There are three common types of Italian olive oil: extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil and olive oil. Italy produces about 420,000 tons of olive oil. Tuscany, Umbria, Campagna, Liguria, Latium, Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia all produce olive oil.
The best Italian olive oil is made from hand-picked olives that are not completely ripe. The harvest is short, normally lasting from mid-November to mid-December.
Virgin olive oils, including extra virgin olive oils, are untreated and do not contain additives. The level of acidity should be as low as possible.
Extra virgin olive oil is the result of the first cold pressing of the olive. Ideally the olives are picked and pressed on the same day. This is the finest and most expensive olive oil and is the olive oil generally associated with health benefits. Extra virgin olive oil is very light and flavorful and has the lowest level of acidity. Italians usually put extra virgin olive oil and a little balsamic vinaigrette on their salads. Extra virgin olive oil can also be used in marinades, for dipping breads and other recipes which call for olive oil that is not cooked.
Virgin olive oil is the first-press oil and is not considered to be as good as extra virgin olive oil. It has a higher acidity and is often used in cooking. The olives are usually pressed the day after they are picked.
Olive oil that is labeled pure olive oil or just olive oil is a blend of extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil. This type of Italian olive oil may contain extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil as well as oil from several different harvests.
After the first pressing more oil is extracted from the pulp through the use of heat and chemicals. The oil produced is known as refined, light or extra light olive oil. The processing of extra virgin olive oil normally takes place at a different mill from that used to produce refined or light olive oils.
Second press olive oil should only be used for frying.
Olive oil labeled as light or extra light is not lower in calorie, it is olive oil that has been filtered and has lost most of its color, smell and flavor. This oil can be used for cooking at high temperatures such as frying.
Italian olive oil should be stored in a dark glass bottle and away from the heat and light. Never refrigerate Italian olive oil.
Be careful when buying Italian olive oil. When the label reads “product of Italy” that just means that the olive oil was bottled in Italy, but the olives may have been grown elsewhere. This has been used by a number of the larger producers of Italian olive oil. Make sure the bottle is labeled 100% Italian olives.