In the Kitchen
Spicing it up tableside
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Here’s how to give your customers an olive oil to rave about
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Glass bottles of flavourful olive oil have long been tableside features in Italian eateries and pizzerias.
Glass bottles of flavourful olive oil have long been tableside features in Italian eateries and pizzerias. Always familiar, often expected. Some restaurants are upping the ante and offering olive oils infused with ingredients such as chili peppers or oregano to pack even more flavour into that highly anticipated drizzle.
For John Chetti, owner of Queen Margherita Pizza in the trendy Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto, having a spiced oil tableside means staying true to his Italian roots.
“I think it is part of Italian culture, it’s a part of Italian eating. When we put the concept of the restaurant in place we wanted this natural, easy feeling and that’s basically what we did. That’s the way we eat in Italy and that’s the way we eat here,” he says.
While Italian olive oil is arguably more familiar in the North American market, it should be noted that Spain is actually the largest producer of olive oil in the world, according to a report produced by the European Forum on Nature on the environmental impact of olive oil in the EU, where the majority of olive oil is made. Italy is the second largest maker, followed by Greece, Portugal and France. Agricultural stats are from the year 2000.
“The EU currently dominates the global market, producing over 70 per cent of the world’s olive oil. Tunisia, Turkey and Syria are the only other producers of significance, accounting for over 20 per cent of world production,” writes Guy Beaufoy, author of the report.
Creating a spiced oil that is unique to your restaurant can be a fun, flavourful experience that sets you apart from your competitors. Through trial and error, you can achieve the perfect blend of fruit, spice and everything nice, as long as you follow some simple guidelines.
The first step when infusing your own oil is to pay attention to the quality of olive oil that you are offering your customers. When oils are tableside their flavour and texture must stand alone, completely unmasked, making your choice of olive oil paramount. Chetti uses only authentic Italian extra virgin olive oil, which comes directly from a private label in Italy that he is associated with.
Olive oil has a long history riddled with fraudulent and adulterated oils being passed off as Italian extra virgin olive oil. An article published in The New Yorker on August 13, 2007 entitled “Letter from Italy: Slippery Business” by Tom Mueller, shone a glaring light on fraudulent olive oil producers and the backhanded deals that have been plaguing the industry and putting farmers out of work. The article outlines many cases of fraud, including a case where hazelnut oil brought in by tanker ships was used to create adulterated extra virgin olive oil, which was then sold to some of the biggest producers and exporters of Italian olive oil in the world. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.
Andrea Tramonti, eastern account manager of Sarafino Inc., a Canadian importer of award-winning Italian olive oil and other artisanal products, says the taste between authentic extra virgin olive oil and its adulterated counterpart is obvious.
“An extra virgin olive oil will be layered in flavour. You should be tasting different things at different times when it’s in your mouth. You could have flavours that are fruity, herbaceous, grassy or nutty, or you may taste artichoke or wild thistle. The tastes should be pleasant in your mouth,” he says. “Adulterated olive oil can have flavours of rancidness, a chemical petroleum flavour or you may get almost no taste at all.”
You can ensure the authenticity of your olive oil by paying close attention to the product’s label. Tramonti advises that when selecting an olive oil you should always ensure the label contains the family name or co-operative name where the olives are being produced. Next, it should say “Made In” rather than “Product Of” or “Imported From.” This verifies that the olive oil is actually produced in the country of origin using olives that are from that country. You can also look for trademarks that the EU uses to protect authenticity, such as DOP (Designation of Protected Origin). You can check the back of the label for an address stating where the olive oil is produced, which provides accountability for the product.
The importer’s address alone does not provide this accountability. Next, Tramonti points out that there are more than twice as many olive varieties as there are grape varieties. The label should list which olive varieties make up the olive oil.
“The ingredient to olive oil is not olive oil, it is olives,” he says.
Last but not least, the label should have a best before date and a lot number. If all of this information is contained on the bottle of olive oil that you are selecting, Tramonti says you can rest assured that it is likely authentic and is what it claims to be on the label. While there are bound to be authentic olive oils that don’t contain all of this information on the bottle, the more indicators that are included, the more likelihood of an authentic premium product.
Once you have a great tasting olive oil, you can experiment by infusing it with your desired flavours. Chetti’s spiced oil incorporates three varieties of peppers.
“We use a little bit of the long skinny red peppers, then we mix them from time to time with the skinny green peppers and on occasion, to add some heat for some special clients, we bring in an extra spicy pepper, so we’re able to kick it up a notch. Generally across the board it’s not a killer spice, it’s just enjoyable,” Chetti says.
Tramonti suggests that oregano and rosemary would also work well infused in olive oil because of their pronounced flavours. There are certain ingredients, however, that pose health and safety issues when combined in oils.
“Botulism-causing toxins are always existent in anything that grows underground, but they can only thrive when there is no air. So if you put something like garlic in olive oil, there is no air around it and that can cause the toxins to live and thrive. People have gotten botulism from things like this. Anything that you are putting in olive oil should be dried. There should not be any water content in it because it can cause bacterial growth or botulism, depending on what it is,” Tramonti advises.
In the high-volume atmosphere of Queen Margherita, tableside oils are used up on a daily basis, which reduces the risk of the health and safety issues that Tramonti talks about.
“We use it for consumption for the day, we’re not storing it. The maximum life is two days for us, but because we have high volume we go through it quickly. We clean the containers properly and we start fresh every day,” Chetti explains.
The bottles of spiced oil at Queen Margherita are being poured and drizzled so quickly that it is hard to deny their star status in the pizzeria.
“Customers love it!” Chetti exclaims. “We’ve even been approached by larger grocery stores to actually bottle it, it’s just that good. It is high end. I’ve been to other restaurants where they slap cheap ingredients together, but our ingredients speak for themselves.”
Using high-quality ingredients can be costly, especially where olive oil is concerned. Sarafino Inc. sells its five-litre tins of extra virgin olive oil at a wholesale price of $90 per tin, with four tins making up a case. When asked if all high-quality olive oil is this expensive, Tramonti points to the reasoning behind pricing.
“Exchange ‘good quality’ for ‘real’, because it is impossible for anyone to produce olive oil and for it to be the real thing for less than that price. It’s literally impossible. Olive oil production is very labour intensive,” he says.
Chetti says that his restaurant has become one of the top pizza restaurants in Toronto on the strength of its quality ingredients. In an effort to balance the costs associated with high-quality products and still earn a profit, Chetti shares one of his tips for success.
“That’s the beauty of our restaurant. We’ve sourced out the best products and even though we don’t have the most expensive menu, we always get the best quality. That may mean that we don’t make as much at the end of the day, but we deliver something to our clients that they appreciate.”
If the rave reviews from food critics and customers of Queen Margherita Pizza are any indication, then Chetti’s business model, his hand-crafted pizzas and his tableside spiced oils are surely something to celebrate.
By experimenting with your own spiced oils, you may just discover a tableside delight that creates a buzz all its own. •
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge Ont., and a regular contributor to Canadian Pizza magazine and Bakers Journal.