To understand how best to use olives on pizza or in pasta dishes or antipasti, we must first look at the various types of olives available, their characteristics and overall usage. And then there is the question of pit or no pit. For example, some restaurants will set a small plate of olives on the table for a nibble while you look over the menu, order a cocktail or a glass of wine. Sometimes these olives are pitted, sometimes not. Caution: if you are going to serve olives for this purpose, do not mix pitted olives with olives containing pits (if you plan to do so, check your insurance policy for dental coverage for patrons who break a tooth).
While there are many more types of olives available, these are the select group in common usage for restaurants in the U.S. Also, keep in mind food costs; there is quite a price span between, say, the canned black ripe olive from California, and the Gaeta from Italy. Also, olives that are cured and blended with herbs generally cost more (but you can’t beat the flavor).
Type: canned black ripe olives.
Description: This is the olive commonly used as a pizza topping. These black olives are processed in a lye curing solution to leach the bitterness out. After this step in the curing process, the olives undergo a series of water baths, followed by a process that gives the olives their stable color. Black ripe olives have a firm texture and a mellow taste. Available pitted, whole, sliced or chopped.
Usage: This is a very versatile olive. I use the sliced type as a pizza topping, whole (pitted) in salads as part of caponata, and for just plain snacking.
Type: Green ripe olive. Same as the black ripe olive, except the green ripe olive has not been exposed to air, so it retains its natural color.
Usage: Use in the same way as the black ripe olive. On occasion, I will make a blend of black ripe and green ripe as a topping for pizza, as well as in caponata.
Provenance: Greece (varieties of this olive that are grown in California are spelled calamata). Description: Brine-cured, almond shape, eggplant-colored (shading to black) olive that is cured in red wine vinegar. A soft, meaty, fruity olive that is a well-known favorite.
Usage: More expensive than the black ripe olive, but given a choice I would use this olive on pizza since it has a deep olive-rich flavor that holds up well under the heat of the oven. Kalamatas are also a good choice for pairing with, say, feta cheese for a Greek-style appetizer, a Greek pizza (see recipe) or in a Greek salad.
Provenance: Italy (a town between Naples and Rome).
Description: Some versions are very mild, while some are quite strong (relative to the curing process). Dry-cured are deep black in color and are quite wrinkled. Brine-cured have a smooth skin and lose some of their color, giving the olives a violet cast. Gaetas are often given a tumble with rosemary and other herbs to enhance the overall flavor.
Usage: I love this olive. I use it as part of an antipasto, in salads, in a pasta dish, and on fish. I would use this olive, too, to make a tapenade (olive spread) for crostini. And when enhanced with rosemary or herbs it becomes an incomparable snacking olive.
Description: A small brown-green-black olive (generally it is not pitted) that is quite tasty.
Usage: Snacking and indispensable to a classic salade Nicoise.
Type: Manzinilla (a.k.a. Queen).
Provenance: Spain and California. Green, lye-cured, fermented in salt brine.
Description: A meaty olive that is often stuffed with pimento.
Usage: Use in salads, cold pasta salad, and some chicken dishes. Indispensable to the olive salad that is critical to a well-made muffaletta.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Yield: 4 servings as a pasta course (scale up in direct proportion)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
5 anchovy filets, lightly chopped
12 Gaeta or kalamata olives, stoned and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
2 teaspoons crushed red chili flakes
1 quart canned whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 pound spaghetti
½ (one-half) cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the garlic. Cook the garlic until it just begins to turn golden brown. Discard the garlic.
Add the anchovy fillets and mash them to a paste with a fork. Add the olives, capers and red pepper flakes. Turn the heat to low.
Crush the plum tomatoes by hand, and drain off excess water. Add the tomatoes to the pan with the anchovies and capers. Turn the heat to medium-high. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes.
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Portion the pasta among four heated pasta bowls. Ladle an equal amount of sauce over the pasta. Top each dish with an equal amount of Parmesan. Serve.
Makes one 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 14-inch diameter pizza shell
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh baby spinach, washed, drained, chopped
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
½ cup stoned brine-cured green olives
½ cup stoned brine-cured black olives
1 cup (about ¼ pound) feta cheese, crumbled
Brush the pizza shell with the olive oil. Toss the spinach with the red onion and spread it evenly over the pizza shell. Combine the two olives and sprinkle them evenly over the spinach. Sprinkle the feta cheese evenly over the pizza. Bake and serve.