White Truffles: The New Caviar?

Would you pay $200 for a plate of pasta?

You might just have to — assuming you want your penne sprinkled with fresh Italian white truffle shavings.

Truffles, the fungi with the renowned reputation as one of the most high-class foods in the world, are harder to find and more expensive than ever this season.

"The pricing of truffles is traditionally very high because they are one of the rarest foods on Earth," said John Magazino, president of Primizie Fine Foods, a New York-based truffle distributor. "Last year prices were around $2,000 a pound on average, but this year they're twice that, costing $4,000 a pound."

The price surge can be explained by two factors, Magazino said. A dry, hot summer in Italy, where most of the white truffles are grown, led to a much smaller crop because white truffles require plenty of water to survive.

The weak U.S. dollar has also contributed to this year's pricey truffles.

White truffles are available only between mid-October and the end of December, and with such a short season chefs have had to decide whether to invest in the aphrodisiac garnish, or just wait until next year.

"[Restaurants] are spending at least $20,000 a week on fresh white truffles," said Magazino, whose company overnights truffles to customers in the United States because they only stay fresh for four to five days. "Jean Georges and Daniel and the restaurants everyone traditionally associates with the most expensive foods are still getting the truffles, but restaurants at the second tier are not."

While the average restaurant-goer may not mind a menu devoid of white truffles, food experts told ABCNEWS.com that the demand for the rare ingredient is still high despite exorbitant prices and the decreasing number of restaurants that can afford the delicacy.

Chefs Must Decide Whether the Flavor's Worth the Price

High-profile chefs trying to decide whether to splurge for white truffles or let this season pass them by told ABCNEWS.com that, regardless of their decisions, the flavor really is irreplaceable.

"Nothing can be substituted for a white truffle," said Alice Waters, owner of San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse, who has been using truffles for more than 20 years. "It's just a beautiful, rare thing."

But she has yet to taste a white truffle this season because of the high prices.

"The price is way too high," said Waters, who admitted she didn't think she could survive the whole season without one "whiff" of the truffles.

High-profile French chef Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernadin said that while he does like the flavor, he just can't justify spending so much money. This will be the first year in more than a decade that Ripert will leave white truffles off his menu.

"The white truffles — the price is insane and I'm not serving them," said Ripert, who described their flavor as a unique mix between garlic and Parmesan cheese. "They have been offered to us at $3,700 a pound, which is absolutely insane."

Asked whether customers have inquired as to why he is not serving white truffles, Ripert said yes, but that as soon as he informs them how expensive they are, the guests understand his decision.

No Budget? No Problem

New York's famed Le Cirque, owned by Sirio Maccioni — yes, the same man who bought a 1.1-pound white truffle for a whopping $7,000 late month — is one restaurant where decadent diners can still find white truffles.

"Our guests want it, so we still buy it," said Jason Kallert, Le Cirque's executive sous chef. "Our customers will pay whatever we charge."

And customers with no budget — mainly celebrities and other wealthy food lovers — are exactly the kind of following white truffles have attracted.

Kallert said some of the biggest fans of Le Cirque's truffle dishes are the restaurant's celebrity clientele. In fact, white truffles are winning over the hearts of celebs who in years past have indulged in other luxury treats — like caviar.

Just this week, rock star Marilyn Manson was spotted indulging in white truffle-sprinkled lobster in Las Vegas, according to People Magazine.

"The Sopranos" star Lorraine Bracco has also been known to be a huge truffle fan.

"It's a delicacy," Bracco told ABCNEWS.com. "Some people really love caviar. I hate caviar. Some people love foie gras, and some people love their truffles."

Bracco, who described the taste of white truffles as "strong" and "pungent," said that her favorite way to eat truffles is actually pretty basic.

"My favorite is as simple as it comes: pasta, with olive oil and truffle shaved on the top," said Bracco, who added that she believes the weak U.S. dollar is the chief reason truffle prices are so high. "I like it really, really simple."

Simple at $4,000 a pound, that is.

ABCNEWS.com's Monica Nista contributed to this report.

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