Taste the difference: Culinary mastery of the Italian Job

Mozzarella. Parmigiano-Reggiano. Pasta. Olive oil. These classic Italian ingredients have been woven into the Canadian culinary lexicon almost to the point of being generic. Yet speak to an Italian chef or an Italian producer of certified Italian food or wine products and one discovers a different point of view.

Not all mozzarella is created equal, nor is olive oil. Consumers who cook with olive oil know that the quality can vary widely, but there is a simple way to determine the level of quality of any product from Italy.

Every region, in association with the government agriculture ministries, have consortiums that certify the legitimacy and quality of Italian products for export with the DOP and IGP labels (translated as the Protected Designation of Origin, PDO and Protected Geographical Indication, PGI) which refers to the region and production of a certain product, like cheese, olive oil, meat or tomatoes.

Wine, too, has its own quality categories: DOC and DOCG. Both are Controlled Designation of Origin but the DOCG, the higher rating of the two, is also guaranteed for taste and quality.

Italian-born Pino Posteraro, chef and owner of Cioppino’s in Yaletown, says of the labelling that it is “a guarantee that from a health point of view and provenance that it has been checked. It’s a guarantee (from) the Italian government, with the European community. It’s good for the chefs but also the (consumers).”

Posteraro adds that the labelling indicates a triple-control process. The designations show that certain standards of quality have been met and are genuine. If a tin of San Marzano tomatoes has the DOP label, then you know they were grown in Italy and processed there, too. Anyone can grow the variety anywhere, for example California or even the Okanagan. Not having grown in the designated region means those tomatoes aren’t genuine Italian San Marzano, much like the other tinned tomatoes labelled “Italian tomatoes.”

For wine, the certification is just as stringent and important. The land designation is carefully measured just to legitimize where a certain grape is grown. If the vineyard is a mere foot, or even shorter, outside the designated area, it cannot be named that type of wine even if it’s the same grape.

Beppe D’Andrea, global brand ambassador for Ruffino Wines, says the existing vineyards are registered and cannot be expanded. So if you see a Ruffino Chianti in the store, you’ll know with the DOC or DOCG label that it comes from the precisely defined region of Chianti. Its DOCG attests for the quality of the wine.

Beyond the competitive global wine and export markets, for Italians it’s about protecting their heritage and having control of those products in the marketplace. For consumers, it’s about elevated and authentic flavours.

“When they say that copying is the best way of flattering, that is not the case,” Posteraro explains. “There’ve been some items produced — even in Canada — that don’t reflect what a product really is. If you take a place where Parmigiano-Regianao is being produced and comparing blindly the difference — you don’t even have to be a chef — you will say, ‘Wow, let’s stick with the original.’ ”

As a Vancouver chef, he believes in supporting local artisans and local producers, farmers and fishmongers in Canada, but he is also committed to preserving a “heritage that has undergone centuries to produce these things.”

If you haven’t been to Italy, you would be forgiven if you thought that ricotta cheese was a refined sort of cottage cheese. But a spoonful if ricotta produced at Angelo Campomaggiore’s farm in Campania, outside of the city of Caserta, would have you thinking otherwise. Imagine a ricotta that is more like a weighty whipped cream than the almost flavourless curds more commonly available here.

Campomaggiore’s family co-operative, which includes a herd of 1,000 buffalo and an onsite production facility, was recognized in 2005 by the Mozzarella consortium for DOP. This was a long journey for the family which began with his parents acquiring only 10 buffalo in 1964 on a farm of only 3,000 square metres.

“Our secret is the optimum quality,” Campomaggiore says of the cheese his family produces. “For the bylaws of the DOP recognition, we need to stay within 60 hours from the moment you get the milk until you produce the cheese. For us, it is easy. We do it in two hours because we have the buffaloes right there.”

Both the milking and production facilities are on the same property.

When the milking ends at 8 p.m., they start making the cheese and by 5 a.m. they will package it and it will go to market. Mozzarella and ricotta are fresh cheeses with a shelf life of about 10 to 14 days, so timing is critical. Although there is some mechanized process involved with their production, most of it is done by hand which allows for an artisan classification rather than industrial.

The Campomaggiore farm now has 1,000 buffalo and with one farm free range for the younger animals and the pregnant buffalo, they plan to expand their milking and production property to be free range, too. They’ve acquired the property that will allow for the expansion.

Campomaggiore says the benefit is two-fold: the buffalo produce better milk by being in the natural outdoor environment and the free-range classification is value added to their products.

The question begs, can consumers buy the Campomaggiore buffalo mozzarella here? Sadly no, their exports are limited to the U.K., U.S. and some of Europe. It comes down to packaging for farther distances for export, given the fragility of the cheese and its shelf life. They’re working on it but don’t want to employ transport and packaging methods that could compromise the precious quality that is their calling card.

However, Posteraro says there is fortunately some good mozzarella di bufalo imported to Vancouver. For the restaurant, he has a standing order with an importer that brings in the cheese from three different suppliers every two weeks. (Specialty or upscale grocery stores like Choices, Cioffi’s, Urban Fare, Bosa and Whole Foods carry some of the imported DOP and IGP products.)

In celebration of Italian Heritage month, Posteraro, along with chef Angus An, will be creating an Italian feast at the Fairmont Pacific (June 22) hosted by the Italian Chamber of Commerce Canada West. The menu will reflect the authentic DOP and IGP that represent Italy’s rich culinary heritage.

Posteraro guarantees mozzarella di bufalo will be on the menu. He will be, as is his custom, combining imported Old World ingredients with New World ingredients — think scallops from off the coast of Qualicum. A dish that will reflect his love and respect of the heritage of both countries.

To learn more about DOP and DOC certification, go to the Italian Chamber of Commerce Canada West site: