Chef Teddy Diggs takes a shot of extra-virgin olive oil every morning. “It’s really good for your heart as far as lipids go,” he says after admitting that he also rubs the stuff into his skin. Diggs is the executive chef at Il Palio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an Italian restaurant focused on local ingredients. It’s not uncommon for chefs to travel for research, and Diggs just does just that. He embarks on an annual pilgrimage to Italy to learn and discover more of the different regional cuisine, but also to pay visit to Frantoio Villella, an olive oil mill that produces all of Il Palio’s house extra-virgin olive oil. If there were ever a question about Italian olive oil, Diggs would know how to answer it. Here are five facts he shared with us:
1) There are five major regions that produce olive oil.
Sicily, Liguria, Puglia, Umbria and Tuscany are the major players in the olive oil game. Because they’re so spread apart and experience different climates, these regions all produce different oils with different flavor profiles. Diggs breaks it down for us:
“Your typical flavor varietals of [this oil] are going to be spicy, a lot more pepper-forward, less of a finish, much more of an assertive forward flavor, a lot less grass, a little more bite, much more richness and tannin on the bitterness side of the tongue.”
“You’re going to get an almost buttery olive oil flavor. It’s soft and subtle, it’s really rich, but the opposite of Sicily. It’s round and soft and, to me, probably the sexiest oil of all of them. It’s so luscious, a lot of deep nut flavors.”
“You get a green oil, and by green, I mean it’s grassy, it’s fresh, it’s vibrant, it’s not too spicy, it’s well balanced.”
“Umbrian is that ubiquitous, straightforward olive oil. It has three different olive varieties in the blend. It varies season to season, probably more so than any of the other top five olive-oil-producing regions of Italy. That being said, it’s always consistently very green, fresh, grassy and straightforward in the front and always tends to finish with nut oils and artichokes in the back.”
“It tends to have a great pepperiness, a little more grassy flavor. It’s a little more voluptuous and round.”
2) D.O.P. labeling is a big deal.
Diggs says there’s a lot of fraud in the olive oil industry. To combat this as a consumer, Diggs says looking out for the D.O.P. labels on Italian olive oil bottles is key. D.O.P. stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta and is a government certification that ensures a product is really from where it says it’s from.
3) Italy withholds some of its olive oil stock from America.
According to Diggs, some oils aren’t shipped to America for sale. This could be due to palate differences or simply for logistical reasons — unlike wine, olive oil does not age well. “A lot of the time, the oils that they save and use in Italy are a lot different from what they send to America,” Diggs says. “It’s what Italians like versus what they think Americans like.”
4) Olive oil makes a great preservative.
Like vinegar or salt, olive oil can be used as a preservative. A typical can of tuna is technically sottolio, or under oil, which helps preserve the fish. “It’s also used as preservation for beans, fish and garlic,” says Diggs.
5) Olive oil can (and should) be used in dessert.
Whether on a cheese plate or baked into bread that closes out a meal, olive oil is frequently present in Italian desserts. Diggs says Il Palio’s Derrick McGuffey has dehydrated olive oil to mimic powdered sugar on desserts. Diggs has also made olive oil gelato on occasion. “It’s definitely not forgotten about after the savory stuff,” he says.