Extra virgin olive oil is one of the most distinctive Mediterranean flavors to taste on tour in Italy. (Honestly, it’s so good, you could almost eat it off a spoon!) While the ancient Greeks are to thank for bringing olive trees to Italy, the Italians are credited for perfecting its production—and have been doing it for thousands of years. Think all Italian olive oil is the same? It’s true that you really can’t go wrong with any type of extra virgin olive oil, but the terroir an olive tree grows in impacts the final flavor.
Whether you’re looking for bold and peppery, or bright and crisp, here are four of the top regions to try olive oil in Italy. And good news: Our travel experts bring you to all of them on our Food & Wine Tours!
In this Northern Italian region, small Taggiasca olives with a fruity flavor grow abundantly on high slopes near the sea. The olive trees on this terraced terrain are resilient, but produce delicate, sweet olive oil that shines in the region’s lighter dishes. It’s some of the best Italian olive oil, and you’ll have countless opportunities to taste it on tour in Northern Italy.
If bold, peppery Italian olive oil is up your alley, then Tuscany is the place to find it. There are eight varieties of oils produced in the sub-regions throughout Tuscany, including Colline Senesi, which we sample on tour. But two of the most common varieties of olive trees that grow abundantly here are Frantoio (which makes for more intense oil) and Leccino (which makes for oil that’s lighter and fruitier).
“We tasted olive oil in Tuscany at Villa La Pallagina with Jack Bishop from America’s Test Kitchen,” said staffer Marina. “He taught us how to correctly smell, sip, and taste olive oil. Villa La Palagina produces their own called Laudemio, which was delicious and high-quality. It felt special to walk the property and see the olives growing on the trees that will become the olive oil visitors taste. We learned that harvest season is October through January, and that oils can have multiple sources or a single source.”
“Still one of the least known and least touristed areas of the country, Puglia has everything to offer, from sunshine and lemon and olive groves, to ancient cities just waiting for you to unlock their secrets,” said traveler Mary after her Puglia & Southern Italy tour. Mary’s spot on—Puglia is full of surprises, especially for foodies. And, if you enjoy Italian olive oil in your own kitchen at home, you might just have the Puglia region to thank. Puglia produces close to half of all of Italy’s olive oil, and holds the title of olive oil capital. (In a country that produces the best of the best no matter where you go, that’s really saying something!)
While there are quite a few standout olive varieties in Puglia, the Coratina olives grown around the capital city of Bari shine. This variety makes for a fruity, bright, almost spicy oil called Terra di Bari, and it’s a must-try on tour in Puglia.
Sicily’s full-bodied, almost spicy olive oil is mostly made from famous Tonda Iblea olives, which only grow in a specific area near Mount Etna. The most distinctive characteristic of these olives? The aroma of ripe tomatoes!
While Sicily’s Monti Iblei olive oil is a star in Southern Italy, it’s just one of the many flavors you’ll fall in love with. Just ask traveler Betty, who tasted the best of the best on our Food & Wine: Southern Italy & Sicily tour. “Italy is not just about the pasta (I had linguine with shrimp and pistachios),” she said. “Let’s talk about the bread (to die for), cheese (fresh bufala mozzarella and ricotta), vegetables (who knew Southern Italy grows wonderful sweet red onions), chocolate, olive oil, wine, etc. etc. Oops, how could I forget the gelato!” Check out more things to know about Sicilian cuisine →
While there’s nothing like drizzling some fresh extra virgin olive oil over a rustic Tuscan soup in Florence, buying good Italian olive oil at home is the next-best thing. Here are some tips to be sure you’re getting the real stuff.
Always buy extra virgin olive oil; it’s unrefined, high quality, and the least-processed option out there. Specifically look for cold-pressed or cold-extracted (a modern twist on cold-pressed) written on the label. Plus, “single-source oils are more expensive and typically better quality,” said staffer Marina after tasting some of the best on our Food & Wine Tour of Piedmont & Tuscany.
Labels that say “Product of Italy” or “Bottled in Italy” don’t necessarily mean the oil is processed there or all the olives are grown there. In order to know your olive oil is truly from a country (as in grown, harvested, and bottled), look for a specific estate name on the label.
Color matters—a little. Foodies used to believe that the greener the oil, the better the quality. That thinking is now considered passé, but a green color does signify younger, often stronger flavored olives.
Unlike a nice bottle of red wine, you don’t want to age your olive oil. As soon as you buy your oil, open it and enjoy! And always look for a “best by date” or ideally a harvest date on the label. “When buying olive oil, you should look at the date of harvest,” said staffer Marina after learning all about Italian olive oil on our Food & Wine Tour of Piedmont & Tuscany. “You should aim to buy oils no more than 12-18 months old.”
The longer a bottle is open, the more the flavor and aroma will deteriorate, so opt for smaller bottles that you’ll go through fairly quickly.
Light causes the oil to oxidize and deteriorate, so go for olive oil packaged in dark glass bottles.