I arrived at OTTO hungry, and quickly gravitated towards the towering cheese and meat-curing citadel, like a mouse to a chunk of Swiss. I grabbed a stool there, at the antipasti counter, where I could admire it at my leisure. Much to my delight, I discovered a second perk that came with my perch – an up close and personal look at the scene behind the counter where servers were hustling to assemble drool-inducing charcuterie boards and salads. Within a few short minutes of seating myself, one of them greeted me and asked,
“Do you have any questions about the menu?”
As a matter of fact, I did. “Does the truffle pizza have fresh truffles or truffle oil?”
“Both,” she affirmed.
Both? Batali’s food philosophy is to cook with the highest quality, freshest ingredients, and prepare them simply so that they shine. Truffle oil, a synthetic compound produced in a laboratory, doesn’t really fit that brand. It’s as artificial as the butter flavoured topping some movie theatres use or the frozen dessert topping that doesn’t quite pass for whipped cream.* Whether or not truffle oil belongs in the professional pantry is a polarizing topic among many chefs. It’s been called everything from the fake boobs of food to a chef’s dream.
The server and I put on our best poker faces; me, concealing my surprise over the truffle oil, and her, suppressing what I can only image was horror at my cringe-worthy pronunciation as I continued our conversation, “and what is bel paese?”
“It’s a cow’s milk cheese from Italy. It’s creamy and mild; like fontina or havarti. It’s really good.”
I put aside my misgivings about the truffle oil and said “yes please” to the pizza.
I smelled it before I saw it – musky, funky, unmistakable – and inhaled deeply when my server set it down in front of me, sensing the truffle’s penetrating perfume in every cell of my body. I closed my eyes and took a bite, relishing the perfect combination of earthy black truffle, wafer-thin potato, salty-creamy cheese, and peppery arugula, all on top of a crisp griddle-cooked crust.
I ate the whole thing.
Truffle pizza with potato, bel paese, fontina $25
After dinner, I waddled around The Venetian soaking up the streetmosphere in St. Marc’s Square and throughout the property. It was two days before Christmas and their Winter in Venice holiday extravaganza was in full swing.
A few weeks after I had returned home from my trip, I was watching The Chew when I heard something that made my jaw drop. During the last few moments of the show, Clinton Kelly asked the other hosts what restaurant food or trend they would like to see go away.
Mario practically spit out his answer, “Truffle oil!”
What? Did Mario know what was going on in Nevada, or was this another case of what happens in Vegas staying in Vegas? I decided to ask him, and since he actually engages with his Twitter followers, (unlike many celebrities who rely on summer interns or robots) I was fairly confident he’d reply.
Wait a minute. He answered the question, but I wasn’t any closer to knowing what I wanted to know – because I asked the wrong question! All I’d manage to do was set the scene for a classic he said/she said stand-off. If I were half as clever as I sometimes like to think I am, I would have figured out a better way to phrase that Tweet (while still staying inside the message box limit of 140 characters.)
Although it’s as tempting to me as a bowl of pistachio gelato, I’ll refrain from speculating about why Mario and the server at OTTO gave different answers to what was essentially the same question. I’m sure I’ll never know. I can, however, say with absolute certainty that my pizza was topped with black truffle. I saw it with my own eyes. Whether there was also truffle oil on it is more difficult for me to say. I would have had to rely entirely on my taste buds to make that call, and I don’t exactly have Karine Bakhoum’s million dollar palate. But here’s the thing: the truffle pizza at Mario Batali’s OTTO was the best pizza I ever ate – with or without truffle oil – and in the end, that’s all that really matters.
What do you think of truffle oil? Love it or loathe it?
*And just for the record – I love movie theatre popcorn and Cool Whip!
OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria The Venetian, Grand Canal Shops (3rd floor) 3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South Las Vegas, Nevada 702.677.3390
UPDATE – April 21, 2013
My culinary education continues. Since publishing this post, I’ve learned that, when it comes to truffle products, there are more than just two choices. Jason Neve, the Culinary Director of Mario Batali’s restaurants in Las Vegas, contacted me last night to explain:
“Unfortunately I believe there was some confusion on our servers part when they led you to believe we use truffle oil. What we use is a Truffle Carpaccio that is packed in extra virgin olive oil; this is a product of sliced Italian black truffles that are preserved in olive oil. For the pizza we first top it with the slices of truffle and then finish it with a drizzle of the olive oil that the truffles are packed in. This oil has taken on some of the truffle flavor and spreads that flavor across the entirety of the pizza. However, it is by no means is [sic] the infamous/dreaded “Truffle Oil” that you hear so many gourmands debate at length over, and which has no comparison to actual truffle products. Hopefully you can understand how this did not get fully explained when you dined with us.”