On the weekend of the Brooklyn Book Festival, a collection of foodie and literary types (and some, like myself, who are a little of both) gathered in my Park Slope living room to determine which was the best of a selection of extra virgin olive oils that can be found for $10 or less in Brooklyn supermarkets.
As the author of a memoir of good food and bad boyfriends entitled I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, I am an Italian cook, proud of my palate, if not my taste in men. I’ve hosted such competitions before and can tell you, because I’ve tried all of them, where in Brooklyn the best mozzarella (Lioni Latticini), and the best Italian sausage (M&S Prime Meats) can be found. I am also somewhat frugal—something to do with my father and Italy after the war—and believe that the brand of olive oil I regularly buy on sale at my local Key Food is perfectly fine. When Faye Penn, Brokelyn’s editor, suggested we do this competition, I jumped at the chance—happy for the opportunity to make sure I was throwing the few dollars I invest in olive oil in the right direction.
Amy Sohn, a woman who clearly has her priorities in order, took time out from her busy publicity schedule to taste oil. Her latest novel, Prospect Park West, a local sensation, had been published a few days earlier. Michael Idov, who wrote a stunning debut novel entitled Ground Up, was another author who probably drank a little too much the evening before a big reading—though all that olive oil must have been good for our voices, at least.
Faye brought her husband, Joel, and The Brokavore, Brokelyn’s obsessively cheap foodie, and everyone who had children brought them. I don’t pay much attention to children, even when they might be destroying my apartment (which one of them dubbed “fancy;” I liked that a lot). I’m guessing there were five or six of them running around my three rooms or drawing pictures of cats on the index cards I provided for our tasting notes.
I am Italian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn, thank you very much. When people come to my apartment for an olive oil tasting, they’re not just going to get olive oil. I served a bunch of different white wines and a spread of antipasti. When all the tasters arrived I poured six brands of oil into fancy bowls marked by a visible letter and a hidden number that corresponded to a bottle in the kitchen. No one knew what they were tasting. I distributed cards for the tasters to write their impressions. People were supposed to keep quiet as they tasted, but they couldn’t help but blurt out opinions, me especially.
Still, with all the talk filling up the room I didn’t get the sense that there were any clear favorites. It when I collected the grading cards strewn about my living room, that I got a sense of what the crowd liked. I will report that finding for the sake of scientific inquiry, but I will unscientifically tell you that they are wrong.
Comparing olives oils is a terrific challenge. Some of the oils were good because they were mild and fruity, others because they were bold and spicy. Which to declare better was mainly a matter of taste. What you might be preparing is another factor to take into account when choosing between these oils. You wouldn’t want something peppery on an arugula salad—that green’s got enough going on already—but it might be great on romaine. The worst of the oils had many of the same qualities as the good ones marred by sharp fronts or rough finishes, which went unnoticed by some of our tasters. Yes, even the unknown el cheapo brands thrown into the mix as wild cards had their fans.
Shockingly, the brand that received a unanimous thumb down by our panel was Filippo Berio (on sale for $6.99 for 750 ml at Key Food at 369 Flatbush Ave.).
Berio, in its non-extra virgin version, is the oil my mother always kept around in gallon containers in her Bay Ridge kitchen when I was growing up in the ’70s. Back then supermarkets did not carry the variety of olive oils they do today. I always assumed Berio signified quality and I will defend my mother by assuming that, of the choices available to her, Berio was most likely the best. Domenico DeMarco wields that same can at DiFara Pizza to the oohs and aahs of the adoring who queue up on Avenue J in Midwood for his celebrated slices. We tasted the extra virgin Berio, maybe her sluttier sister tastes great. The chaste one got a resounding negative from us—“burnt marshmallow,” is how one of our tasters described it; others called it “bitter and flat,” and one accused it of being “oily,” which I hardly think is fair.
My favorites of the brands we tried were Zoe Organic ($9.60 for 750 ml at Sahadi’s at 187 Atlantic Ave.) and DeCecco (always on sale at Key Food on Flatbush Avenue for $9.99 for 1 liter, though I spotted that same bottle at Met Food at 632 Vanderbilt Ave. the other day for $7.99). Not everyone agreed with me. Where I found these oils to be equally fruity and delicious, another taster found them equally bitter and harsh. One person called both of them soapy—though maybe that person uses olive oil soap. Two tasters described Zoe as “a classic” and two described it as “bitter.” While both of these brands received more positives than negatives, they were not universally loved. This disappoints me because DeCecco is my go to brand, though I will also be buying Zoe in the future because it had the same light fruit flavor I like in my olive oil.
The brand that received no negative comments was Colavita ($7.95 for 750 ml at Sahadi’s). It has more pepper than DeCecco and Zoe, a quality I did not admire, though I could find no fault with the oil besides that simple matter of preference. Our panel liked its spiciness, which tasters equated with “character,” “sophistication,” and “complexity of flavor.” One described it as both “light,” and “full bodied,” which is either a miraculous feat or just plain wrong.
Botticelli ($2.95 for 250ml at Key Food at 369 Flatbush Ave.) was called names like “stinky” and “gasoline.” It also garnered poetry like “fresher and younger tasting than the others,” and “herbal, like grass.” My judgment leaned toward the camp of fresh gas. I did however find that Sophia ($6.99 for 33 oz./approx 976 ml at Three Guys from Brooklyn), the cheapest oil on the list, shared Colavita’s pepper and spice. While a few other tasters agreed it was a decent oil, some detected a bitter, even “brutally stinging,” finish” Still it was admired for it’s “sweet front” and fruitiness.
The Brokavore, a passionate supporter of Sophia, left my apartment feeling unsettled about having chosen Sophia as his hands down favorite. He needn’t be so hard on himself. To paraphrase Woody Allen, when it comes to olive oils, the mouth likes what it likes.
As I sorted through the sloppy comments cards and childish cat drawings I realized that they went well together. I am pleased that I went through this exercise, and I don’t care if people didn’t like my brand. What I conclude from trying all these oils is that olive oil is difficult to know—sort of like a cat.