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There is much to learn about varieties, complexities of olive oil

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009

Not so long ago, wine bars were a rarity in Pittsburgh. But as wine consumers' tastes expanded beyond white zinfandel and California "chablis," local restaurateurs created wine bars serving wine flights and more diverse wines by the glass.

Could olive oil bars be far behind in Pittsburgh• Impossible, you say. Think again.

Some East and West Coast restaurants already feature olive oil-tasting bars serving flights of vintage dated olive oils. They also offer olive oil-theme menus matched with wines.

Locally, over the past several years, Deb Mortillaro, a co-owner of Palate Partners in the Strip District, has noticed growing interest in olive oils. Recently, she attended the University of California -- Davis Olive Center's master class in appreciating olive oil's finer points.

"I grew up in an Italian home cooking since childhood with olive oil,' Mortillaro says. "My father went to the Italian market in Rochester, New York, and, after a lot of wheeling and dealing, he just brought home whatever olive oil they handed to him."

Eventually, Mortillaro served as a chef intern in Siena, Italy, obtained a degree from the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked as a private chef for many years. But she still acknowledges having much to learn about olive oil's complexities and variety.

"At the recent classes in California I learned to taste and taste and taste to develop a palate and find the flavors that you like best," she says.

Olive oil classifications, she says, range from delicate to medium to robust. The delicate oils tend to have fruity aromas and flavors and less bitterness and pungency. Medium oils balance fruitiness with bitterness and pungency; whereas, robust oils emphasize bitterness and pungency over fruitiness.

Which does not mean one style is, per se, better than another.

"The olive oil's color in the bottle tends to influence consumers, but dark oils are not necessarily better," Mortillaro says. "Just as you can use gamay grapes for a well-made, delicate wine that is not a powerhouse, so, too, you can have a well-made, delicate olive oil that is not dark green and robust."

Much depends on the variety of olives used. Also, early picking of semi-ripe olives creates darker, more robust oils. Later picking of more fully ripened olives produces more delicate oils. In either case, proper pressing and processing under clean conditions remain critical in delivering a well-made, final product in the bottle.

Some robust-style olive oils are made better than others, just as some delicate oils outclass competitive brands. Mortillaro recommends trying a variety of brands to appreciate varying producers' styles and quality.

As a rule of thumb, Sicilian producers deliver the most robust oils. Tuscan and California producers deliver medium oils with moderate bitterness and good fruitiness. French, Spanish and Greek oils typically offer more delicate character.

Vintage plays a critical role, too. Unlike wine, olive oils do not improve with age. Better producers list the production date either on the front or back label.

"The fresher the better," Mortillaro says. She recommends buying smaller bottles with dark glass to protect against light. Storage in a cool, dark place helps to avoid having heat turn the oil rancid. Finally, Mortillaro advises using the oil within four weeks of opening to prevent oxidation.

"Tasting the differences between very fresh oils and older ones at the master classes made me realize that most of the olive oils sitting on my kitchen counter are no longer good," she says with a laugh.

Mortillaro uses olive oils to give dishes "another dimension of flavor." Use medium-style oils with salads and robust-style oils for finishing drizzles on soups and osso bucco. To learn more, join Mortillaro at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 for an olive oil-tasting class. Call 412-391-8502 for reservations.

Meanwhile, try this tasty wine:

2007 ViƱa Acered Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain (Specialty 22395; $7.49): In northeastern Spain's Calatayud appellation, grapes benefit from high-altitude, cool vineyards with dry conditions. This wine's light-purple color offering pure dark plum and black aromas opens to ripe dark fruit flavors; smooth tannins and tasty acidity carry through the fruity, soft finish. Recommended .

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