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Millionaires! Showgirls! Truffles!

Times Staff Writer

It was surreal, even here, where the unlikely confluence of neon and sand has created a booming, crap-shooting, celebrity-hunting desert fantasyland.

We were in the Las Vegas version of Valentino restaurant on a sunny Sunday morning, fresh from a gondola ride outside the Venetian hotel, and now we were linked by closed-circuit satellite television to New York and Alba, Italy, for the fifth annual white truffle charity auction.

In front of us -- between us and two giant TV screens -- were two skimpily clad Vegas showgirls, one in pink (including her hair), the other in green (including her hair), each perched on 6-inch plastic high heels and each wearing a smile as artificial as the mounds of jewelry draped strategically over and around her manifest assets.

On either side of the showgirls were life-size, lifelike statues of Luciano Pavarotti and Wolfgang Puck, both newly wheeled down from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum on the second floor of the Venetian.

Alternately prancing and prowling between them, microphone in hand, was Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and various other transparently silly celebrity ventures, to preside over the transatlantic bidding for the 21 rare and exotically perfumed examples of Tuber magnatum Pico hunted by specially trained dogs in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy and prized by gourmets worldwide at least since the 18th century.

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Meanwhile, the real Puck -- frequently visible on one of the two screens, ready to bid on the biggest of the day’s offerings -- sat with his legs casually crossed and an impish grin on his face at Castello Grinzane in Alba, Italy, home of the white truffle.

Two years ago, when Puck went to Alba for the auction, he took home the biggest prize, a 1.82-pound truffle that set him back $19,000. Last year, Joe Pytka, owner of Bastide restaurant in West Hollywood and a longtime director of television commercials, was the big winner, determinedly outbidding rivals in New York to snare a 2.2-pound truffle for $35,000.

But this year, drought conditions in Piedmont had reduced the size of both the truffle crop and the individual truffles, and a troubled worldwide economy left many anxious about how the sales would go.

They needn’t have worried.

Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino, quickly snapped up the first truffle -- a 4-ouncer -- for $2,150, and before the day was done, he and his good friend Puck were locked in spirited competition for the day’s biggest truffle.

Bidding on the 18-ounce fungus-among-us began at $6,000 and climbed quickly to $20,000 in New York.

In Vegas, Selvaggio bid $21,000.

In Italy, Puck waited until just before the hammer was about to fall and then countered at $22,000.

New York dropped out.

Selvaggio bid $23,000.

Puck hesitated again, then went to $25,000.

Selvaggio jumped to $30,000.

Puck dropped out -- at which point a beaming Selvaggio scurried over to the wax statue of Puck and playfully embraced it amid loud applause and howls of laughter from almost 100 bidders and guests in Vegas.

Puck bought the second-largest truffle, a 14.5-ounce beauty, for $26,000. David Robins, his chef at Spago Las Vegas, also bought two truffles, for a total of $9,400.

So between them, the Selvaggio and Puck restaurants accounted for more than half of the $134,000 that was raised for charities in the three cities under the whip hand of auctioneers Leach in Las Vegas and Mario Batali in New York, where he’s the chef at Babbo. (In Italy, alas, confusion reigned and bidding lagged.)

I’m not sure what it is about these Los Angeles-based restaurateurs that drives them to empty their wallets at the mere sight -- and smell -- of white truffles. But as someone for whom the white truffle aroma is the best in the world -- and for whom the white truffle taste is at least in the top three -- I can only say I’m eternally grateful.

Selvaggio said he would have his big truffle shaved over several dishes at Valentino Las Vegas Thursday night during a $1,000-a-plate dinner for “20 of the city’s highest high rollers,” with those proceeds also going to charity.

But first, on auction Sunday -- with everyone already primed by Champagne and white wine during the bidding -- the guests quickly adjourned to the main dining room for a four-chef, four-course, six-wine lunch.

Robins made a veal carpaccio with Gorgonzola and Seckel pears. Alex Stratta of Renoir followed with a classic white truffle risotto. Luciano Pellegrini of Valentino Las Vegas made a medallion of buffalo with a napoleon of potatoes and artisanal cheeses. Alessandro Stoppa, Pellegrini’s pastry chef, served up a Grand Marnier mousse with candied tomatoes and chestnuts.

Stratta’s risotto -- made with truffles that had been flown in from Alba the previous night -- answered a question even more important to many in attendance than who would be the most successful auction bidder: Given the drought, just how good are this year’s truffles?

The answer, at least Sunday: Excellent. Better, I thought, than last year’s superb crop. And it’s a good thing, too, given that the limited quantity has driven prices up. Early estimates are that the top truffles will sell for about $3,000 a pound, up from last year’s $2,200.

“Maybe I got a bargain on the ones I bought at auction,” Selvaggio said later, his mathematical skills clearly eroded by both his charitable impulse and all that celebratory Champagne.

This Saturday, Selvaggio will do it all over again, with bidders at Valentino in Santa Monica linked by closed-circuit satellite TV to bidders at Le Cirque 2000 in New York and Castello Mediceo di Cafaggiolo in Tuscany for another white truffle charity auction, to be followed by a multicourse white truffle lunch (at $100 a head).

But this time -- for the first time -- the truffles will not come from Alba. They’re Tuscan truffles, 30 of which will be auctioned -- 10 in each city.

I didn’t even know they had truffles in Tuscany, but it turns out that the region provides about a third of Italy’s annual production. Tuscany’s seven truffle-growing areas are scattered, though, from Pisa south and east to Siena and Arezzo, so the region hasn’t developed the truffle reputation of Alba, where the sites are more concentrated and where mention of truffles in literature dates to 1380.

But the biggest white truffle ever discovered -- a 5.5-pounder given to President Truman as a gift from the Italian people -- came from the San Miniato hills, between Florence and Pisa, in the heart of Tuscany.

The truffle was packed in rice for shipment, and, according to the story handed down by truffle and Truman aficionados, after Truman received it, he wrote back to city officials in Italy to say that he had enjoyed eating the rice but that the “potato” packed inside was spoiled.

I don’t think anyone bidding at Saturday’s auction is likely to mistake a truffle for a potato. If they do, I’ll happily take it off their hands -- with or without rice.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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