Last updated on November 6th, 2023
Did you know Italy grows the largest number of olive tree varieties in the world? The peninsula grows over 500 different types of trees! Not only is this vital to the quality of Italy’s famous extra virgin olive oil but important to the health and wellbeing of Italy’s agricultural system.
Are you curious to know more? Are you interested in knowing what to look for on your next trip to Italy or what kind of Italian olives to try next at the supermarket? Maybe you want to know how we use olives here in Italy on a daily basis?
In this article on Italian olives, I will cover all the basics from the harvest to production. I will also explain:
- How to pronounce olive and olio di oliva
- Top Italian olive varieties grown here and what they are used for
- Where to find Italian olives
- How to use Italian olives
- Specifics on olive trees in Italy
- The olive harvest in Italy
Fact: Italy grows about 42% of the world’s olive varieties. Other major producers of olive oil such as Spain and Greece only grow a fraction of the amount that Italy does.
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How to Say Olive in Italian
Olive in Italian is spelled the same as in English but pronounced oh-lee-veh.
Listen to the pronunciation of olive:
Olive oil in Italian is olio di oliva, pronounced oh-leeoh dee oh-lee-vah.
Listen to the pronunciation of olio di oliva:
Common Olives in Italy
Note: ‘Table olives’ is a term we are using to describe olives that are cured to make them palatable. Read more about curing olives in Can You Eat Olives Straight from the Tree?
|Leccino||Central/northern regions||Olive oil and table olives||High olive oil yield variety|
|Nocellara del Belice||Sicily||Olive oil and table olives||Used to make Sicilian pecorino cheese, belicino|
|Bella di Cerignola||Puglia||Table olives||The queen of all appetizer olives|
|Moraiolo||Tuscany, Umbria||Olive oil||Extremely well-known for its olive oil flavor|
|Taggiasca||Liguria||Olive oil and table olives||Classically known for being used in salad nicoise|
|Casaliva||Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto||Olive oil||Used to produce the famous olive oil produced on Lake Garda|
|Coratina||Puglia||Olive oil||One of the highest concentrations of polyphenols (antioxidant)|
|Leucocarpa||Calabria||Olive Oil||The fruit remains white from the initial flower to the mature fruit|
|Pisciottana||Campania||Olive oil||Very resistant to drought|
|Itrana||Lazio, Campania||Olive oil and table olives||Used to make the famous snacking olive di Gaeta|
|Corolea||Calabria||Olive oil and table olives||High olive oil yield variety|
|Frantoio||Tuscany,Umbria||Olive oil||Often blended with other varieties for a finer finishing oil|
|Moresca||Sicily||Olive oil||Younger olives are more vibrant in flavor so they are harvest earlier|
|Picenae||Marche||Olive oil and table olives||Also known as ascolana and served fried|
Leccino is one of the two main olives cultivated in Tuscany (and central Italy) for olive oil. The olives are considered to be well-balanced with just the right contrast between fruitiness, spice and bitterness.
Nocellara del Belice
Nocellara del Belice olives are named after the Sicilian Belice River valley, where they grow very well, particularly in Trapani. Grown both for eating and olive oil, they pair well with cured meats and cheeses and are also used in the production of belicino, a local sheep’s milk cheese.
Bella di Cerignola
Grown specifically in the province of Foggia, Bella di Cerignola are used solely for table olives. They are very well-known for their flesh/pit ratio, with a very meaty consistency and rich flavor. The green variety is most commonly served with cocktails and as appetizers while the black ones are used in preparing traditional, local dishes.
Moraiolo olives are small and round, grown in central Italy, most notably Tuscany and Umbria. The color changes depending on how ripe they are (like many olive oil varieties). Olive oil produced from these olives is considered very high quality and well regarded.
Taggiasca olives, grown in Liguria, are considered some of the best table olives in Italy although they also make a very fine olive oil. Sometimes they are also known as nicoise because they grow on the French border. These small olives have a very fruity flavor and come in a variety of colors.
Casaliva olives are what is used to produce the famous olive oil from Lake Garda in northern Italy. They are born bright yellow-green with a low acidity level, lovely aroma and delicate flavor, best described as lightly spicy with notes of nuts and dried fruit. Extra virgin olive oil made from casaliva olives is particularly good for finishing.
Coratina olives is one of the most cultivated olive varieties in Puglia and has one of the highest concentrations of polyphenols (antioxidant), making them particularly good from a health point of view. Because coratina olives have a strong flavor, they are also used with other varieties to produce blended oils that are more balanced and palatable.
Olive Oil Health Benefits: read more about how olive oil is good for you in Olive Oil Health Benefits – According to Italian Nonne (Grandmothers)
Leucocarpa, also known as leucolea grows in Calabria and is marked by its distinct white color, symbolizing purity. Because of this, leucocarpa olives have been used historically in religious ceremonies throughout Italy and are often grown close to churches.
Fact: The leucocarpa variety was first introduced to Italy by Basilian monks of Greece in the 6th century A.D.
Pisciottana is primarily used to make olive oil that has a medium-high level of fruitiness and spice. They grow particularly well in Cilento, in Campania. This variety does very well because it’s very resistant to drought and scrab (a common disease among olive trees in Italy).
Fact: On average, olives are about 30% oil, but this depends on many things, including cultivation, care and climate.
Itrana, also known as Gaeta olive, is one of the most widespread olive varieties in all of Lazio. It’s used to produce both oil and can be cured for consumption. They are a purplish oval shaped olive with a woody, bitter flavor.
Fact: Gaeta olives are what is used in the famous Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
Carolea is grown throughout southern Italy but does particularly well in Calabria. Used for both table olives and oil, this variety is best beloved for its well-bodied characteristics, making it ideal for a variety of dishes. It’s often used to make blended olive oils as well.
Did You Know: Almost 70% of Italy’s olive oil is produced in Calabria and Puglia meanwhile Tuscany and Umbria only produce about 5% of Italy’s olive oil.
Frantoio is another common variety grown in central Italy to make olive oil. It’s often blended with other varieties such as moraiolo to make a finer finishing oil but is also used alone to make a monovarietal olive oil.
The moresca variety is most diffused in the provinces of Caltanissetta, Enna, Catania, Siracusa and Ragusa in Sicily. These olives are oval shaped and tend to be harvested when they are slightly under-ripe (more green than purple).
Ascolana del Picano
Sometimes called ulivae picenae, these olives are best known for snacking, rather than olive oil. The most famous way to prepare them is by stuffing them with meat, coating them in breadcrumbs and deep frying them until golden.
Other Olive Varieties By Region
Lombardy: Grignano, Gargnà, Favarol
Veneto: Grignan, Favarol, Perlarol,Trepp
Trentino: Casaliva, Raza, Favarol
Liguria: Razzola, Pignola, Rossese, Colombaia
Emilia Romagna: Correggiolo, Nostrana di Brisighella, Ghiacciolo
Tuscany: Maurino, Pendolino, Maurino, Olivastra Seggianese
Marche: Carboncella, Canino, Mignola, Rosciola
Umbria: Borgiona, Bianchella di Umbertide, Correggiolo, Dolce Agogia, Raia
Lazio: Caninese, Raia, Carboncella
Abruzzo: Dritta, Gentile di Chieti, Tortiglione, Intosso, Cucco, Nebbio, Castiglionese, Rustica
Molise: Aurina di Venafro, Cazzarella, Cellina di Rotello, Gentile di Larino, Oliva di Colletorto, Sperone di Gallo
Puglia: Cima di Bitonto, Cellina di Nardò, Ogliarola Barese, Peranzana Provenzale, Pizzuta di Massafra
Campania: Asprinia, Biancolella, Carpellese, Minucciola, Ortice, Ortolana, Racioppella, Ravece, Rotondella, Tonda
Basilicata: Ogliarola, Maiatica
Calabria: Sinopolese, Grossa di Gerace, Cassanese, Ottobratica
Sicily: Cerasuola, Biancolilla, Nocellara Etnea, Tonda Iblea, Ogliarola Messinese
Sardinia: Bosana, Semidana, Nera di Villacidro, Tonda di Cagliari
How to Use Italian Olives
It’s true: Italians really do eat olives almost everyday, and if not, every week! Because they are such a large and historic part of the local agriculture and provide economic strength to farming communities, olives show up on tables at almost any time of the day.
First and foremost, Italians make olive oil with olives, specifically extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin means that the oil was naturally cold-pressed without any additional processing. It comes from the first pressing and has no more than .8% of fatty acids.
Cooking With Olive Oil: Want to know how Italians cook with olive oil? Read 20+ Ways Italians Use Their Extra Virgin Olive Oil + When They Don’t and How Italians Cook with Olive Oil.
Tip: Make sure you Store Olive Oil Properly.
Olives are also consumed as snacks. The most iconic example of this is olive ascolane, olives that are stuffed with meat and then deep fried. They are served either with other fried foods or sold as street food most traditionally in Le Marche.
If you come to Italy and order a cocktail before dinner you will most likely be given a small plate of nibbles or several bowls piled high with salty bites to snack on while you sip your drink. Oftentimes, cured olives will be in mix, alongside pieces of focaccia, nuts and potato chips.
Of course, Italians put olives on their pizza. Even if you don’t order olives on your pizza, some pizzerie will put one black olive in the center of your pizza before hitting the table.
Florence Travelers: Don’t miss our top pizzerias to check in while in Florence here.
Good To Know: Olives are great on pinsa too!
Whether you see it labeled as focaccia or schiacciata, this favorite flatbread is often dotted with olives. This is my kids’ favorite kind of focaccia. You can even buy individual round focaccine for easy on-the-go snacks.
It’s no surprise that olives are incorporated into Italy’s favorite kind of food: pasta. Most famously, pasta alla puttanesca, with olives, capers and tomato, is a favorite in southern Italy. Many Italians will make a simple pasta al tonno, capperi e olive (pasta with canned tuna, capers and olives) at home or when they are at the seaside.
Second course dishes in Italy such as stews and slow-cooked chicken and rabbit will often incorporate olives for a depth of flavor and richness. Stewed rabbit and chicken are the best proteins to pair with olives. Keep your eyes out for coniglio con le olive or pollo alla cacciatore on your next trip to Italy.
Although the typical Italian green salad is not dressed up with fancy toppings and rich dressings, there are specific Italian salad recipes that call for olives such as fennel and orange salad.
Insalata di riso or rice salad is a staple during extremely hot summers in Italy, combining lots of flavors that involve no cooking such as olives, capers, herbs and citrus. While you may not see rice salad at restaurants, it’s a popular choice for a quick lunch at bars where you can eat fairly well on a dime.
Olive Trees in Italy
Italy grows over 500 different varieties of olive trees, reflecting the peninsula’s dedication to biodiversity and preserving ancient olive varieties.
Olive Trees can live to be about 2,000 years old but on average, the average life of an olive tree in Italy is between 300-600 years, depending on the variety, the climate and how the trees are looked after. During this time, they are the most prolific between their 35th-150th year of life.
Olive trees are alternate bearing, meaning they produce a very prolific crop one year and about half the amount the next year. On average though, each olive tree will produce enough olives to press about 4 liters of olive oil. Other factors such as how the olives were harvested, how mature they were, the weather conditions, the climate and the variety of the olive will also affect its yield.
More About Olives: For more fun facts and statistics about olives and olive oil, check out 50 Olive Oil Facts – From the Tree to the Table – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Olive Oil
The Olive Harvest in Italy
The timing of the olive harvest depends on when the olives are at the ideal maturation. To make the best olive oil, the olives should be picked at the beginning stages of maturation or when the olives start to change from green to purple.
Fun Fact: There is no such thing as a green olive variety. The color of an olive is a reflection of how ripe it is. Green olives ripen and become black olives as they mature. Black olives are simply more mature olives than green olives.
This could mean anywhere from October to December in Italy, depending on where you are in Italy. In northern regions, the olives will be picked earlier and in southern regions, they will be picked later on, towards December.
It’s important to harvest at the right time because overly ripe olives produce oil of lesser quality than olives that are picked just at the right time. The correct time, harvest method and type of pressing is all going to affect the final outcome of the olive oil.
Every single batch of oil tastes different even if it’s from the same field because there might be more dirt, leaves or levels of oxidations among the batches, all of which affect the final outcome. Some are spicy and others are more sweet. Some are floral and others are grassy.
The taste is also affected by the olive variety, conditions, how the tree was kept, how much time passed between harvest and pressing, how it was pressed, how it was harvested, the climate and how ripe the olive was upon harvest.
There are three main ways to harvest olives but most consider (including our farm here in Tuscany) by hand to be the absolute best way.
- By hand: olives are manually picked, which is considered the best way because you can pick and choose which olives are at the correct stage for olive oil production. Less damage is done to the olives and less leaves and small branches end up in the mix. Sometimes, a small rake-like tool is used but most likely you will see people just using gloves. This is what we do at our farm in Tuscany.
- With shakers: this is a long pole with a small device at the end that shakes the branches of the olive trees, allowing the fruit to drop down. This is a very popular method because it speeds up the harvest immensely although it can damage the tree and more leaves and branches will end up in the final collection of olives, affecting the final olive oil outcome.
- With large machines: these enormous machines, made with counter-rotating rollers, roll directly over the trees, engulfing them completely. This method is primarily used for enormous operations for trees that are grown in rows.
Fact: Shakers and machines are cost and time efficient but in general, produce olive oil of less quality since not all olives on a tree ripen simultaneously.
Olives are then brought directly to the olive mill where they are pressed for oil. The sooner you get them to the mill, the better.
Extra virgin olive oil is considered the best quality olive oil made by cold-pressing the olives (meaning the olives are never heated above 27 C during the pressing). The olives can also then be pressed a second time and labeled as olive oil.
Italian Olives FAQ
“Extra virgin” means that the oil was cold-pressed naturally without additional processing.
They are not poisonous but they don’t taste good. For olives to be palatable, they need to be cured before they are consumed.
Monocultivar olive oil is oil made from only one variety of olive.
The word cultivar refers to a plant that has been created by way of selective breeding.
They are actually not black olives but picked green and chemically modified, which changes them black.