn’t have the name recognition that a white or black truffle from France or Italy has,” she says, noting that those celebrated truffles spend about a week in transit to get to the States, so they only last about five days once she receives them. “[Many diners are] looking for the super high-end, luxury experience. And if it doesn’t have the price tag or the name recognition, they don’t necessarily have full confidence in what it is. That’s kind of a hurdle.”
Digging into Brandwein’s earliest memories of truffles gets her to thinking about a story that still makes her squirm — but at least she can laugh about it now.
She remembers first being introduced to the prized tubers during her time at the now-closed Galileo, Chef Roberto Donna’s famous Italian restaurant where Brandwein worked an externship for culinary school and ended up as executive chef in the mid-2000s.
“We did so many dishes with white truffle — a white truffle tasting menu, and all these things — and that’s where I really learned how to cook with a truffle,” she says.
One night, George Clooney and Paul Giamatti were in the dining room of Galileo and Donna decided Brandwein, a shy chef who avoids the spotlight and prefers to hide in her kitchen, needed to shave truffles onto George Clooney’s dinner.
“They were just all ribbing me because I was the only female chef in the kitchen and it’s George Clooney,” she says, chuckling at the memory. “It’s a whole thing, you know? The whole thing was really funny.”
Nervous, hands shaking and awkwardly leaning over him sitting at the round table, Brandwein finished shaving the truffles and was ready to make her exit when Paul Giamatti politely asked for more. Instead of making it rain with luxurious truffles, Brandwein had accidentally shorted one of the most famous people on the planet.
“I was completely mortified,” she says, adding she’s never told anyone the story before. “It was an epic fail. I’m shy by nature — especially back then — so I was very uncomfortable with the whole thing.”
Behind The Photo
Brandwein likes to experiment with what’s on hand, which sometimes results in a lightning bolt kind of moment. That’s exactly what happened when she discovered her current favorite way to use a truffle — including the American Lagotto.
“Sometimes I have extra truffles and I’m like, ‘What am I going to do with these?’ I try to be practical. It’s not always meant to create some elaborate dish.”
She continues, “I did gnocchi with braised kale, truffle butter and black truffles, and that was a showstopper. It even surprised me. I was floored because who would think kale and a black truffle would make this marriage in heaven?”
She wasn’t the only one surprised by the tasty result, which deftly complements kale’s green earthiness with the natural umami found in truffles, aged cheeses and potatoes. Indeed, it’s the kind of dish you might find yourself still pondering — and wishing for another bowl to appear a week later.
“My staff was surprised, the customers were surprised,” she recalls. “You see it on a menu and you’re like, ‘Okay, kale, okay.’ But then when you taste it, you’re taken for a loop.”
Gnocchi with Kale + Black Truffle Recipe
For the Gnocchi
2 potatoes, baked and riced (warm is best)
1/4 C 00 pasta flour (a type of finely ground Italian flour)
Sprinkle Parmigiano Reggiano
Dusting semolina flour
Working quickly and carefully, knead the dough, only incorporating as much flour as you need along the way until the dough loses stickiness and becomes more solid. Slice the dough into four parts. Roll out one part into a long rope about one inch wide, cutting in half and working with one half at a time if the rope is becoming too long. Slice the rope into 1/2-inch squares and set aside on a lightly floured surface. Repeat with the remaining dough.
If desired, place a fork on your work surface and slide each gnocchi square from the base of the fork prongs to the top so they make a decorative shape. Place on a sheet tray generously sprinkled with semolina and pasta flour. Cover with kitchen towel.
For the Kale
3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin
1.5 pounds lacinato or Tuscan kale, stems and inner ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
In a heavy bottom pot, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook over low-medium heat, stirring just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale in large handfuls, letting it wilt slightly before adding more. Add 1/4 C water or more to wilt a bit more. Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook over low heat until the kale is wilted about 5-10 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about three minutes longer. Set aside.
To Finish Your Gnocchi
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
4 T truffle butter
4 T butter
2 T Parmigiano Reggiano (or more to taste)
1 black truffle
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the gnocchi in batches, stirring gently once or twice to ensure they are not sticking. Meanwhile, warm sauté pan with olive oil and sliced garlic. When garlic is cooked but not colored, add kale, truffle butter, butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. Add a ladle or two of pasta water and simmer. When pasta floats to surface, cook another 15-30 seconds more, then remove and add to your pan. Toss gnocchi well. Plate and shave black truffles on top. In a pan over medium heat, melt butter and add the sage. Add the gnocchi and toss until lightly golden.
Craving to experience some truffle luxury for yourself? Stop by Centrolina to visit Chef Brandwein and taste the intoxicating American truffle.