Today I learned so much from a woman who lives in the hills above Assisi and grows her own olives.
Unlike wine, there aren't a lot of manipulations to make after the olives are pressed. It's all about the variety of olive (there are hundreds) and when they are picked. Olive oil pressed days or weeks ago may be unfiltered, rich, and bold as it still has tiny bits of olives in it. Oil that is going to be bottled for sale a year or so later is filtered and more refined. Mass produced olive oils may say Italy on the bottle but that simply means that it was bottled in Italy. The olives may have come from all over the Mediterranean.
If you have the chance to buy an olive oil from a local producer in Napa or Sonoma, this may be the oil you drizzle on a lentil soup or on bruschetta or on some thinly sliced zucchini that has been "marinated" in lemon juice with garlic then tossed and topped with toasted glazed almonds.
So, with olive oils, the fresher the better. It's the inverse with balsamic vinegar. The older the vinegar the better. Real balsamico is made from vinegar and crushed grape must (the leftovers from the crush). Fake balsamico is made from vinegar and caramel. Anything from Modena in Italy is real.
Clearly, it's more expensive to use more local and real products. But you can use much less of it for incredible flavor, making it a better value.
There may be no substitute for using what is best in season. The fewest ingredients at their peak make for the very best food. Think fresh pasta sauce with the ripest tomatoes of summer.
I know winter is coming and I am supposed to be excited about root crops. I am not quite there yet.
To learn a lot more about real Italian cooking, check out this blog on Italian family food.