Joe Pytka, a 64-year-old director of television commercials, paid $35,000 Sunday for a mushroom.
Well, OK, it wasn't the kind of mushroom you'd buy in your local supermarket. It was an enormous, 2.2-pound white truffle, the rare and exotically perfumed tuber magnatum Pico hunted by specially trained dogs in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy and prized by gourmets throughout the world. And Pytka is not just a maker of TV commercials -- albeit a hugely successful one. He is also the owner of the newly opened French restaurant Bastide in West Hollywood, where the truffle will be used in a variety of dishes made by chef Alain Giraud.
Pytka made his purchase -- at by far the highest price ever paid for a single truffle -- during the fourth annual charity truffle auction known as Asta Mondial del Tartufo Bianco d'Alba. He did so in a lively bidding war with Tony May, the owner of San Domenico restaurant in New York and -- a dog named Gunther IV, heir to a large German fortune, whose bids were made by his owner, Maurizio Dial, just as Pytka's bids were made by his 12-year-old daughter Arielle (with Pytka prompting her from a seat alongside).
This year, for the first time, the truffle auction was held simultaneously in three places, linked by closed-circuit satellite television. Pytka bid at Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica, where 75 other truffle aficionados were gathered, bidding paddles in hand and wallets open for the recipients of all local proceeds -- the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation at UCLA and the families of the victims of the recent earthquake that killed 26 schoolchildren in San Giuliano di Puglia, about 140 miles southeast of Rome.
May bid from his restaurant in New York, where a boisterous crowd of 120 joined the action, and Gunther was at the castle of Grinzane Cavour, just outside Alba, the home of the white truffle. A standing-room-only crowd of 250 inside the castle was joined by 100 other human truffle-lovers gathered outside to follow the bidding.
In all, 30 truffles were auctioned off -- 10 in each location. The biggest truffle -- the one Pytka bought -- was in Alba. Its appearance on the TV screen brought loud gasps of appreciation from the crowd at Valentino. Most truffles weigh just a few ounces -- the average of the 30 auctioned Sunday was about 9 ounces -- and Daniele Bera of Funghi & Tartufi, a truffle store in Alba, said Pytka's truffle was the biggest he had seen in 17 years in the business.
The truffle will be shipped to Pytka and should arrive Tuesday.
Los Angeles bidders dominated the proceedings, buying 15 of the 30 and paying $68,000 of the $126,000 total that was raised.
The total far exceeded the $50,000 raised last year, and Pytka's purchase nearly doubled the then record-setting $19,000 that Wolfgang Puck of Spago paid last year for a 1.82-pound truffle.
Bidding between New York and Los Angeles was spirited, driven in part by the repeated proclamations by Robin Leach, of television's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," that New York is "the greatest city in the world."
Pytka said that, once Leach made the event a New York-versus-Los Angeles rivalry, he was "prepared to spend whatever it took" to make sure New York didn't win.
Pytka said he also wanted the truffle to "challenge and inspire my chef" and to make a statement as a new restaurateur.