Green Gold: The olive oils of Italy are rich with range and value

Italian olive oil refuses to be pigeonholed. It isn’t the only peppery choice for pasta or the go-to buttery oil for sautéing. It isn’t the most expensive, the least expensive, the most widely available or even necessarily the finest olive oil on the market, though its reputation might suggest otherwise. It could fill any niche and work in any kitchen situation, depending on the brand at hand. But according to Marianne Prey, owner of Extra Virgin, an Olive Ovation in Clayton, this is exactly what sets Italian olive oil apart. Neither Spain nor Greece nor any other competing nation affords the consumer as much variety.

Across 116,000 square miles, more than 800 different Italian olive varietals are cultivated and pressed into the oil we know and love. From the smooth butteriness of the Taggiasca to the throat-tingling pepperiness of the Caninese, Italy’s olives cover both ends of the flavor spectrum and every profile in between.

In general, all olives start out pale green and will turn purplish-black if left on the tree. But because the Italian harvest season runs throughout winter, from October to the end of January, certain areas must pluck their olives from the trees earlier than others to prevent an early frost from destroying their crop. For the consumer, the earlier harvest in northern Italian regions, such as Tuscany, coupled with the region’s unique geography yields oils with a more characteristic peppery bite that isn’t found as much in the south. These bolder, darker oils also will smell like a mix of grass and fruit and often leave the mouth dry after swallowing. Prey particularly likes Mannucci Droandi from Chianti. Best to have a drink ready at hand.

Oils from the south, on the other hand, generally have a much smoother flavor. This is in part because of the later harvest, meaning the olives are black, and black olives tend to have a silkier mouth feel than their green counterparts. Some of these oils, even those from the very hot Italian Riviera, smell like freshly sautéed vegetables and offer a creamy, buttery finish. Lighter in color and in taste, they don’t hang out in the mouth long after swallowing and leave the back of the throat unscathed as they pass by, unlike their northern counterparts. Think of them as “safe-zone” oils; they will probably taste just the way Americans have come to expect olive oil to taste. Olevano brand, in particular, is a good example and, according to Prey, this adds greatly to its popularity.

Keep in mind that an estate-grown oil, which is made from a single olive from a single farm, is considered better than a blend. But in the end, the oil is only as good as what you pair it with. Prey offered a general rule of advice: Opposites don’t attract. For the grassy oils, this means pairing them with fresh, natural flavors. If Prey buys Ravida brand, an ultragrassy oil from Sicily, she might serve a romaine salad for dinner with roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms and any other vegetables she has at hand. Lighter, smoother oils mate well with lighter chicken and fish dishes. Or she might also simply toss pappardelle noodles with the oil and some Parmesan cheese. Bolder, peppery oils work with highly seasoned dishes, darker greens, hearty stews and grilled steak. “When I use a bold oil, it is because I want something to stand up to the flavors in my dish,” Prey said. However, keep your taste buds’ sensitivity in mind. “When you put a peppery oil and a peppery dish together, they don’t just complement. They enhance each other,” Prey said. “That is too much flavor for some people.”

Ted Wilson, baker at Neapolitan pizzeria The Good Pie in Midtown, added another suggestion. “The oils we use at The Good Pie, we use partially for their taste, but also because they come from the same region as our other ingredients and flavors.” Wilson suggested oil made from Castelvetrano olives, particularly the Saica brand. However, region alone isn’t enough, so doing research on the individual olive or olive blend at hand will only enhance your meal.

According to Roger McElroy, specialty foods buyer for Straub’s Markets, olive oil labels can be suspect as well. He advised watching out for the phrase “imported from Italy.” Lower-end olive oils, like the popular Bertolli and DaVinci brands, often only package their product in Italy. The bottle is often filled with lower-quality oils from surrounding countries with a minimal percentage of genuine Italian olive oil at best.

“Extra virgin” can also deceive. The International Olive Oil Council, an intergovernmental body that coordinates national production and marketing policies for most of the world’s olive oil, stipulates that an olive oil must have an acidity of less than 0.8 percent for it to be considered extra virgin. However, the United States is not a member nation and the federal government does not enforce this requirement on extra-virgin oils distributed in America. Some chefs argue that extra virgin or not doesn’t even matter in cooking and in fact say ordinary olive oil is preferred to extra virgin. It stands up to heat, whereas extra virgin starts to smoke at around 400 degrees. The ordinary olive offers a better price point than the higher-end extra-virgin oils that usually run $30 to $40 for 500 to 750 ml.

To steer shoppers in the right direction, McElroy offered a couple of tips. First, check for acidity levels. Most true extra-virgin producers are proud of their low acidic rating and put it on their bottles as a sign of quality. And don’t skimp when it comes to choosing an olive oil. If cost is really that much of a factor, consider switching to vegetable oil. “Most of the things people buy olive oil for, the health benefits, the flavor … those things aren’t present in a low-quality olive oil,” McElroy said. “So really, buying cheap doesn’t even make economic sense because you aren’t getting what you’re paying for. Best just spend a few more bucks to get a product that is worth its price tag.”