Oil Man

T radition and modernity are like oil and vinegar—they’re not supposed to mix, but sometimes, they surprise you.

Extra Virgin Oil Store, recently opened on Chapel Street downtown, specializes in traditional staples of Italian eating: olive oil and vinegar. But it twists them, big-time, with flavors like Toasted Walnut, Strawberry Champagne, Spicy Habanero and Mangosteen.

The Willy Wonka behind it is owner Stephen J. Clemente. Clemente grew up in New Haven—on Olive Street, of all places—in a traditional Italian family. One of the family’s rules, he says, went something like this: if you’re tall enough to reach the stovetop, you’re old enough to cook. For a tall guy like Clemente, that means he’s been cooking since he was a very young child, for “as long as I can remember.”

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The joy of being at the stove never went away, but his education and career took him elsewhere. One day in his mid-thirties, realizing how unhappy he was on a college administration career track, he made a break for it. “I took six months off and headed to Rome,” he says, hoping to sort himself and his future out. While there he noticed something that piqued his curiosity: many of the tourists—easily spotted, he notes—were carrying the same branded shopping bags. Tracing the bags to their source, he stepped inside an odd place, the likes of which he’d never seen before.

An olive oil shop.

Soon he was thinking about how he would do it differently. One problem he noticed was that, despite selling a large number of oils from all around Italy, the store in Rome offered very little guidance for navigating its inventory. Customers were pretty much flying blind.

Extra Virgin goes hard the other way. The main products for sale—four premium base oils and roughly 25 infused oils and vinegars, with new seasonal flavors introduced every six to eight weeks—aren’t just bottled and displayed. Each is given its own tasting station, housed in a sealed metal tureen with a valved spigot and tiny paper cups for sampling. A placard next to each tureen recommends food and oil/vinegar pairings, making connections to the things you like to eat and also to the other tasting stations around the room. The card next to the Fresh Garlic olive oil, for instance, suggests combining it with Extra Virgin’s Harvest Riesling (very sweet, with a zingy acid finish) and Black Cherry vinegars. At another station, the Pineapple Coconut vinegar’s placard points you to the store’s Meyer Lemon (fragrant and bright) and Caribbean Jerk oils.

Mixing oil with vinegar is a major emphasis at Extra Virgin—indeed, its tagline is “Where Oil and Vinegar Mix.” But combining them in-store, either to produce a marinade (1:1 oil:vinegar) or a vinaigrette (1:3 oil:vinegar), requires help. That’s where the tasting bar in back comes in. Once you’ve pinpointed two items you want to try together, a staff member will sit you down and brush, not whisk, them together. If you like the result, you’ll still buy the oil and vinegar separately; then you can experiment at home to find your favorite ratios and applications. As Clemente points out, this is an advantage over buying a pre-mixed marinade or vinaigrette, which you can’t adjust to your taste.

Speaking of pre-mixed products, Clemente derides “the nonsense” you’ll find in most of the ones at the grocery store—“chemicals and salts and preservatives and all those things. We don’t have any of those.” And you can taste it. A good example is Extra Virgin’s delicate, brain-teasing Sweet Tomato olive oil, which tastes tomato-y but without any of the fruit’s characteristic acidity. This is exactly what should happen if you’re doing it the way Clemente says they do—pressing tomatoes into olive oil, then leaving the pulp and juice—the acidic bits—behind.

It’s a traditional process, to modern effect.

Extra Virgin Oil Store
1020 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-7562

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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