Il Dolce Tartufo – A Gelato
Revelation in Southern Italy
I was nearing the end of a multi-course meal at a family-owned restaurant in the mountains of Calabria, dizzy from the effects of risotto with fresh porcini mushrooms, hand-cut pasta, and homemade red wine. Unwilling to bring the feast to a close, I ordered the locally famous tartufo di Pizzo, doubting that the gelato dessert could surpass the intense flavors of the earlier courses.
As I took my first bite of the tartufo, I held the flavors of cocoa powder, dark chocolate gelato, and hazelnut on my tongue. I was stunned into an ecstatic silence. The dessert instantly became the most memorable part of that meal.
Tartufo di Pizzo
The tartufo di Pizzo was born in the spring of 1943, when Prince Umberto of Savoia (now part of Italy’s Piedmont region) came to Pizzo to conduct a military inspection. The Pizzitani honored him with a feast showcasing the foods of Calabria – artichokes, sun-ripened tomatoes, eggplant, fresh tuna, olives. The Prince was suitably impressed with the bounty of this region on the shoelaces of the Italian boot.
But the local gelato masters had something special in store. They knew that the Prince’s home region of Piedmont , in the northwest of Italy , was famous for the white truffles that flourish in the misty valleys of the Po River. They also knew that the Piedmontese loved chocolate. In an ingenious effort to link the culinary traditions of north and south, the Calabrese invented a gelato-based version of the truffle: a combination of chocolate and hazelnut ice creams surrounding a heart of liqueur-infused fudge sauce and dusted with cocoa.
The gelato masters worked for weeks to perfect the recipe for the new dessert, bringing ice from the slopes of Mt. Etna to preserve the tartufi once they had mastered the technique. When the Prince tasted the Calabrian version of his native truffle, he pronounced it the “king of all gelatos.”
From that day forward, Pizzitani have been making their famous tartufi for fortunate locals and for pleasantly surprised tourists like me. Practically every gelato bar in Pizzo’s Piazza della Republica advertises the dessert for which the town is known throughout Italy . But there are only 3 gelaterias in Pizzo that produce tartufi in the artisanal tradition: Bar Gelateria Ercole, Bar Belvedere, and Bar degli Amici. Based on an informal survey of Pizzitani, Bar Ercole is the best of the three.
After sampling seven different renditions of the dessert, I concluded that the locals are right. The experts at Bar Ercole make the best tartufi in town: the gelato is rich and flavorful, the chocolate and hazelnut are perfectly balanced, and the small amount of cocoa powder and sugar on the outside enables the gelato to take center stage.
The recipe for tartufodi Pizzo is such a secret that Gaetano Di Iorgi, Bar Ercole’s owner, refuses to hire assistants outside his family for fear that they will steal his methods or find a simpler way to produce tartufi. In fact, his son Franco is the only person allowed in the ‘laboratory’ when Gaetano prepares gelato.
Over the course of thirty years, Gaetano has hand-made nearly forty thousand tartufi. His back slightly bent from the painstaking process of crafting the desserts one at a time, Gaetano proudly presents each tartufo as if it’s destined for the Prince of Savoia.
So I was flabbergasted the day that he pulled me into the back of Bar Ercole and gave me a step by step demonstration of tartufo making. After coaxing mounds of dark chocolate gelato from an Extragel 42-60 machine, Gaetano tore off a square of wax paper, scooped a handful of the chocolate ice cream, and spread an equal portion of hazelnut gelato over the chocolate. He dropped a generous spoonful fudge sauce in the center of the gelato. Carefully shaping the ice cream around the fudge center, he formed a fist-sized ball, and I saw how the tartufo acquired its irregular shape.
Gaetano peeled the wax paper off the ice cream, dropped the tartufo in a bowl of cocoa powder and sugar, and batted it about until it was completely coated with the mixture. If you squinted, you might think it was a truffle that had just emerged from the damp dirt of Piedmont.
Gaetano handed me the tartufo. Having witnessed the skill and care that went into its creation, I accepted it with a smile of appreciation. Despite all the tartufi I had eaten in previous weeks, the dessert still surprised me with the purity of its flavors. I understood why it inspired so much devotion that locals refuse to eat gelato outside of Pizzo.
In my chocolate-induced euphoria, I told Gaetano and Franco I wanted to open a gelateria in San Francisco . “Don’t make tartufi,” Gaetano warned, “It is too difficult and too expensive.” I asked him why they continued the tradition. “Because we could no longer walk the streets of Pizzo if we stopped!”
Bar Gelateria Ercole
Bar Gelateria Belvedere Piazza della Repubblica
Bar Gelateria degli Amici Via Nazionale
ITALIAN LANGUAGE SCHOOL :
RESTAURANTS: Il Porticato Piazza della Repubblica,
Charter flights to La Mezia Terme airport (16 km from town)
Trains stop at Vibo Valentia-Pizzo station
See listings for budget hotels in Naples.
Layne Mosler is a freelance food and travel writer currently living in Buenos Aires.
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