Italy dinner dispute raises alarm at truffle body

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - The Alba white truffle association is on the warpath to defend the image of the rare fungus as a dispute over dinner heads for the Italian courts.

The Italian media has been abuzz with news about an unnamed top executive who refused to pay a 4,000 euro ($5,058) bill after dining on truffles with five guests at Milan’s two Michelin-starred Cracco restaurant.

Chef Carlo Cracco -- author of the “White Truffle Utopia” -- told Reuters that his restaurant refused to accept the anonymous businessman’s offer to foot half the bill or that there was any confusion over the weight or price of the truffles before the diners commenced eating.

Cracco said the party of six consumed about 300 grams of truffle, which cost 10.90 euros per gram.

“They did not want to see the menus. They just said: ‘We want the truffles’,” he said, adding that they picked two large ones and were duly informed of the weight.

The diner said the truffle had not been weighed, newspapers reported, without giving details on his identity.

The media attention comes at a time when an economic crisis threatens luxury spending and the purveyors of expensive goods such as the truffle are keen to hang on to their markets.

The Alba white truffle association is considering its own legal steps and plans to advocate for a code of conduct for restaurants with truffle dishes on their menus.

“All the media hype about this dinner is damaging for the truffle,” said Roberto Ponzio, a lawyer hired by the Alba white truffle association. “It has created a link in people’s minds between truffles and nasty surprises at the end of a dinner.”

Located in the heart of the Langhe -- the hilly southern area of Italy’s north-western Piedmont region -- Alba is the country’s capital of white truffles, a variety of the prized fungus which grows underground.

The town has held an annual truffle fair in the autumn for nearly 80 years.

Truffles can vary in size from a tiny pebble to a tennis ball. The larger the truffle the higher the price. “We are comfortable with the price the restaurant charged,” said Alberto Cirio, head of the Association for the International Fair of the Alba White Truffle, which organizes the annual event. “But we want to make sure we avoid misunderstandings of the sort in the future.”

At the time of the dinner the truffle price in Alba was about 4 euros per gram, Cirio said, adding that a 20 percent value-added tax is often charged twice as the “white gold” changes hands from the hunters to restaurants.

Cirio said the association would encourage restaurants to agree on a set of rules to make sure truffles are weighed and grated on the dishes in front of the clients, with a clear indication of the price on display.

Reporting by Valentina Za, editing by Paul Casciato