Get an Oil Change

My tongue knows olive oil as an ingredient, not a beverage. But I was determined to learn the intricate flavors inherent in the finest oils, so it was bottoms-up.

Broviak & Company
11300 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka; 546-4590

Putting a spoonful of olive oil into my mouth was entirely counterintuitive. First of all, it's 1998 and my tongue knows I'm not supposed to put a big glob of fat on it unless it's in the form of bacon or pâté. Second, my tongue knows olive oil as an ingredient, not a beverage. I don't go around swallowing spoonfuls of cinnamon, now do I?

But what Scott Pikovsky was feeding me over a series of recent meetings weren't just any gobs of fat. Pikovsky is the owner of Great Ciao, Inc., a small importer of gourmet treats, and these were spoonfuls of some of Europe's best olive oils. And I was determined to learn the intricate flavors inherent in the finest oils, so it was bottoms-up. I can now honestly say that I can tell a bottle of 1997 Tuscan oil from its older brothers, a southern Spanish oil from a southern California one, and I'm reasonably well convinced that I'm going to enjoy food more because of it.

Dina Kantor

Pikovsky is one of those rare people whose singular passion for perfection is changing the face of cuisine in the Twin Cities: Five years ago you would have been hard pressed around here to find Nuñez de Prado, a "free-run" oil made by lightly pressing--but not smashing, poking, or stirring--handpicked organic olives. Nuñez is a sweet, creamy, nutty oil with a long, buttery finish, an oil that could easily be featured in a dessert with sugar and berries. Five years ago you would have had to fly to Italy to get a spoonful of the pale-green Castello di Bulgheri, a peppery, artichoke-flavored oil. Now you'll find both products all over the Cities--if you know where to look.

Restaurants that use Great Ciao imports--Giorgio's, Auriga, Table of Contents, Cafe 128, and the Blue Point, for instance--are good places to start, but chef Eric Scherwinski at the Napa Valley Grille takes the fascination with fine oils one step further: He has just debuted an olive-oil list that works like a wine list. The selection includes half a dozen premium extra-virgins, which customers can purchase as two-ounce pours to accompany the Grille's excellent bread, cheeses, and sliced fruit.

"The oils that Scott has been giving me are just outstanding," says Scherwinski. "You can tell different soils, different regions, different flavors--be it rich, peppery, citrus, or what have you. I already use these oils to drizzle over fresh bread or seafood, but I think doing the pour at the table and having the service well educated in the oils is something that people in the Twin Cities are going to love. Great oils have an aroma, a definite finish and start; they're not just a single note. They give you something to think about for a long time."

Olive oils are just the tip of the culinary iceberg to Pikovsky, who imports a wide variety of other European treats: mullet and tuna bottarga (air-dried blocks of fish roe critical to giving a spicy, briny air to some Mediterranean dishes); salt-cured Sicilian capers, lizardy morsels with a piquant, earthy taste that remind me of anchovies in their saline intensity; chewy, oil-cured caper berries and bursting, grape-tender vinegar-cured ones (caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush, of which capers are the buds); a whole variety of balsamic vinegars; and artisan cheeses such as an antique Gruyère and several handmade Italian Parmesans.

He even sells a variety of gray and white traditional salts from around the world. "You think salt is salt is salt," he says, "but there's really a huge difference in how salt plays out once you taste it. The tastes [of rare salts] are significantly different from iodized salt or kosher salt." Indeed, his Japanese sea salt is bright, biting, and minerally, whereas the salt gathered from French coasts has an almost herbal fragrance and gives an unmistakable oceanic tang to food. (Some of the Great Ciao salts can be found at Cooks of Crocus Hill, Broviak & Company, and several local co-ops including the Wedge, Mississippi Market, and Linden Hills Co-op.)

The fact that Pikovsky is unwilling to leave salt alone as the white stuff in shakers is a good example of the perfectionism that drives him. "Ever since college I've been intellectually interested in food," he says. "I realized that if you've never tasted fine wine, 'Hearty Burgundy' may well taste very good to you, but once you taste more widely you'll figure out differently. Likewise, if you've never tried good olive oil before, you'll think that regular olive oil is really good. But trying a premium-quality oil will change your thinking about how to use oil. It opens up a whole new aspect of cooking."

Pikovsky's obsession with fine oils began as he researched and purchased them by the case for his own use. When he realized that he wanted a flexible work schedule to accommodate his two young daughters, he quit his day job at a family transportation business and turned his love of fine ingredients into a career. Hence, when a tiny olive-oil producer like La Boncie of Siena produces a mere 30 cases of its exquisite yellow oil with bright, springy, herbal notes, the Twin Cities are now lucky enough to receive one of those cases.

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