White truffle season is kicking into action as slices of the sought-after tuber start raining down on plates of pasta and risotto around the world.

This year, however, the steady flow of truffles to the U.S. is threatened like everything from oatmeal to scallops. Prices are skyrocketing in 2021, making the luxury product too expensive, even for restaurants that are used to pricey ingredients.

“Right now, white truffle prices are around $4,500 a pound,” says Vittorio Giordano, vice president of Urbani Truffles USA, who’s sourcing his white truffles mostly from Italy. “In 2019 they were $1,100 to $1,200 a pound.”

“They’re hovering around $4,000 a pound,” says John Magazino, director of national accounts at Chefs Warehouse Inc. “And that’s for restaurants. Retail, it’s going to be higher.”

At Regalis Foods, another online luxury-goods purveyor, the price for premium truffles is even loftier this fall: $4,950 a pound for “extra class” white truffles, the larger, more perfectly formed specimens. “This year is the highest starting price in my memory,” says Harris Brenner, imports and purchasing director. “When supply is dwindling, the price might skyrocket closer to the holidays but typically not now.” The 2021 tubers are, he says, “double the price of 2019.”

For truffles the problem isn’t so much the ubiquitous broken supply chain as it’s climate issues, coupled with urbanization. Hot summers with little rain, like the one Northern Italy just experienced, can significantly cut yields. Likewise, as the production of local wines such as Barolo has increased, the vineyards have encroached on land that traditionally was truffle habitat.

Advertising

“There’s a good chance there might not be white truffles in our lifetime,” Magazino says. “In my daughters’ lifetime, I’m pretty sure they’ll be extinct.”

Besides inhibiting truffle yields, a lack of rain is bad for the fungi’s funky, earthy scent. “The quality isn’t good in terms of aroma, which is not very strong, and the shape isn’t good,” Giordano says.

Magazino is counseling his restaurant customers to hold off on purchasing the tubers in hopes that the price will come down in November. “Private clients are buying them, but they don’t have to turn around and sell them to someone else,” says Magazino, who sold approximately $10 million worth of fresh truffles and truffle products in 2019. “Is a plate of risotto going to go to $250? A lot of chefs say, ‘I can’t go into triple digits.'”

But the price isn’t deterring most New York City chefs, who are confident they can charge $100-plus for a dish with the word “truffle” attached. Giordano says all his clients are all now buying, despite the cost. Jonathan Benno, chef and owner of Benno restaurant, anticipates an audience for his white truffle-strewn risotto and stuffed quadrotti pasta with robiolina fonduta. He’ll serve each with 3 grams of shaved truffles, for which he’ll charge $100, a higher price than in years past. At 15 East @ Tocqueville, Marco Moreira sees an even higher ceiling. He’ll top Parmesan grits and sunny side up egg with 5 grams of white truffles for $275; he used to charge $175. “It’s a loss for us but our clients expect truffles,” he says.

Michele Casadei Massari, chef and owner at Lucciola on the Upper West Side, plans to purchase the biggest white truffle that Urbani sells. He anticipates that deep-pocketed customers will pack the dining room because they won’t find them elsewhere in New York this year.

In the past, Massari says he paid $2,000 a pound for white truffles but this year is open to buying them for up to $5,000 a pound.

The restaurateur has figured out one way to attract a broader audience, though: This year he’ll accept cryptocurrency as payment for dinners featuring truffles.