Articles by: Michael Anstendig

  • Life & People

    “All for the Love of Olive Oil”

    “This wasn’t anything that a sane person would say to you you’d be making money off of. You’d do it out of passion and maybe, long-term, everything would work out.” Things definitely seem to be working out for the budding producer, whose 3,500-bottle production last year sold out quickly to demanding chefs and retailers across Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland and the U.K. It is marketed exclusively in the U.S. in New York City’s acclaimed Fairway Market for $26.50 a bottle.

    Battaglia describes his olive oil as “fruity, with hints of artichoke and celery. It’s yellow with hints of green. It has typical Tuscan characteristics, but it’s slightly milder than the Chianti one, which fanatics love, but which can be overbearing, for example, you can’t use it on fish. Ours you can use on fish, too.” He recommends incorporating it in big, hearty Tuscan soups, in bruschetta, drizzling it liberally on a charcoal-grilled steak topped with arugula and in pinzimonio, the Italian take on crudités. Olive oil, he notes, should be kept away from light, heat and oxygen, and as such, storing it by the stove isn’t a good idea. Moreover, once the bottle has been opened, plan to consume its contents within a month.

    He plans to eventually produce 10,000 bottles a year, but this ambitious visionary also has plans to share this pastoral lifestyle with others by creating a rustic bed and breakfast that will accommodate 20 lucky travelers, a yoga retreat, as well as a small restaurant serving local delicacies like grilled sausages, all situated at 1,500 feet above sea level with panoramic views of the picturesque valley below. “It’s beautiful,” beamed Battaglia. “Even Swiss people say this is one of the most beautiful valleys they’ve ever seen. And for the Swiss to say it…”

    It’s been seven years since Battaglia, 45, a Buffalo, N.Y. native with Sicilian roots, together with his brother, Luke, purchased an olive grove with 450 trees on a rocky, terraced hillside in Camaiore near Lucca in Tuscany to pursue a dream. Much of the land is at a steep, 45-degree incline, rendering tractors useless. “For the first two years, we were taking 50-pound bags of fertilizer up on our shoulders because the tractor couldn’t make it up to the grove and there are 30 terraces up to the top, too,” said Battaglia. “When I took the first bag up the first day, I said, ‘This isn’t that bad, I’ll be able to do one bag in 10 minutes, so I’ll be able to take 12 bags, enough for the whole olive grove, in about two hours.’ I ended up doing the whole thing in two-and-a-half days.”

    The brothers have since expanded their holdings to four hectares with 1,500 trees. The charismatic entrepreneur was able to charm friends and family to help out. “I was going down every weekend to work in the olive grove and I’d try to bring friends down, get 10 people to help, sort of Tom Sawyer, ‘Oh, it’s fun!’” To help with the immense chore of cutting the grass between the terraces, the resourceful Battaglia now use two donkeys, dubbed “Truck” and “Bulldozer” by his four-year-old son, Tommaso. (Battaglia’s wife, Laura, a native of Lucca, recently gave birth to their second child, Ettore.) “The donkeys eat the grass. All they need is water. They don’t even want a shed. They’re great.”

    Battaglia’s first exposure to Italy began in high school, when he studied at The American School in Florence. His mother, an Italophile, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study the artist Giorgio Morandi, so he was able to stay with her there for two years. He returned to the U.S. to attend college at the University of Buffalo, where he studied European history. Missing Italy, he went back after school and took a $2 an hour job at Tenuta di Forcia, one of the largest olive and grape farms in Tuscany. In addition to living in a 17th century farmer’s house without heating, aside from the fireplace, Battaglia was gored in his thigh by a bull and needed 72 stitches. That didn’t discourage him. Indeed, he became enamored with olives. “I always loved everything about olives and olive oil, especially the warmth that it gives the house when you burn the wood.”

    After working on the farm for two-and-a-half years where, among other things, he perfected his Italian, Battaglia began specializing in translation work in Milan. He met a Japanese businessman who was launching a brokerage house, Okasan, and began working in the stock market. After the collapse of Japanese equities, he then went on to work at financial companies, including BNZ, Monte Paschi, Banca Intesa and Banca Intermobiliare, where he continues to trade. It was Battaglia’s financial acumen, along with a modest inheritance, that allowed him to amass the capital necessary to bankroll his agricultural dream, as well as a job that provided constant international telephone access and the Internet to help sell his “liquid gold.”

    Battaglia credits his brother Luke, who works full-time at the olive grove, with mastering the art and science of olive growing and olive oil production. Luke apprenticed with local farmers, but also read extensively about the latest cultivation and manufacturing techniques in books and on the Internet. The brothers are strident believers in pruning their trees. They keep them relatively small and branching out in the shape of a hollow inverted cone. This allows air and light to come in and facilitates harvesting, since they are relatively low to the ground.

    While some of Battaglia’s neighbors have trees that give 200 kilos of olives each, his aim is for just 20-30 kilos, which means about four to five bottles per tree maximum. He observed, “By keeping the trees well-pruned, you maximize the flavor, reliability, consistency and flavor. The oil’s characteristics are strengthened, it has a stronger taste. It all gets concentrated.”

    In addition to pruning, proper fertilization (three different kinds at three times of the year) and beating back the olive fly menace, picking and pressing the olives at the optimal moment is critical. “To make very high quality virgin olive oil, the olives have got to be picked at just the right time, just before they turn from green to purplish. It’s called the invaiatura.” Once the olives have been shaken off the tree, he explained that there is a window of between 24 and 48 hours to press them into oil, because at that point, they begin to ferment and the acidity overwhelms the subtle flavor characteristics.

    Olive oil production has a long history in the Camaiore area dating back to Roman times. However, it was in the 15th century that it was a matter of life and death. At that time, Camaiore was feuding with its neighbor, Pietrasanta, which tried to enlist the help of a Bolognese soldier, Capitan Frediano, for a bloody sneak attack. The good captain was appalled and instead informed the leaders of Camaiore. Without the element of surprise, the assault was called off and a long cease-fire ensued. For his service, the captain could have requested anything, but he wrote, “I would ask to be paid, not in gold ducats, but in as much of your excellent olive oil as I can carry on my mule once a year, as an annuity.” Perhaps if Camaiore’s olive oil had not been so attractive, the captain’s loyalty and the outcome of this battle might have been different. A video movie of this romantic story can be viewed at the company’s website,

    In this historical vein, Battaglia sees the olive grove and its businesses as an integral part of his destiny. “My father died about four years ago. His money, what he left us, is what permitted my brother to buy his piece of olive grove and we like to think that it happened because he always wanted us to do things together, like good Sicilians.” He also learned that his roots in the olive oil business were deeper than he ever imaged. “We found out that our old ancestors worked in olive oil in Sicily. We have photographs of them on horses in the olive groves. It’s in our blood.”

  • Life & People

    The Prince of Grand Street

    ...Scarmozza cheese.  It needs one day to dry.  It will be soft.  Just the way you like it.”

          In a city based on ruthless and increasingly faceless efficiency, DiPalo’s Fine Food Inc., located on 206 Grand Street in Manhattan, is a stubborn holdout where personal relationships trump modern business imperatives. The narrow, 1,200-square-foot store teems with 300 varieties of Italian cheese, some in refrigerated cases, others, like aged mozzarrella and enormous yellow-beige columns of provolone, hang from the tin ceiling, interspersed among the glistening cured salamis. 

          The store’s aroma is sweet, nutty and slightly pungent, given that the cheeses and meats are fermented products.  In addition, its shelves brim with hundreds of artisanal packaged products – olive oils, olives, wood oven-baked breads, prepared sauces, fresh and dried pastas, fruit preserves, legumes and even obscure baking supplies like sheets of unflavored gelatin used for desserts like panna cotta. 

          Each product has been personally selected by Mr. DiPalo during his quarterly buying trips to Italy where he meets the producers or through relationships with culinary craftmen here in the U.S., like the Sullivan Street Bakery.

          Mr. DiPalo’s dedication to his products is only matched by his devotion to his customers.  Not surprisingly, he knows what they like.  Astonishingly, he can recount the preferences of their parents, even grandparents.  Mr. DiPalo’s indispensable delicacies are present at many of the milestones of his customers’ lives – christenings, confirmations, marriages and countless family feasts and gatherings.

       It has been said that Bill Clinton had the ability to make each person he spoke with feel like they were the center of the universe.  Mr. DiPalo has this ability, as do his siblings and co-owners, Maria and Sal, as did their predecessors. 

          Some patrons have been shopping at this fourth generation Little Italy specialty food shop for 60 years.  They know that Mr. DiPalo will give them as much time as they need and will leisurely converse with them in English or Italian (or a combination of the two).  Of course, spending 15 or 20 minutes with each customer defeats the notion of fast service, but customers don’t seem to mind. 

          “You have to wait.  Sometimes it’s annoying.  I always tell everybody, ‘If you feel good when you come in, I promise you’re going to feel better when you leave,’” says DiPalo.  Clearly, his customers agree, with lines at the store often lasting two hours with nary a peep of protest.

          “Every person he treats the same,” beams Leslie Plotkin, a retired New York City school teacher who makes a special Mr. DiPalo run every week from the Upper West Side.  “You can be Mario [Batali] or a regular person, he takes time with all of his customers. He doesn’t short-change anyone.  He takes customer service to a whole new level.  And of course, he’s charming.”  She bought a half-pound of pecorino cheese for a pasta carbonara she was planning, as well as some Parmigiano-Reggiano for snacking.

          Sharing knowledge is the foundation of Mr. DiPalo’s credo.  “I have to know everything about what I sell.  I have to know the person who made it, where it comes from, the history of it.  Then, I have to tell my customers.  If I just sell it to you, it’s not enough.  You’re not going to enjoy it unless you really understand it.”

          The store, which was founded by Mr. DiPalo’s grandparents, Concetta and Luigi, in 1925, originally only stocked items from the family’s home region of Basicilata and neighboring Campania, Calabria and Puglia.  Mr. DiPalo decided to expand to all of Italy.  “We went into the direction of becoming a true Italian gastronomia.  The ones in Italy concentrate on their own region.  I take pride in having all the regions covered.”

          The store is open seven days a week and he supervises the on-premise handcrafting fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheeses for his retail and restaurant clientele.   Mr. DiPalo’s workday begins at 4:30 a.m. daily and extends into the evening when the store is washed down and the slicers are disassembled and sanitized. 

          While not overtly muscular, the 53-year-old with wiry salt and pepper hair and droopy eyelids atop sad brown eyes is unphased by hoisting an 85-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano on to the counter and wedging it in half with a small, spade-shaped knife.  He’s dressed for serious labor – sneakers, jeans and a DiPalo polo shirt that’s bears the logo of a smiling cow, with both head and tail held high.

          “You see the golden color,” says Mr. DiPalo, pointing to the interior of the half wheel.  “This one here was made in the fall; it’s the second growth of summer grass, it’s the time of year that the cows give the richest milk and it’s the time of year when the cows are most comfortable.”  He contrasts it with a winter version of the cheese.  “[During] the wintertime, they’re no longer feeding on grass, they feed on alfalfa and hay.  It makes for a very sweet cheese.”

          Mr. DiPalo cuts wafer-thin pieces of the summer cheese and dispenses them, like a priest at communion, to every customer within his arm’s reach.  The grainy cheese dissolves on their tongues in an explosion of saltiness and mellow richness. 

          One customer expresses a preference for the fall cheese that was previously sampled.  “One isn’t better than the other,” Mr. DiPalo notes.  “You’re going to have seasonal change; the cycles of the cow, the feed, will give you a different taste.  That’s what makes these cheeses so special.”

          A few minutes later, Mr. DiPalo slices up some speck, a specialty smoked prosciutto from Alto Adige, which he recently began carrying.  “It combines the Northern European preservation method, smoking, with the Mediterranean method of salting and air drying meat,” he explains, while handing out tissue-thin slices to spellbound customers. 

          Mr. DiPalo grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and always worked in the family store.  He chose to attend Baruch College because it was a mere 10-minute subway ride to Little Italy where he could help set up the store and break it down late in the evening. 

          After graduating with a B.B.A. in Marketing, he flirted for three-years with a promising real estate career, yet always remained intimately involved with the store.  Ultimately, its pull was irresistible and a perhaps more lucrative career was shelved.  He is pleased with his decision.  “I smile every day,” DiPalo notes.

          “We still consider this to be our grandparents’ store.  We don’t consider ourselves owners and proprietors, but merely as caretakers to a traditional family business,” said Mr. DiPalo. 

          Mr. DiPalo understands the enormous responsibility that his store confers.  “We are part of peoples’ upbringings.  We are a link to their heritage, to their families.  We invoke fond memories,” he observes.  He recounts how a customer gently wept after sampling a cheese that evoked the scent of her long-parted grandmother’s kitchen.  “This store means a lot more than the food.”