FOR John Magazino, a baby-faced 37-year-old from Larchmont, N.Y., the unmarked white van in which he conducts his truffle business is a recent luxury. When he started peddling the aromatic fungi to high-end restaurants a decade ago, he took the subway, darting between Nobu and Le Cirque on the 1 and the R trains. Now he spends November and December at the mercy of holiday traffic as he hauls his wares, which have grown to include caviar, porcini and whatever costly, rarefied produce he can procure.
''The truck's a lot slower, but the chefs love it because they can see what they're getting before they buy,'' he said one recent morning as he slipped into an illegal parking spot outside the kitchen door of Cru, in Greenwich Village. It was his first stop.
Mr. Magazino opened a plastic foam cooler and pulled out the truffles, which had been sorted by size. The smallest, called first choice, range from the size of chestnuts to the size of plums. The medium-size ''extras'' can be as large as a tangerine, and the big-daddy ''supers'' can be as big as a baby's head, though that day they were closer to an avocado's dimensions. Mr. Magazino handed a cooler of caviar to his intern, Alex Zambelli, then grabbed the $30,000 worth of truffles, along with a stainless steel kitchen scale, and lugged them into the kitchen. (Rule No. 1: never take your eyes off the truffles.) Like most chefs, Shea Gallante reached right for the supers, fondling and sniffing each one.
''The bigger ones aren't any better than the smaller guys in terms of aroma or taste, but they make a better presentation in the dining room,'' Mr. Magazino explained, inhaling the musky, funky, earthy, pungently cheesy scent of an extra that had the shape of a fingerling. Mr. Gallante finally selected two heady, profiterole-size specimens with smooth skins and not a lot of dirt-trapping crevices, and set them on the scale. They weighed three ounces. Mr. Magazino pulled out a price list: first choice, $1,450 a pound; extras, $1,650; supers, $1,850.
Mr. Gallante laughed. ''These are like a car and that's the sticker price,'' he said. ''I look at the lowest price for the smallest truffles. That's the price I want for the big ones.'' Mr. Magazino shook his head. ''No possible way,'' he said. The two bargained back and forth, settling on $1,575 a pound. Then Mr. Gallante summarily sniffed and rejected Mr. Magazino's black truffles (''not mature enough''), tasted and decided against the caviar (''it's not moving so much this year'') and made his way to the van -- chefs call it the truffle truck -- to rummage through the crates of porcinis, organic citrus and baby beet greens, tasting as he went, handing the tangerine peels to Mr. Zambelli. ''I let the chefs taste anything they want,'' Mr. Magazino said, setting a box of bumpy red kuri squash on the curb for Mr. Gallante's tasting menu. ''Except the truffles.''
On the way to the next stop, A Voce, Mr. Magazino wondered aloud if he could persuade Andrew Carmellini, the chef, to cook him something for lunch. But first, the ritual of truffle-bargaining, citrus-and-arugula-tasting and crate-lugging would have to run its course. A $2,200 invoice and much hinting later, Mr. Magazino leaned against the stove and ate from a pan of cauliflower ravioli. At the sink Mr. Carmellini used a toothbrush to clean the four Spaldeen-size truffles he scored. ''We call him Johnny Warehouse,'' Mr. Carmellini said, nodding toward Mr. Magazino. ''That's what Magazino means in Italian: warehouse.''
In fact, Mr. Magazino is an importer for the Chefs' Warehouse, a specialty food distributor in the Bronx. One of the largest restaurant suppliers in the city, the company provided his van. But it was his idea to take some of the fancy produce the company sells along with the truffles he has been trafficking since his early subway days peddling for Urbani Truffles USA, the largest importer of truffles in the country. At the warehouse, where he has worked for five years, he spends the morning loading tubs of specialty produce into the truck. In the evening, after visiting the restaurants Daniel, Jean Georges, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Country, Masa and the Russian Tea Room (where he sold $5,700 worth of Iranian osetra caviar), he returns to put any remaining truffles to bed. He tucks them into a wide tray, covers them with layers of clean cloth, and locks them into their special, extremely odoriferous refrigerator. The next morning he begins again. ''My job title says I'm the import specialist for truffles, caviar and mushrooms,'' he said as he and Mr. Zambelli tidied and rearranged the boxes in the back of the van for the next sales call. ''But, really, I'm just a glorified schlepper.''