Expert on Italian food corrects some misconceptions

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Olive oil isn’t usually served for sipping at a dinner.

The meals Wednesday and Thursday at Antonio’s Italian Ristorante included small shots of silky oil. Mario Rizzotti, an expert on Italian food who has been an “Iron Chef America” judge on Food Network, urged those at the meals to swirl the liquid in the cup and warm it before slurping it.

They complied and some started coughing as the grassy, earthy liquid hit the back of the throat.

One of the many things he taught on these nights is that if you keep your mouth closed for five seconds, the coughing will stop.

The meal wasn’t a wine dinner, although there was wine. About 50 people gathered each night at 1105 Goshen Ave. for what was dubbed “Are You An Olive Oil Expert?”

Other than Rizzotti, no one at the meals was an expert. Though by the time folks left, they were both full and a little more knowledgeable about olive oil and how people eat in Italy.

His first job in the United States after emigrating from Italy was as a dishwasher. Now he’s a consultant to restaurant owners, a judge on a show that tests how good chefs really are, and an educator on behalf of Italian food producers.

He told the crowd Wednesday night that he respects Italian-American cuisine, but doesn’t see Chicken Vesuvio or Fettuccine Alfredo when he travels in his homeland. He sees plates of simple, fresh food.

With chef Adam Weisell, a former cooking school instructor at Eataly in Chicago, Rizzotti travels across the United States preparing meals in restaurants to educate Americans on olive oil, balsamic vinegar and eating well.

“People always have the misconception Italian food is fattening,” he said.

Rizzotti is the showman and educator who learns the diners’ names and teaches with an accent and humor. Weisell plates the food they’ve prepared in the hours leading up to the meal and speaks less willingly. They share a passion.

“It’s really important to me to bring what I grew up with (in Rome) and I loved to a broader American audience,” said Weisell in the kitchen at Antonio’s. “The idea to get across is Italian food does not have to be a lot of dough and cheese and heavy carbs.”

Rizzotti explained that extra-virgin olive oil gets used on a lot of labels. The “liquid gold” is pressed from olives that are picked and crushed and results in a liquid with acidity at or below 0.8 percent. Oil with acidity between 0.9 and 2 percent can be called “virgin.” That with 2.1 to 3 percent acidity can be called “pure.” Pomace oil is made by extracting oil from the leftover skins and pits with the help of formaldehyde, he said. Many restaurants use it and some consumers do, too.

It’s cheap but it’s not exactly healthy.

What Rizzotti touts, and takes a shot of every morning, is the more expensive extra-virgin olive oil. The good stuff, which he also sells, is labeled as “Product of Italy” and is always in a dark green bottle. If something is “packed,” “imported” or “made in” Italy, it’s not necessarily Italian.

Comparing olive oil from Greece, Italy, Spain or even Croatia is a bit like comparing citrus or even bread from the various countries. They’re simply different products, he said, encouraging those at the dinner to find one they like and use it. For cooking at temperatures above 360 degrees, he urged using pure or virgin oil.

The meal used a brand called Ravida. That’s what the diners sipped first, followed by Colavita that had a heavy garlic flavor. It wasn’t garlic, but rancidity, he said.

The food was simple and stellar and let the olive oil shine. Gnochetti, or little pasta dumplings, were served with a classic ragu. Lemon sorbet came with a drizzle of lemon olive oil.

Rizzotti and Weisell did a similar lesson and meal at Tippecanoe Place in South Bend last year. Cataldo and Rizzotti have been talking about these meals for two years. Cataldo said he wants to cook authentically and educate his customers on what that food entails. “This is a family thing. This is right where we want to be,” he told the crowd Wednesday.

The $100 tickets for one night sold in hours and a second also sold out quickly. “We could have sold four of these shows,” he said.

There will be more. Rizzotti will be back in August to do meals focused on balsamic vinegar.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.



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