Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
We're big fans of Maialino—Ed recently gave their breakfast potatoes a shout out in his roundup of 2012 favorites, and Kenji spent some time with executive chef Nick Anderer, capturing his late-night kimchi fried rice on video. So when we were tipped off that Nick will soon be unveiling an olive oil tasting menu, we had a feeling something serious was coming.
"I think olive oil is one of those things that oftentimes gets taken for granted. Obviously it's a very important ingredient, particularly in Italian cooking," Nick began in regards to his motivation for the program. "We try to celebrate Italian tradition at Maialino—we consider ourselves sort of archivists when it comes to our menu. We research old recipes and dust them off and breathe new life into them. So we figured we'd take that archivist approach to olive oil."
Evidently this time of year is just right for opening this exploration to guests at Maialino, too, as "olio nuovo" is bottled from oils pressed in December, and the range of flavors particular to their terroir is most evident. And as olive oil doesn't get better with age but rather mellows out (Nick won't use an oil that's older than a year), nabbing fresh oil is key.
In that light, this week he's unveiling a three-oil tasting menu featuring Italy's brightest regional oils. They'll still be offering complimentary oil (currently Terre Bormane from Liguria) with bread, but will now offer guests one or a selection of the specialty oils. While dessert currently includes fior di latte gelato "drowning" in a fresh, green olive oil, pairing oils with food isn't the goal. "For me, pairing is a little ridiculous, both from a flavor standpoint and from a cultural standpoint. If you put yourself in the shoes of anybody in Italy, there's so much regional pride that they're going to have the oil from their region, and they're going to have it with everything."
As the seasons progress, different oils will be offered from various regions, all with tasting notes and a bit of history behind them. Here's what you'll find right now. "I just like to celebrate the fact that it's just a delicious thing, and I want people to see it in all it can be."
The most rounded of the new oils on Nick's list, the Capezzana is a blend of Frantoio and Moraiolo olives from Tuscany, where the mountainous terroir means that most oils are blends of several olives. The olives are pressed within 12 to 24 hours of picking, making this oil the brightest of the three, starting off round and fruity and finishing with a bit of spice.
2. Olio Verde
This single-origin Sicilian oil from Gianfranco Becchina is made from 100% castelvetrano olives, which Nick also uses in the ragouts and carpaccios in the kitchen. He loves them for their juicy and briny flavor.
3. Armando Manni
Armando Manni is the "leader in boutique olive oils." Manni (an economist turned photographer turned filmmaker turned olive oil producer, evidently) works with the department of Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Florence to pinpoint how cold pressing, the spinning of the olive mash, and extraction affect the health benefits of the oil. Their process keeps as much of the good stuff in as possible, an package the oil in tiny, dark bottles to a limited targeted clientele; Daniel and Per Se are the only other restaurants in the city who made the purchasing list. Nick offers the "Per Me" oil made for the health of adults (versus the "Per Mio Figlio" Manna made for his son and kids of that age), a very clean oil with low acidity.