The Mediterranean menu

What to look for when purchasing olives and olive oil—two Mediterranean staples.

Mediterranean flavors have been filtering into American menus for some time. But as authentic ingredients become more readily available and distinct regional cuisines better known, Mediterranean cooking is poised to become a bigger culinary force in foodservice. Packaged Facts, a market research company, reinforces this prediction in its recent annual publication, Flavors and Ingredients Outlook 2007. “Asian and Hispanic flavors are expected to go mainstream next year, while emerging ethnic cuisines forecast to gain a lot of attention include Mediterranean—particularly Greek….” the report states.

Sourcing strategies 

Mediterranean cooking has always been extremely ingredient-centric with few frills. Fresh seafood, herbs, cheeses, nuts, fruits and vegetables are the focus, with non-perishables like rice, dried beans, olives, olive oil, preserved foods and spices rounding out the cuisine. This is true of all the countries that border the Mediterranean—Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Morocco and France. “The Mediterranean philosophy is to prepare what’s seasonal and fresh that day,” says Sabrina Sexton, a chef-instructor specializing in Mediterranean cooking at the Institute for Culinary Education. “And you don’t have to be rigid with recipes.” She cites the quintessential Mediterranean seafood soup, in which the catch of
the day can be thrown into the pot in place of the recipe’s “traditional” fish.

any American restaurants serving Mediterranean dishes do just that, purchasing seafood, fruits, vegetables and other ingredients from their usual suppliers and producers, creating a menu that’s Mediterranean in style if not in origin. A large selection of American-made “Mediterranean” products
is available, including olives, olive oil, capers, anchovies, peppers, pita bread, fruit preserves and cheeses.

Purists like Michael Psilakis, chef-partner of New York City restaurants Kefi and Anthos, scour the globe for authentic goods. “Sourcing is one of my biggest roles as a restaurateur,” he says. “I’m constantly searching back in Greece and on the Internet for small-scale producers and indigenous products and do a lot of business with Fed Ex and UPS.”

Psilakis works with importers such as Titan and Optima to supply his olive oil, olives, vinegars and other shelf-stable products. “The Italians opened the doors to get top-quality, authentic ingredients into distribution here in the United States, but Greece is now catching up,” he explains, adding that the European Union has facilitated the exporting process. For the unique artisanal ingredients he seeks, Psilakis forms personal partnerships with farmers and growers both in Greece and America: his Greek aunts ship over sheep’s milk cheese, Mediterranean fish are fresh-caught and overnighted to his restaurants and meat is sourced from small U.S. farms (it’s better here than in Greece, Psilakis says.)
Jim Botsacos, a leader in elevating Mediterranean cuisine to fine-dining status with restaurants Molyvos (Greek) and Abboccato (Italian) in New York, also finds it a challenge to source artisanal ingredients.

When he discovers a small producer who offers something he “must have” for his menus, he’ll either purchase it directly or convince one of his importers or small distributors to carry it. “You have to cultivate relationships to get handcrafted and unusual products like manouri cheese, mastiha (a crystallized seasoning), spoon sweets and wildflower honey, he notes. Botsacos even tapped his wine
purveyor to work out a deal for an aged vinegar made from sundried grapes “that’s competitive with balsamic but has the ‘terroir’ of Greece,” he says.

Indigenous Greek products and distinctive regional dishes are both getting more attention since the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board (HEPO) initiated its “Kerasma” campaign last fall. “Through Kerasma, we share the quality and simplicity of the traditional ingredients that flourish in our Greek-Mediterranean climate,” says Panagiotis Drosses, CEO of HEPO. Adds Botsacos, “Italy and Spain have been marketing their distinctive products for a long time and now it’s Greece’s turn. The place of origin stamped on the package builds awareness.”

Although terroir is as important to food production as it is to wine, Mediterranean cuisine offers flexibility. “I would love to get canned tomatoes that grow in the volcanic soil of Santorini,” says Botsacos, “but those are not available here. So I use San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy—an acceptable substitute.” He also sources produce from local farmers and “John the Greek” (his supplier at Hunt’s Point terminal market in the Bronx), procuring greens, lettuces, peppers, eggplant and squashes that are close to what’s grown in Greece. 

Quick & healthy Mediterranean

Alex Rechichi,
Extreme Pita
218 locations in Canada and
the United States

Q. How was your concept developed?
We were able to enter the mainstream with Greek flavors by using the popular pita bread as a platform. The opportunity was there because of the health benefits of Mediterranean foods.

Q. What is your sourcing strategy?
All of our ingredients are sourced from North America. Our signature Mediterranean sauces, including
tzatziki, hummus and Greek feta dressing, are created by manufacturers using recipes and specs provided by our product development team.

Q. What is your distribution system?
In the United States, Sysco is our broadliner. Because of our volumes, Sysco has agreed to carry our proprietary products. In Canada, we work with several regional suppliers.

Q. Name your top menu item.
Greek Chicken Colossus. Grilled chicken is tossed with Greek salad and feta dressing, then rolled into a pita bread.

To your health

The benefits of cooking and eating the Mediterranean way have been scientifically documented: a diet that emphasizes seasonal vegetables and fruits, seafood, grains and olive oil as the primary fat
promotes longevity and may even prevent some chronic diseases. Research conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation in the mid-twentieth century found that the people of Crete were healthier than their American counterparts, largely as a result of the fresh, simple food they ate, harvested from the land and the sea. In March of this year, a College of Cardiology study revealed that the Mediter-ranean diet promotes cardiovascular health and prolongs the lives of post-heart-attack patients.

To encourage this healthful eating style, a Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was created by Oldways, a culinary think tank located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in coordination with researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization. It’s a graphically simple way to describe the rewards of eating and cooking the Mediterranean way.

Making it Mediterranean
Sabrina Sexton, instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, shares pointers on stocking and using ingredients that conform to the Mediterranean pyramid.
•Use olive oil as the primary fat. A higher-quality extra virgin oil should be chosen for dipping, drizzling and marinating than for sautéing or poaching.
•Meat is more of a condiment than the main event. Stretch small amounts of red meat with vegetables, nuts and grains.
•Stock an assortment of olives. One variety won’t work for everything, as each adds a different impact. Some types to source: Kalamata, conservolia, tsakistes (cracked green olives), wrinkly oil-cured and under-ripe green olives.
•Make liberal use of fresh herbs and dried seasonings. The pantry should include saffron, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, oregano and turmeric; the walk-in stocked with fresh mint, basil, marjoram, sage, rosemary, cilantro and lavender.
•Open fire cooking is a typical (and lean) way to add flavor. Spit roasting and skewering and grilling are quintessentially Mediterranean. 

Product cutting

What to look for when purchasing olives and olive oil—two Mediterranean staples

Extra virgin olive oil
Led by Emmanuel Daskalakis
President, Aralia Olive Oils
Boston, Massachusetts

1. Note the origin of the olives. Does it match the variety of oil? For example, Greek olive oil should be pressed from Greek olives; some of the finest come from the island of Crete.
2. Read the label for acid content. The EU sets standards for extra virgin olive oil (up to .8 percent acidity) and virgin or pure olive oil (.8 to 2 percent.) Lower acidity means higher quality and longer shelf life.
3. Pour oil into a small, clear cup and examine the color; it should have a greenish tint. Pure yellow color indicates that either the oil was pressed late (after harvest) or is old.
4. Rub hands on cup to warm oil and release aroma. Oil should smell like freshly mowed grass; a musty aroma, resulting from pressing damaged olives, is not desirable.
5. Taste the oil by sipping a little (a better method than dipping bread.) Flavor should be grassy, fruity and slightly nutty—not too sharp or too bland. Texture should be smooth and light with no oily film left on the palate.
6. Sense the aftertaste. There should be a mild burn in the back of the throat after swallowing—the “exclamation point” that punctuates the tasting experience.

Kalamata olives
Led by Carlos Pippa
CEO, World-Delicacies
Dallas, Texas

1. Determine the origin of the olives. Authentic kalamatas come from designated areas in Greece and should carry both a DOP and PDO seal.
2. Note the color and texture. The olives should be shiny, brownish-black and firm. However, kalamatas are always sold pitted, so they will be slightly less firm than olives that contain pits.
3. Note the size and shape. Medium-sized kalamatas are the choice for top quality and flavor; large-sized ones are not as tasty and can be mealy. The olives should have a characteristic almond shape and are usually slit on the sides.
4. Taste the olives. The texture should be meaty and never mushy. Kalamatas are not overly salty and have a distinct fruity or nutty flavor.
5. Use the olives in a cooking application. Kalamatas add zest to pasta sauces, flatbread toppings and fish preparations; the flavor and texture hold up particularly well during heating.

Ideation: By the sea

Pomegranate Marinated Lamb Skewers
Insalata’s Restaurant, San Anselmo, California
Chef Heidi Krahling draws on the entire Mediterranean region for her eclectic menu, sourcing both imported ingredients and local farm products. “We don’t worry about borders; rather, we mix techniques and flavors to create tasty, soulful food with a rustic style,” she says. These skewers combine American lamb loin with pomegranate molasses, lemon and cumin; persimmon chutney provides the perfect counterpoint.

Romesco Sauce
Bolo, New York City
Classic Romesco sauce is a garlicky blend of roasted tomatoes and peppers pureed with ground almonds, vinegar and olive oil. While the inspiration is Mediterranean, the ingredients are all available from American producers. At Bolo, which takes its culinary cues from Spain, a favorite appetizer is Baked Manchego Cheese with Toasted Almonds, Yellow Pepper Romesco Sauce and Baby Arugula.

Beef Cheek Moussaka
Dio Deka, Los Gatos, California
The tagline at this upscale Greek spot is “Fine Hellenic Cuisine” and chef/partner Sal Calisi fulfills that promise through his approach to sourcing, cooking and plating. “Many ingredients come directly from Greece through Mani Imports,” he reports. Calisi’s elegant take on moussaka uses braised beef cheeks instead of ground lamb; garnishes of microgreens and Greek candied tomatoes upgrade the presentation.

Baked Shrimp and Scallop Orzo
Kefi, New York City
The food at Kefi “is all about the ingredients,” says chef-owner Michael Psilakis. He recently revamped the space and menu, turning the concept into a more casual taverna-style restaurant. The dishes reflect what Psilakis ate growing up in Greece—grilled seafood, braised meats, fresh cheeses and seasonal vegetables and herbs. This shrimp and scallop selection, enlivened with spinach, tomatoes and feta, is a crowd favorite.

Seven Rice Tabbouleh Salad
Culinary Institute of America, Napa, California
Rice is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet and an essential ingredient in such classics as paella, dolmades and pilaf. Here, chefs at the CIA Greystone reinterpret a taboulleh salad by substituting a seven-rice blend for the usual cracked wheat. The bright flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean marry well with fava beans, lentils, fresh mint and parsley and salad vegetables, including cucumbers, scallions and tomatoes.

Buying tips

  • Many of the imported ingredients, such as anchovies, capers, olives and  spoon sweets (conserves of fruit, nuts or vegetables in sugar syrup) are salted, cured and preserved and don’t have to be used up quickly; it often pays to purchase large sizes.
  • For authenticity, check the statement of origin on products like olive oil, olives, spices, cheese and preserved fruits. PDO stands for Protected Designation of Origin; the product must come from a certain geographical area and be made by traditional methods. Kalamata olives are an example.PGI stands for Protected Geographical Indication; one or more stages of production takes place in a defined area and the product’s reputation is connected to a specific region. Certain Greek olive oils fall into this category. DOP stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, a certification issued by the EU to identify and guarantee that specific products are authentic and come from a designated region. Greek feta cheese would be labeled DOP and might also get the PDO stamp.
  • Be aware of ingredients produced in one country and packaged in another. Olive oil, for example, may read “Italian” on the label but can be pressed and blended from olives that were harvested in Spain or Tunisia.
  • Work with a supplier who specializes in sourcing from the Mediterranean countries. While certain items, such as American-made feta, spreads, preserved fruits and yogurt can serve as stand-ins, it is difficult to replicate imported products like preserved lemons, pomegranate molasses, spoon sweets, dried peppers and cured fish.
  • Shop online. Larger Internet suppliers include Chef’s Warehouse, World-Delicacies and Foodmatch. 

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