"Going once. Going twice. Third and final call," boomed esteemed Philadelphia auctioneer Samuel T. Freeman III, presiding over a most unusual auction at the Union League on Sunday.
The occasion was the XVII World Alba White Truffle Charity Auction, being held in Philadelphia for the first time and taking place simultaneously with a sister truffle auction in Piedmont, Italy.
Proceeds from the truffles sold in Philadelphia were going to the National Italian American Foundation, for education and cultural programs, and to help victims of the earthquake that shook central Italy over the summer.
Longo was sharing his booty with Giuseppe Sena, owner of La Famiglia restaurant, and specialty food supplier Oreste D'Elia. After securing their treasure, the two restaurateurs immediately went into planning mode on how to use this very perishable ingredient by the end of the week. The chefs at Gran Caffe L'Aquila were on standby, ready to shift their focus from a tasting menu featuring dishes from Parma to dishes from Italy's Piedmont region, which is where the precious fungi had been ferreted out of the ground by truffle-hunting dogs the day before the auction.
The first five lots of truffles, accompanied by magnums or jeroboams of Barolo and Barbaresco wine, were flown to Philadelphia from Italy the night before. Before each lot was bid on, Union League event manager Michelle Christensen, dressed in a black leather bustier, emerald-green floor-length skirt, and a jeweled necklace, walked past each table of well-heeled Philadelphians, carrying the tan, lumpy truffles on a silver platter.
"It's a little different than my normal job, where I wear a suit," Christensen said.
November is the height of truffle season, and if it seems like truffles are in abundance in the Philadelphia region this week, you are not imagining things. Among the winning bidders at Sunday's auction were the merchandising manager of DiBruno Bros., a pair of doctors who planned to turn their truffle over to Union League chef Martin Hamann to prepare a private dinner, and the father of Rob Buono Jr., executive chef at the Greenview Inn at the Eastlyn Golf Course in Vineland.
Watkins was planning a public dinner for up to 40 guests with dishes featuring the white truffle, to be held either above DiBruno's Center City store or under a tent in the outdoor plaza near its South Philadelphia location. Though he didn't bid on any of the auctioned truffles, Frank Olivieri of Pat's King of Steaks managed to pick up some truffles that were left over from the auction luncheon. At lunchtime Thursday, he plans to sell what he's touting as the world's first Alba white-truffle cheesesteaks for $20 a pop at his Passyunk Avenue steak shop.
Private citizens got in on the action, as well, including Philip Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, who bid $6,000 to win a truffle weighing close to three-quarters of a pound, which he said he planned to share with "my many special friends."
The winner of the final lot was Dong Zhenxiang, chairman and general manager of the Beijing Da Dong duck restaurants in China and one of the world's most decorated masters of Chinese cuisine. He paid 105,000 euros, nearly $113,000, for the supersize white truffle, and when asked what he planned to do with his treasure, the chef, who has cooked for prime ministers of Spain, Japan, and South Korea, said he was "going to eat them."
In Philadelphia, Gran Caffé L'Aquila has updated this week's tasting menu to include bagna cauda, an appetizer of roasted vegetables, pork-and-veal-stuffed agnoletti, and beef braised in Barolo wine, which, for a $25 surcharge, will come topped with a shaving of white truffles.
At the Union League, chef Hamann was busy concocting a six-course dinner for 14. The menu includes a lobster-and-cauliflower panna cotta, roasted pheasant soup, Texas antelope, and roasted Pennsylvania squab, all incorporating the truffles.
"Rather than just adding them at the end, I want to really infuse the truffles into the actual cooking," Hamann said. "I want to be as creative as possible."