Q. Some Italian restaurants serve olive oil on the bread plate in lieu of butter. I find it quite good, and I wanted to know what brand might be used. It seems to have a different taste than what I can get in markets. Where can I find some of these brands?
A. First, let’s note that it might be the bread, not the olive oil, that’s different. I notice that many Italian restaurants that do the olive-oil thing serve ciabatta or focaccia bread, which is inherently different and often flavored with herbs.
Also, some of the restaurants add some balsamic vinegar to the oil (which never struck me as a great idea), or grind some pepper into it.
All that said, you can count on this: the oil is an extra-virgin oil. I pay a lot of attention to this, and I’ve seen quite a wide variation in the quality of oil used. Some use inexpensive Spanish or Greek oils (most of which doesn’t carry the country of origin anywhere on the label, just that it comes from the EU). Others use first-class oils from Italy (or elsewhere–some Spanish oils are fantastic).
If you want to find better olive oil than the typical supermarket has, I’d recommend a gourmet store like Martin Wine Cellar or, even better, Nor-Joe Imports (505 Frisco Ave., just off Metairie Road; 833-9240). They have many great oils there. My own favorite is SAICA (a.k.a. “Castelvitrano Oil”). It’s a pretty green color and has a wonderful flavor, without being extremely expensive. I buy it by the gallon for about $35.