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.

But what about the price--between $20 and $40 for a truly fine bottle? Pikovsky, a neat, polite man with lively eyes, smiles at the question, which he clearly hears a lot. "Life's a gamble," he says. "You might as well gamble with what you're cooking. Otherwise you may as well go to McDonald's, and that's no gamble at all."

Broviak & Company is a pleasant place to do your culinary gambling: Open since last November at the intersection of I-394 and the Hopkins Crossroad (behind Zaroff's), it's the Twin Cities' newest one-stop gourmet shop for epicureans. To comply with our bizarre liquor laws, the store is arranged in a sort of lopsided doughnut shape, so that the liquor section's entrance and cash register are separate from the food store. In the outer ring you'll find more than 1,000 varieties of wine, an outstanding temperature-controlled port cellar, a wide array of premium liquors, a large cigar humidor, and more than 100 microbrews and imported beers. In the middle there's a nice sampling of chocolates, pastas, teas, sauces, caviars, and the best cheese case west of Surdyk's: Recently it featured real Iowa Maytag Blue, a pyramid-shaped French artisanal goat cheese prettily named "Crocodile Tears," and imported British Double Gloucester.

And, of course, Broviak carries a good selection of Pikovsky's olive oils, naturally cured olives, and balsamic vinegars. And while premium olive oils and vinegars aren't exactly flying off the shelves, says manager Nancy Dahlof, the market is growing. "People come into the store and they know that they're interested in a fine olive oil or a nice balsamic vinegar. They may not know exactly what they want, but they know about them and have heard that we have them. If we see that someone's interested, we try to answer any questions they might have. We try not to be pushy, just receptive and open; we want to provide the best products so that people can have exceptional food." Part of Broviak's goal is to acquaint customers with new foods through regular Friday and Saturday tastings, adds co-owner Warren Steiner; you can sign up at the store for a calendar.

Revising your palate through oil immersion might seem counterintuitive or even sort of gross, but sometimes it's important to question the foundations of our food. Or as Scott Pikovsky puts it: "sometimes you just get so caught up in your underwear, you can't see the possibilities."

Questions for Scott Pikovsky can be addressed to him at Great Ciao, Inc., 5471 Zumbra Circle, Excelsior, MN 55331.

TABLEHOPPING

SPOONS UP: Want to host your own olive-oil tasting? When the pros do it,they decant sips of each oil into wine glasses and cleanse their palates between sips with a slice of crisp apple (it's thought that bread's flavor and texture interfere with the taste of the oil). Frankly, you'll probably do just as well with a bunch of plastic spoons (metal ones can impart a foreign taste) and a few loaves of plain bread--after all, that's what you're likely to eat the oil with, no? Get your pals to supply half a dozen bottles of oil and indulge in a spoonful of each, offering up as many adjectives as you can. Almondy? Sure. Acidic? Very technical. Like a tango with a storm cloud? Why not? Consider serving a variety of finger foods to dip into the oils after your first, rigorously formal round of tasting--cheeses, roasted or raw vegetables, cold poached fish, even orange segments are good choices. Finish your event with a simple olive oil-dependent dish like the following, from the Canada-based Italian Estate Extra-Virgin Olive Oil site: (http://www.gourmetoliveoil.com/producers.htm)

Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil (serves 4)

* 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

* 5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

* 2 pounds fresh vine-ripened plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped; or 3 cups high-quality canned imported Italian whole plum tomatoes (preferably of the San Marzano variety) with their juice, coarsely chopped

* Salt

* 12 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Over medium heat, cook olive oil and garlic in a saucepan until garlic sizzles. Add tomatoes, and as liquid reduces, add salt. Cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. When sauce reaches the consistency you want, add basil. Cook 1 minute. When water boils, add 11/2 tablespoons salt, drop in pasta, and stir until cooked al dente. Drain pasta and toss with sauce.

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