Two Stars of the Furlo Gorge
An inside look at Chef Alberto Melagrana’s path to truffle stardom
ACQUALAGNA, Italy – Built in 1825, its paint aged the color of burnt roses, the building housing the Ristorante Antico Furlo sits at the mouth of the Furlo Gorge, a slice in the Apennines Mountains celebrated as one of Italy’s natural masterpieces.
But inside the building, a famous chef is at work in the kitchen creating magic with another of the nation’s celebrated natural masterpieces: truffles.
He takes the job seriously.
“I feel very important when I cook with truffles,” Chef Alberto Melagrana admitted.
In a city that bills itself as Italy’s capital of truffles, Melagrana is one of its shining stars. His expertise in the kitchen with these pungent members of the fungi family has made his name known throughout the region and even across the seas. He is the only chef in the Marche Region to be mentioned in the book about black truffles, “L’Altro Tartufo del Premonte” or “The Other Truffle.”
His restaurant and hotel is off the traditional tourist paths, yet gourmands still seek him out.
The guest register shows widespread appeal, with names from across Europe and North America.
“When white truffles come, [the hotel] rooms are full every day,” Melagrana said.
But as it turns out, Melagrana’s road to fame in the world of truffledom was all a happy accident.
That trip started in the kitchen of his hometown in the coastal city of Fano where a 13-year-old Melagrana helped his mother at her seafood restaurant, “Fosso Seiore.”
“My mother was a fish cook in Fano,” he recalled. “So that was my prime teaching.”
Melagrana moved to Paris and later London as a young adult where he worked as a waiter and a cook fine-tuning his culinary skills. He carried them back to Italy and was able to put them into action in 1989 when his chance for stardom arrived with a stroke of luck: The owner of the Antico Furlo asked Melagrana if he was interested in taking over the business. On January 5, 1990, they opened the doors and went to work.
But with a minimal truffle background, Melagrana knew he would have to take a crash course from an expert in the field already.
“I met truffles in London and Paris but it wasn’t like here,” he recalled. “Here, people look for them every day.”
Under careful tutelage Melagrana learned some of the basics:
- There are two types of truffles, black and white.
- The season for whites is from October to December while the season for blacks is from May to September.
- White truffles have a more delicate flavor, which works best with white meats such as poultry and pork but is easy to lose when paired with darker meats.
- Truffles flourish in the Marche Region because they thrive in its wet, warm climate.
- Chefs must “respect the temperature of the truffle.” The ideal temperature to cook white truffles is from 131-136 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Black truffles more often are grated raw onto dishes.
- Extra virgin olive oil is used to cook black truffles and butter is used to cook white truffles.
Melagrana also had to learn the high-dollar economics of the truffle business.
“Buying the truffles is 90% of the work because you need to know exactly what you are looking for and what it’s worth.”
Prices vary between the black and white truffles with white typically being in the higher end of the spectrum. One kilogram of white truffles can cost upwards of $2,220 during a plentiful crop season and up to $6,800 during a bad or dry season.
As his education progressed, so did the popularity of Antico Furlo and today Melagrana is known as one of the best truffle chefs in Italy, with signature creations.
One such dish is Uovo croccante con Vellutata di patate di Acqualagna, or fried egg with potato cream and truffles from Acqualagna. A fellow chef lent the recipe to Melagrana who added his own twists.
An egg precooked similar to a poached egg is coated with breadcrumbs and fried for a few seconds in corn oil. The purpose of using the poached egg is to cook the white but have the yolk runny.
The fried egg sits on a bed of creamed potatoes seasoned with rosemary and Worcestershire sauce. A cured and seasoned egg yolk is grated over the egg before the creation is topped with black truffle shavings.
Melagrana’s reputation spread across the Atlantic in 2006 when the mayor of Acqualagna invited him to be one of the chefs for the Urbino Press Awards announcement held annually at the Italian Embassy in Washington. He’s been asked back every year since.
In Washington, he usually prepares two dishes specific to the Marche Region. Casciotta d’Urbino is a fondue using the soft white cheese from this region that has its origins in 1545. Truffle crostini is toasted bread topped with a sauce containing truffle cream, garlic, and anchovies among other ingredients.
Melagrana has built a reputation for himself not only for his skill as a chef but also for his knowledge of truffles. Now he is thinking of passing on his years of truffle education to a new generation by opening a cooking school at Antico Furlo exclusively for U.S. chefs.
If he is successful, Americans might be able to create their own version of Uovo croccante con Vellutata di patate di Acqualagna.
They can feel as important as Alberto Melagrana by cooking with truffles.