I’m a big fan of the pastas at Il Palio Restaurant in the Siena Hotel. I’ve tried quite a few, and have never been let down. One night a month or so ago I was accidentally brought the Tagliatelle al Tartufo instead of what I’d ordered. My server quickly started to take it away to bring the pasta I had ordered, but I assured him that this was in no way a problem, since it is one of my favorites. At this point he said “Then you need to hear the story of this pasta from the chef.”
The Tagliatelle al Tartufo at Il Palio is decadent and delicious. Like all their pasta, it’s made in house. This freshness allows it to soak up the sauce and flavor the pasta strands. The silky truffle sauce tastes both homey and extravagant, and the pine nuts on top add a wonderful crunch. The dish is finished with finely grated grana padano cheese.
The night I got the wrong pasta Chef de Cuisine Isaiah Allen came out and introduced himself. He’s a fascinating person. Not only is he an amazing chef — he also has a farm, and tells a great story.
Isaiah got his start in the restaurant world working as a dishwasher at Carolina Meadows. He would watch the chef cooking and especially loved the smell of the fresh bread baking each day. He was determined to learn to bake bread himself and convinced the chef there to teach him; including knife skills. He stayed focused and continued to teach himself to cook and got more and more involved in restaurant work.
Five years ago he married his wife Whitney. They got married in Las Vegas. They knew that this would be easy, that someone else would handle all the planning, and that it would be comparatively inexpensive.
They wanted to save their money for their honeymoon — a month spent in Italy. They flew into Florence and spent the first week backpacking. It rained for two days during this time, but they made the most of it. They stayed in a tent, making quick runs for bread and cheese which they’d eat cuddled up romantically, with the rain falling outside. Every two or three days they’d bounce to another town. While just outside Florence he spent a few days cooking at La Cantina Petrarca, a small restaurant whose chef he’d met when The Siena invited him to come cook at Il Palio for their “Taste of Tuscany” week. Trying to decide where in Italy to go next, and wanting someplace completely random, Isaiah shut his eyes and stuck his finger on a map. It landed on a small town called Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, an untouristed place two hours from Florence and Siena.
They stayed in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa for a week. There were no train lines; no tourist attractions. They’d ride bikes into town, picking up food at farmers markets and taking it home for Isaiah to cook each night. From out their windows they could see orchards and vineyards. One night they decided to eat out instead. They wound up at a restaurant in an old stone mill. It was here that he had Tagliatelle al Tartufo for the first time.
The dish stayed in his mind and he tried to recreate it. He knew there was garlic, shaved truffle, thyme, good olive oil. But something was missing. He kept trying and trying and finally he figured out what it was – a single, oil packed white anchovy. Once he figured out the secret ingredient he had the recipe just how he had tasted and it and loved it. It is simple, perfect, good food. He brought this back from his honeymoon and started serving it at Il Palio.
I’ve always loved this dish, but knowing the story behind it — the Italian honeymoon, the views of olive groves and vineyards, the bike rides to town to pick up the makings for the night’s dinner, and the random choice of town all make it seem even more special and romantic. Take the truffle lover in your life to Il Palio and see what I mean.
You can follow Kari on Twitter @NoshSpiceNC.