By Suzanne Dunaway
he first thing to do upon arriving in Rome in the fall for a six-month stay (and after a 15-hour trip) is to drink a creamy espresso, fast.
The second thing is to head north into Umbria to buy a half-pound truffles at a truffle festival from Pierluigi Manfroni, the dashing owner of Ristorante Il Bersaglio in Cittá di Castello north of Perugia (tel. +39.075.855.5534). Il Bersaglio specializes in local porcini, white and black truffles, and cinghiale (boar), pheasant, quail and little birds that gourmets insist on eating even though they are diminishing yearly.
The handsome Pierluigi runs his establishment very much in the way that Fellini must have run his movies. We caught him mid-morning directing the final scenes for an enormous dinner to be served that evening with a menu consisting of course after course made with tartufi bianchi (white truffles) and porcini, helped along with the lovely, clear Gagliardo wines of the region. He also sleeps only three hours a night and attributes his boundless energy to truffles.
This year, though, Umbria isn't the only place to get great funghi. In Rome, an abundant harvest has seen prices for lovely ovoli (Caesar's mushrooms), porcini and truffles have dropped off by some 40 percent. Most good restaurants are offering pasta with truffles at around €40.
But why not buy your own (far cheaper) and shave them over fresh tagliatelle at home? Ruggeri in Campo de' Fiori and a few shops on nearby Via delle Croce sell good truffles. You can also skip down a notch and find beautiful porcini at almost any open market — and make a little meal.
Slice firm porcini and Parmesan and dress them only with a good olive oil and a few drops of Amalfi lemon. Ovoli are treated the same, with the addition of thin slices of celery heart.
If you prefer your funghi cooked, grill them (flattened with a weight or not, your choice) until crisp on the edges and dark golden brown on the cap. Or you can sauté thin slices in olive oil with a little garlic and parsley.
Using a method I love for chanterelles, I cut my porcini into medium dice, shake them in a bag of flour, salt, pepper and paprika and brown them in olive oil. To serve, I sprinkle with lemon juice and grated Parmesan, a sort of chicken-fried mushroom.
To make a perfect porcini sauce for pasta, slice the mushrooms very thin and sauté them in olive oil and butter with a clove of garlic, minced. When they take on color, add a jigger of Cognac to the pan, light it and let the alcohol burn off. Stir in a splash or two of heavy cream (or plain full-fat yogurt) and cook for a few minutes before tossing with fresh pasta. Dust with parsley and Parmesan and serve.
Very firm porcini and a peeled potato, diced, may be sautéed together until the potatoes are browned for an unusual side dish. And thin slices of porcini or ovoli may be dried easily in a very slow oven for future use, or simply sliced thin and frozen in an airtight bag.
Ovoli can also be "chicken-fried," but I'm sure I'll hear from the purists.
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