Overview and Guide to Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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extra virgin olive oil

photo: some of the finest extra virgin olive oil on the planet is made in Italy, both in the south and north

Eight Extra Virgin Olive Oil Basics

Italians consume olive oil like it’s water and our grandparents, for example, used olive oil for cooking, shining shoes, preserving food, lubricating machinery (including various shotguns), and curing various ailments (including stomach ulcers).  I wouldn’t recommend you use olive oil to lubricate your shotgun, but we’d suggest reading through our overview and guide to Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil to learn the basics about one of the most vital food substances on the planet.

Let’s start with some basics about extra virgin olive oil, which are gleamed from our personal experience with homemade extra virgin olive via our family olive orchard and numerous tastings of Italian extra virgin olive oils:

1.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil doesn’t get better with age.  In fact, olive is meant to be consumed as quickly as possible (fresh=good). All olive oil should be consumed within 18 months after it is bottled.

2.  Extra Virgin Olive Oil doesn’t like light or warm temperatures.  In turn, it should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark environment.  Air / Oxygen is also an enemy of olive oil.

3. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a type of healthy fat (like butter and lard) and has a good amount of calories.

4. Unlike butter, for example, olive oil has wonderful health benefits due to its high content of monounsaturated fatty acids as well as high content of antioxidative substances.  

A favorite bottle of expensive extra virgin olive oil

5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil helps lower bad cholesterol and helps with good cholesterol.

6. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is produced without using heat or chemicals (it must also have an acidity level of less than one percent) and is the highest grade of olive oil.  The International Olive Council manages the labeling of “extra virgin olive oil” in Europe leaving it up to the individual countries to do the monitoring.  European oil producers and companies aren’t tied to the same rules of the IOC when selling oil in the United States, for example (the US Dept. of Agriculture does have rules for Extra Virgin Olive Oil but they aren’t mandatory).

7. Extra virgin olive oil must abide by strict taste and smell standards, chemical make up, low levels of acidity, and certain ultraviolet light absorption factors.

8. Extra Virgin Olive oil is extracted from crushed olives via a mechanical process.

9. Olive oil is used to saute and roast food, dress vegetables, and as a general condiment (it’s extremely popular in places such as Italy, Greece, Spain, France, parts of the Middle East, and the United States).

Everyday Olive Oil in the US and Italy

my grandfather's olive orchard outside of Pellegrina, Italy in the Province of Calabria

Both my grandparents and parents have told me wonderful stories about harvesting olives on the family farm in southern Italy (see La Cucina Italiana’s guide to regional olive oil) and the process involved to produce both first press olive oil (that is, the first batch of olive oil produced via an old fashioned press; nowadays, most olive oil is produced via continuous centrifugal presses) and extra virgin olive oil.  I’ve tasted much of the olive oil produced by my family and the olive oil is extremely intense, pungent, and bitter and viscous for everyday use (at least for my American palette).  And, in fact fresh, extra virgin olive oil, is almost a guild the lily type condiment (maybe to be used with a ready to explode ripe San Marzano tomato or drizzled over a freshly baked piece of bread); you wouldn’t want to saute or fry with the aforementioned extra virgin olive oil.  There are experts who would disagree with me, but just as you wouldn’t consume a tomato salad with a $800 bottle of Barolo you probably don’t want to waste your money dressing your iceberg lettuce with a $60 bottle of extra virgin olive oil from northern Italy.

In terms of everyday olive oil that can be purchased in most supermarkets in the US, I have a couple of top favorites:

  • Trader Joe’s California Estate
  • 365 Everyday Value, Whole Foods Brand
  • McEvoy Ranch
And the following olive oils are fine for cooking, though I wouldn’t necessarily use them for drizzling or dressing tomato salads, for example:
  • Filippo Berio Olive Oil
  • Colovita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Bertolli Olive Oil

Drizzling over fresh cheese and tomatoes - a fine and ideal use of high end and expensive extra virgin olive oil.

The olive oils I’ve labeled “fine for cooking” may or may not be blended with other oils, but in my view they are legitimate olive oils.

Luxury Food: Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In terms of high end olive oils from small producers, it’s really a hit or miss proposition.  We review many high end extra virgin olive oils from Italy and, for the most part, they are all extraordinary (with very subtle variations in color and flavor that only experts will be able to discern) but very expensive.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a large city, many Italian specialty shops bottle their own form of extra virgin olive oil from Italy and it usually presents a good value.  For example, here on the East coast I’ve tried extra virgin olive oil from Bartolomeo’s Italian Food Emporium (click here for a review of the shop from Jason Perlow at Off the Broiler) in Englewood, NJ.  Bartolomeo imports the oil from olive orchards in Puglia and the product is both of decent quality and good value.  Fairway Market in Fort Lee, NJ also produces a decent quality, house extra virgin olive oil.  Make sure to read the label and ask the store owner about production date and whether the oil is a blend and 100 percent extra virgin olive oil.

My recommendation on finding specialty extra virgin olive oil is to try different producers and stick with a brand once you find something you like (also be sure to buy in small quantities unless you plan on using the oil every day).  Also, price doesn’t equal quality.  In fact, I would opt for a fresh, recently produced bottle over an expensive extra virgin, first pressed, olive oil that has been sitting on the shelf for 6+ months exposed to light, warm temperatures, and air.

Finally, as I’ve said about wine, you should only buy and use what you like (don’t listen to critics unless you’ve tried the product yourself).

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  • Jen

    Thanks so much for the information! This post is very helpful. A similar post on vinegars (red wine and balsamic) would be great too.

  • http://www.scordo.com/blog Vincent Scordo

    No problem and thanks for the suggested topic. Keep the suggestions coming and look for a vinegar post soon!

  • http://www.thegreenestdollar.com Heather@TheGreenestDollar.com

    Hi Vince,
    This post was awesome! I use a ton of olive oil in my cooking, but I guess I don’t have the palate to discern when it’s gone bad or lost its flavor.
    I mean, I’ve been buying it in the bulk bottles from Costco, thinking I was “saving money” (I thought olive oil lasted forever). Do you think it’s better to buy the smaller bottles from the grocery store? In your opinion, how long does olive oil have before it starts to lose its mojo?
    Thanks for the great post!

    • http://CMFoodAnd.blogspot.com/ Calogero Mira

      I use Italian olive oil from my field. Good luck.

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  • http://calabrisellamia.wordpress.com LuLu

    Great post, Vince! I am also a fan of the Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

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  • artnbarb

    we really like the Tuscan oil imported by Costco – are you familiar with it? If so, how would you compare it to the TJs and WF oils?