Truffles, Tweets, and Winter in Venice

Mario Batali's OTTO

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 at OTTO

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.

Father Christmas at The Venetian

Street Performers in St. Mark's Square at The Venetian

Christmas Light-up Ceremony at The Venetian

Performer at the Venetian

Collage of Christmas Trees at The Venetian

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.

photo6Wait 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!

Portrait of Mario Batali

OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria 
The Venetian, Grand Canal Shops (3rd floor)
3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, Nevada

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.”




  1. My husband recently bought me a bottle of truffle-infused olive oil, a restaurant recommendation. Is it the same as truffle oil? The label says “Do you know over 80% of women describe the aroma of fresh truffles and truffle oil as earthy and very sensual? Close your eyes, inhale the aroma, surround yourself with the fragrances of divine truffles.” He was disappointed; I’m in the other 20%.

    • HA! That made me laugh! The label on your bottle sounds like an excerpt from “50 Shades of Grey” (and yes, truffle-infused olive oil is the same as truffle oil).

      I have a tiny little 55 ml bottle of Urbani Tartufi Gocce di Tartufo Bianco. There’s no flowery description on the bottle, but their website says:


      I think something may have been lost in translation. :-)

  2. Shows you how dazed and confused I am – I had to read most of your piece before I discovered you weren’t in Venice. I was thinking, “Pretty ballsy of Mario to open a restaurant in Venice,” then the light bulb went off: not THAT Venice! Still sounds like fun. I like the occasional dose of truffle oil, especially in the late winter (baked potatoes!) but only in VERY small amounts. As a fragrant recollection of truffles, black or white, it can be fine, but it’s a bit like comparing fish sauce to garum–the former is a very thin, one-note imitation of the latter, even though both are “natural.” Truffle oil, with very rare exception, is oil flavored with an artificial compound that is one of the components of truffle aroma, but–and it’s a big but–truffle oil almost always contains no real truffle at all. Caveat emptor. Ken

    • Hi Ken,

      Glad to hear from you. I’ve been thinking of you and your family, hoping everyone is safe. Under the circumstances, I’m not surprised you’re a little dazed and confused.

      Fresh truffles are hard to come by where I live, and when they are available, they’re priced well outside of most folks’ grocery budget. Sometimes truffle oil is the only option. I agree with you though – a little goes a long way.

      I have an imported brand in my pantry that lists the ingredients as:

      olio di oliva
      tartufo bianco (Tuber magnatum Pico) 0.1%

      I’m assuming ‘aroma’ is the artificial compound, and 0.1% is the miniscule amount of genuine white truffle. :-)


      • Turns out you’re neither dazed nor confused. I just re-read the post and realized that I didn’t even mention that I was at The Venetian or in Las Vegas until about the half way point. I think it might have gotten deleted in one of the 87 edits this post endured. :-)

  3. I love this post! I am not a fan of truffle oil. I must be in the same 20% that Trish is in. I also had no idea that it was synthetic. Yuck. And that is too funny about the discrepancy between Mario and the server. That is the problem with Twitter. You get 1 chance, and you have to say it the right way. Too funny.

    • Thanks Laura! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Although I try, I just can’t get the hang of Twitter. I think my problem is that I would rather read (and write) full grammatical sentences; sentences that flow into paragraphs; and paragraphs that evolve into stories. I just can’t communicate effectively in a 140 characters, and I hate to resort to using LOL, LMAO, OMG or WTF. :-)

      Any thoughts on how I could have improved that tweet?

  4. Wow, that pizza looks A-mazing! I’m headed to Vegas next month and methinks that I’ll be putting that on my to-do list! Thanks so much!

    • Oh I hope you do Tricia! Be sure and stop back by and let me know if you love it as much as I did:-)

      Hope you have an awesome trip. Viva Las Vegas!

  5. That pizza looks so delicious… yummy!
    By the way, I’m a tad confused here. Are you still on WordPress and hosted by bluehost or did you move your blog to self-hosting? If you did, how come you still have the WP like button? I’m curious to hear. Thanks!

    • Hi Elizabeth – thanks for dropping by!

      I made the switch to self-hosted this time last year, moving from the platform to I use Bluehost for my web hosting and have a plug-in (Jet Pack) that’s just been updated to include the WP like button/


  6. I must have walked by Mario Batali’s establishments within the Venetian (and Palazzo I believe) more times than I can count. Never stopped yet – I guess there are so many options I am always a little weary of celebrity chefs and their restaurants in Vegas. They never seem to live up to their original restaurants or hype (although Bouchons by Thomas Keller is a delight in the Venetian)

    As for the truffle oil debate – I used it a couple times and found that when I did it would overwhelm my mouth and it would end up being all that I could taste (and I wouldn’t add a lot)
    However, when I eat a truffle dish it always ends up being the best thing I’ve ever ate so I gotta go with the truffle as opposed to the oil.


    • That’s the thing with Vegas. You’re usually only in town for a few days – how on earth are you suppose to choose? (Such exquisite torture.) I would definitely eat at OTTO again and have also eaten some really tasty food at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in City Centre. Unfortunately, I didn’t fare quite as well at Hubert Keller’s Fleur (Mandalay Bay).

      I hope to cross Bouchon off my bucket list on my next trip :-)

      Hope you’re enjoying the weekend.


  7. I actually didn’t know there was such a thing as an artificial truffle oil – I always just assumed it was an infused olive oil with truffles. I have never cooked with the stuff, by I have enjoyed truffles on my pizza once or twice (certainly not enough). Great post – now I’m hungry.

    • Thanks Troy! Glad it had that effect :-)

      I was the opposite of you – with the mistaken impression that all truffle oil is artificial, and I had never heard of truffle carpaccio! I’m grateful to Jason for enlightening me.

      Nice of you to stop by.

  8. Thanks to some inspiration from a local pizza restaurant, I now know JUST where truffle oil belongs – on a pizza under some wild mushrooms and delicious cheese. I am very serious about my lists of favorites and Top Tens and I think that a good pizza with truffle oil just may have made it onto my Top Ten Favorite Foods list.



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