Checking on Oliveto white truffles. Photo: Oliveto
Weighing white truffles at Oliveto in Oakland. Photo: Oliveto

Traispsing around the woods in Piedmont, Italy with local friends, while their dogs sniff out white truffles burrowed underground, is an ideal autumn pursuit for Peter Chastain.

Chastain, the executive chef at Walnut Creek’s Prima Ristorante is an aficionado of all kinds fungi — especially truffles. “They carry mystery, living underground. There are more members of the fungi family than members of the animal or bacteria kingdom. I can’t wait to open the lid of their box for their intoxicating aroma,” he said.

Chastain’s truffle purveyor in Alba, the epicenter of the specialty, believes the quality of white truffles this year should be high due to September rains. “We call our source ‘Deep Truffle,’” said John Rittmaster, Chastain’s partner and wine director at Prima. “His truffles, plucked from the ground about 36 hours before, will arrive just before our dinner on Nov. 17.” Alongside the truffles, Rittmaster will serve a rare set of Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

White truffles on display before dinner at Prima Ristorante. Photo: Deborah Grossman

Prima opened in 1977 as Walnut Creek Wine & Cheese. But after being inspired from a trip to Piedmont in the 1980s, the original owners, Michael and Janet Verlander, decided to bring a Piedmontese dining experience to Walnut Creek. The deli and wine shop transformed over time to Prima Café, then Prima Trattoria e Negozio di Vini, and, finally, Prima Ristorante.

Rittmaster joined Prima as wine director in 1994 after 15 years in Japan; there he worked as the director of Robert Mondavi/Opus One Pacific Rim sales, among other jobs. Berkeley-born Chastain joined Prima a few years later, in 1999, after stints at Mazzini Trattoria, as well as restaurants in Europe and Tokyo. Chastain and Rittmaster purchased the restaurant from the Verlanders in 2005 and expanded Prima Vini, the wine shop adjacent to the restaurant.

Without advertising, beyond a small listing in Diablo Magazine, Prima has built a solid reputation for Northern Italian cuisine with an emphasis on wine. The restaurant presents a cycle of winemaker dinners every year ranging from zinfandel to Provençal wines. Rittmaster also schedules what he calls “Crumbs of Opportunities,” ad hoc dinners given when visiting Italian winemakers come to town.

Prima Chef Peter Chastain cuts the roasted pork. Photo: Deborah Grossman
Chef Peter Chastain cuts roasted pork to be served with truffles. Photo: Deborah Grossman

“We enjoy all our wine events, but the truffle dinners are the highlight of the year,” said Chastain. At the dinners, the partners offer a set menu with an extra charge for truffles. This year, Prima’s annual ‘Evening in Piemonte’ dinner takes place on Thursday Nov. 17. After a reception of antipasti and sparkling wine, Chastain will present beet carpaccio with bagna cauda dressing. Next, a pasta course will feature agnolotti — small, Piemontese ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms, accompanied by a fonduta with Raschera cheese from the area.

The secondi (or meat course) will showcase pancetta-wrapped roast quail filled with chestnuts and sausage, served with sformatino (flan) of polenta and rapini. Chastain expects to source his porcini at Monterey Market or Berkeley Bowl, where he shops regularly for both Prima and his Oakland home kitchen.

The partners look forward to the cheese course designed by sous chef Massimo Orlando, a native of Italy, featuring three Piemontese cheeses: panna cotta made from Castelmagno, spuma di Robiola and frico di Toma Piemontese.

For the wine pairings, Rittmaster has turned to Oakland-based APS Wine & Spirits to source artisanal, hard-to-find wines. At previous dinners, he has either presented vertical tastings of many vintages from a highly regarded producer or has highlighted one area of Piedmont with several wineries. This year, Rittmaster’s theme is a vinous version of Top Chef — a competition of sorts to highlight two villages in the Barolo region: La Morra and Monforte. From the first will be wines from Gianfranco Bovio, which owns part of the famous Gattera vineyard with its iconic Lebanese cedar tree. From the latter will be wines from Renzo Seghesio. Both small producers age their Barolo in traditional, large botti barrels. Though the vintners will not be present, Rittmaster knows them personally and will share their winemaking stories as he pours their wines.

Oliveto tajarin with white truffles. Photo: Oliveto
Tajarin with white truffles at Oliveto. Photo: Oliveto

Prima is not the only East Bay restaurant celebrating the white truffle. Oakland’s Oliveto also has reveled in truffle dinners for 20 years. Its equally passionate fascination with truffles manifests a unique approach to the 30-year-old restaurant’s multi-evening dinners.

“In the beginning white truffles were a mystery to our customers,” said owner Bob Klein. “Only fancy chefs wearing tall, white toques seemed to know what they were. The majority of white truffles were ‘crapola.’”

“But early on I went truffle hunting with a forager in Piedmont,” he added. “Afterwards we went to his ancient stone house. He mortared the truffles with fresh extra-virgin olive oil, grilled a steak and slathered them on. Simply truffles, mortared and slathered.”

Bringing that idea back home to Oakland, Klein said: “We wanted to de-mystify and ‘de-expensi-fy’ them. White truffles aren’t a commodity or smart economic venture. Like good aged balsamic vinegar, they are rare and under appreciated.”

For many years Klein hunted truffles with a forager who named his puppy “Bob” after him. The dog’s daughter Jenny became a famed truffle hunter, digging up a huge, 602-gram specimen. Rather than selling it to a Hong Kong restaurateur for $40,000, the forager offered Klein a lower price, and he trooped home with the trophy truffle.

More recently, Klein has relied on his broker to acquire truffles. He hasn’t traveled to Italy recently because of the growth of his Community Grains business, which supports local, sustainable farmers of high quality, whole grain and whole milled products. The company is expanding production and distribution of the grains and now breads, too.

Klein air freights truffles from Monti, 15 km outside Sienna, in Chianti. “The idea that the best truffles come from Piedmont is crazy,” he said. “I like them from Tuscany and pricing is usually better.”

Jonah Rhodehamel, who joined Oliveto as executive chef five years ago, plans the menu for the annual dinners, which usually run for about a week. “The truffle dinner menu is easy to write,” he said. “We prepare traditional Piemontese food eaten with white truffles. The rest is mushrooms — whichever are fresh — and other ingredients with lots of cheese and butter. You need rich food to stand up to the sensory power of the truffles.”

Something new for this year’s dinner will be dehydrated duck yolks. Rhodehamel explained that he will salt-cure them and store them with the truffles so that the yolks will pick up their scent. “We’ll grate them over the carne crudo, pasta or an entrée if guests request them for extra-truffley flavor,” he said.

The dinners are marketed for four nights starting Nov. 15. Oliveto is also hosting a special truffle-focused Saturday dinner, and truffles are usually available for shaving on various dishes on Sunday as well. The menu is à la carte, with many truffled options per course and truffles are priced per gram shaved on each dish.

To accommodate the demand during the two dinner seatings each night, Rhodehamel buys about six kilograms of truffles, of which five kilograms will be average, golf-ball sized truffles and one kilogram will be larger specimens. “Some tables buy a larger truffle and have them shared and shaved throughout the dinner,” he said.

Oliveto dining room. Photo: Olivetto
The dining room at Oliveto. Photo: Oliveto

With over ten years’ experience working with white truffles at La Folie and Quince in San Francisco, as well as Oliveto, Rhodehamel offers the following recommendation: “To maximize your truffle experience, go for one dish heavily truffled, say three to five grams, rather than spread it out. Many of the dishes also have some black Burgundian truffles. But it’s difficult to resist when the whole room smells deliciously of truffles.”

Rhodehamel’s favorite dish is tajarin al burro, a gold-tinged egg pasta served in a butter sauce. The chef preps a large sheet tray of the pasta every night from five simple ingredients: close to two dozen eggs per pound of Italian double 00 flour, a small amount of water, butter and salt.

Another personal and customer favorite, said Rhodehamel, is crostino fonduta. It is essentially a large iron pot of melted Piedmontese Val d’Aosta cheese, served with crostini. “The ingredients and preparation of this dish are basic — certainly nothing to showcase the talent of the chef — but are so satisfying,” said Rhodehamel.

Klein’s preference is for Magruder beef from Ukiah, served as a well-aged grilled rib eye, “smushed” with white truffle and topped with new harvest olive oil. This year Rhodehamel will offer the rib eye as a dish for two people with wild mushrooms, roasted garlic crèma, sugo, and an optional slathering of mortared white truffle.

Klein recommends wine pairings focused on the extensive list of Barolo and Barbaresco.

Prima truffle hunter in the Alba area. Photo: Anne Rittmaster
Prima Ristorante’s truffle hunter in the Alba area of Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Anne Rittmaster
Prima Ristorante’s truffle hunter in the Alba area of Piedmont, Italy. Photo: Anne Rittmaster

Back in Walnut Creek, Chastain said that he is looking forward to the morning after the truffle dinner. “We always buy more [truffles] than we need,” he said. “For staff meals the next day I often make scrambled eggs or risotto bianco with fresh Parmigiano — all topped with shaved truffles — so delicious for us to share.”

Once he is truffle-sated, Chastain will prepare for the restaurant’s “Talking Turkey” wine tasting and antipasti event on Nov. 22 and, the following month, Champagne tastings with antipasti on Dec. 3 and 4. Meanwhile, Rittmaster will eagerly await decanting more Barolo in the wine cellar where the truffles are stored, immersed in the wonderful scents and memories of Piedmont.

Prima Ristorante is at 1522 N. Main St. (at Lincoln Avenue), Walnut Creek. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Twitter.

Oliveto Restaurant and Café is at 5655 College Ave. (at Shafter Avenue), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Deborah Grossman is a San Francisco Bay Area food, drink and travel journalist who writes about people and places with a special emphasis on life at the table. Deborah finds the behind the scenes stories...