Picking out an olive oil can be an overwhelming experience. The number of oil-containing bottles and tins gracing a grocery store’s shelves is almost as impressive as the cardboard boxes lining the cereal aisle. Of course like breakfast cereals, not all olive oils are created the same. So how do you choose? Maybe you look at price. Maybe you just go for the same one you’ve always bought. Maybe you just pick one with a pretty picture on the label. Or, maybe, you choose one based on what you think you know and like about olive oil. Bottomline, no matter what you eventually decide on—be it extra virgin, virgin, refined, pure … one that hail’s from Greece, from Italy, from Croatia, from the U.S. … one that’s organic … one that’s lite … or one that’s flavor-infused, be forewarned, there’s far more to choosing an olive oil than simply glancing at the label.
Don’t judge an olive oil by its cover
In 2010, the University of California at Davis Olive Center and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, published a report on the quality of olive oils readily available in America’s grocery stores. And of the 19 brands tested, “69 percent of imported olive oil samples and 10 percent of California olive oil samples labeled as extra virgin failed to meet the IOC/USDA standards for extra virgin olive oil.” The study, partially funded by California olive oil producers, received its fair share of criticism but nonetheless, proved what many expert olive oil tasters had been saying for years—not all EVOO labeled as so, is indeed EVOO.
“If you’re using olive oil for the health benefits,” says Chicago-based culinary expert and Iron Chef America judge-in-rotation Mario Rizzotti, “but it’s not really olive oil, then you’re not getting the health benefits.” And in a country plagued by cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and obesity problems, it’s vital to do as much as possible to improve our overall health—which is why Rizzotti is on a mission to help Americans choose products, and foods, that will put everyone on the road to better health—one EVOO spoonful at a time.
Drizzle, don’t dip
“What we’re trying to accomplish is to promote the healthy benefits of authentic Italian food and authentic Italian ingredients,” Rizzotti says. “There are so many things out there that people consider Italian that in Italy, we don’t even have.”
And one of those things, says Rizzotti, is the presentation of bread baskets with accompanying bowls of olive oil before the meal.
“That’s not Italian,” he said.
“Really?” I asked. I mean you can barely go to an Italian restaurant here in the U.S. without a substantial serving of bread hitting your table long before your meal arrives. And so, admittedly, I was skeptical. How can that be? It’s a staple practice in most stateside Italian restaurants but here was a genuine Italian chef telling me the practice was anything but authentic Italian. So I Googled it, and as it turns out, Google agreed with the Italian.
“I use olive oil for cooking,” explained Rizzotti, “but really good olive oil should be used for finishing dishes and drizzled on food once its prepared.” He uses Terre Rosse DOP Umbria Kosher Organic EVOO, which he has shipped directly to him from Italy’s Umbria region, just north of Rome, bordering Tuscany. Interested in trying the oil Rizzotti dubs liquid gold? You can purchase Terre Rosse on his website, MarioRizzotti.com, $22 for 250ml.
Curious about other olive oils? Or maybe you have a favorite and want to see how it stacks up to world-renowned oils. Check out BestOliveOils.com for the most recent list of The World’s Best Olive Oils. The list represents compiled results from the New York International Olive Oil Competition, the world’s largest most comprehensive olive oil quality contest. Or better yet, plan to attend the 2019 event, May 10 in NYC and be one of the first to experience award-winning olive oils paired with regional specialties from around the world by the International Culinary Center team and NYIOOC Resident Chef Perola Polillo. Tickets go on sale Feb. 15. More information visit NYOliveOil.com.
How to choose an olive oil
When purchasing EVOO, there’s plenty to consider and individual palates have different opinions as to what tastes good and what doesn’t. Therefore, the best advice is twofold—first, educate yourself on the different varietals, and second, don’t be afraid to experiment with new oils.
“There’s lots of good olive oils,” said Rizzotti, "and lots of opinions," he added. But whether you choose an oil from his homeland of Italy, or one from anywhere in the globe, he wants you to know these two things:
One, “cold pressed” doesn’t really mean cold: It only means the olives cannot be pressed in an environment with a temperature exceeding 80.6 F. In other words, it’s marketing lingo consumers have come to associate with quality but in all actuality, doesn’t directly correlate.
And two, just like the “Product of Italy” quote on the back of his cooking jacket, if you want an Italian olive oil, the label, in accordance with Italian law, must say either Product of Italy or 100% Italian. "Made from Italian Olives," "Packaged in Italy," and "Made in Italy" don't assure an authentic product. •