March 2011

In this fabulous job at Olio2go, we are immersed in Italian culture and reminded of Italian-American experiences on a daily basis. We have memories of our grandparents who bridged cultures in small towns, our own travels to Italy, and our remembrances of the traditions that we have kept and those that we have let go.

My grandmother, Lucille, could take two pork chops and serve all who came to dinner, with a little of this and a little of that. The table filled quickly with antipasto selections, pasta, and vegetables. Miraculously a bounty could be found at her house. My grandfather had a garden in the back yard with grape vines, tomatoes, zucchini, and chard. My writing here doesn’t do justice to the abundance of love expressed through food in that house.

As emigration from Italy to the U.S. has tailed off, we have fewer who can carry forth the traditions from the old country. It is now up to the U.S.-born to carry on the traditions for the future generations. If this is an interest of yours, be sure to join the National Italian American Foundation (NAIF).

Recently, I came across an alumni magazine with stories of the influences of grandparents and returning to one’s roots. Land Recognized is the story of a young woman’s journey back to Italy. On page 30 of the PDF, Land Recognized reveals the thoughts of her journey to Italy in search of a connection to her grandmother and her family’s history.

Popular novelist Adriana Trigiani weaves tales of her Italian American upbringing through her novels and her family memoir. From Big Stone Gap, through the mills of Pennsylvania, she crafts wonderful weavings of her experiences and those common to so many of us who had the joys and experience of Italian-American small town life. Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from my Grandmothers brought back my own memories of Lucille and Josephine. In the last pages, I began to think of all of those friends and cousins who would enjoy this book!

Adriana Trigiani has also published a cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters: One Hundred Years of Family Recipes from Bari to Big Stone Gap, sharing more of her family’s Italian-American heritage.

We’d love to know your favorite traditions and we’d also like to know your favorite books to share with other Olio2go readers!

Notice the labels.

You get what you pay for…. that sounds so sassy, but really, it’s true. With us. We’ve carefully selected our balsamic vinegars for the store, and feel confident that the relationship between quality and price is appropriate, relative, and proportional. The real shock for some is that as the price goes up, the size of the bottle goes down.  The ultimate traditional balsamic vinegars are silky smooth, syrupy, sweet and incredibly complex.

We select products that adhere to the Italian (and European Union) standards for balsamic vinegar. All true balsamic vinegar comes from the region, Emilia Romagna. The region is further divided and controlled by two consortia, Modena and Reggio-Emilia. (Still with us)?

Each of the consortia bottles their top vinegar (tradizionale) in distinctive, exclusive, bottles. Selections from Modena are in a bottle that looks like a globe on a base, while the selections from Reggio Emilia evoke an upside down tulip or wine glass. With one of those distinctive bottles in your warm hands, and you have 100 ml of the finest aceto di balsamic tradizionale to be found anywhere. The “real thing” will always be in one of these two bottle types.

Certified after a minimum of 12 years, the aceto balsamico is called tradizionale. After the 25 year mark, it may be approved as extravecchio. There’s no further designation although some producers have products they deem to be 50 or 75 years old.

. Modena Reggio Emilia
Bottle Shape Tulip/inverted wine glass Globe on base
Size 100 ml 100 ml
12+ Years May be evaluated for Tradizionale designation May be evaluated for Tradizionale designation
Cap/Label Magenta Cap/White Label (12) Red Label (12)
. . Silver Label (18)
25+ years Gold Cap, gold seal Gold Label
Grapes Trebbiano and Lambrusco must Predominantly Trebbiano must
Wood cask battery Chestnut, cherry, mulberry, juniper, oak Chestnut, cherry, mulberry, juniper, oak

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What’s the difference?

Regional pride. Both consortia produce fine and exclusive comparable products.  Both groups adhere to strict rules, from the production of the grapes to the certification and bottling processes.

Until the last couple of years, the Reggio Emilia selections had been packaged in a box that looks somewhat like a book. More recently some producers have selected packaging in a stronger oval tube.  The Modena boxes are more cube-shaped. Both packages are well designed to protect the precious balsamic vinegar.

Look for the words tradizionale and be prepared to pay dearly. With extravecchio on the label, be prepared to pay even more.

The Other Balsamic Vinegars

Within the past year or so, new regulations have been enacted in Italy (or perhaps the EU). Changes have been made to label standards. When sold in the EU the vinegars may not have the numerals we have been familiar with. In fairness, those numbers have always indicated the vat progression (in the acetaia battery) while some have interpreted those numbers to connote “age”. In order to define them for marketing purposes we are continuing to use the numbers to delineate the age progression. For Aceto Balsamico di Modena, DOC indicates the geographical origin of the ingredients, and also the artisanal methods of production. The IGP label is less restrictive, so when there is a choice, the DOP signifies the more desirable and authentic product.

Some very good vinegars are bottled without full consortium approval. They may be made by producers of tradizionale, but aged less than the minimum of 12 years. These are also known as Condimento grade.

For a number of years we have referred to the products with their richly redundant names, Manicardi Botticella Oro (Gold) 25. Whether or not the 25 is on the label it is still the same excellent vinegar. The same holds true for Argento “22”.  Manicardi 22 and 25, along with the Villa Manodori selections are produced with the same care as traditional balsamics but are not held for the same amount of time. These are a real treat, but not the magical elixir costing $50-$200 more.

Further down the line, we have Manicardi 12. Without the “12” the product long known as Manicardi 12 carries the rather generic name Aceto Balsamico di Modena DOC….We have continued to use the number 12 for continuity, and have received this product with a variety of labeling in the past year. We regularly consume this at home, and the bottle shape, box and label color scheme, and most importantly, quality characteristics have not changed. This product is in line with a young balsamic. It meets DOC standards, but is not in the same production line as those what will become the finest tradizionale vinegars. It’s nice and perfect for salads.

 How to Use Balsamic Vinegar

The top tradizionale and extravecchio are for grand occasions. Special birthdays and anniversaries, an incredible wedding gift. A superb business thank you. Used by the drop. A complex treat on fresh strawberries or raspberries.

The mid products – Manicardi Oro (25) and Argento (22), Villa Manodori Artigianale and Dark Cherry—are also very special albeit with the certification of excellence. Some may use these by the tablespoon with fruit, or cheese, or desserts, or roasted meats. They add a special flare to salads.

Manicardi 12 elevates every day salads. It is richer and smoother than other selections in the price range. We think this is spectacular with a good combination of extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper, on lovely greens.