L.A. restaurateur pays $35,000 for rare, 2.2-pound Italian mushroom

Tuesday November 12, 2002

LOS ANGELES — It was no trifle truffle. 

A restaurateur and director of television commercials has spent $35,000 on an enormous, 2.2-pound white truffle — an exotic mushroom grown in Italy and prized by gourmets around the world. 

Joe Pytka, 64, made the purchase during Sunday’s fourth annual charity truffle auction known as Asta Mondial del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba. It was the largest ever paid for a single truffle. 

Pytka, who recently opened the French restaurant Bastide in West Hollywood, said he will use the truffle in a variety of dishes made by chef Alain Giraud. 

The rare mushroom caused a spirited bidding war between Pytka, 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 owner Maurizio Dial. 

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 gathered. All local proceeds from the sale benefit the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation at University of California, Los Angeles, and the families of 26 Italian schoolchildren who were killed in a recent earthquake. 

May bid from his New York restaurant, where a boisterous crowd of 120 joined the action. Gunther was at the castle of Grinzane Cavour, just outside Alba, which is home to the enormous white truffle. About 350 people were gathered at the castle to participate in the bidding. 

Thirty truffles were auctioned off for a total of $126,000. 

The appearance of Pytka’s truffle on the TV screen brought loud gasps of appreciation from the crowd at Valentino. Most truffles weigh a few ounces. Daniele Bera of Funghi & Tartufi, a truffle store in Alba, said Pytka’s truffle was the biggest he had seen in his 17 years in the business. 

The truffle will be shipped to Pytka and should arrive Tuesday. Pytka’s purchase nearly doubled the record-setting $19,000 that Wolfgang Puck of Spago paid last year for a 1.82-pound truffle.