Five years ago, Josh Saiia was perfectly content as a piano technician and restorer, until just one taste of olive oil changed the course of his career.
Today, the local businessman owns two specialty olive oil stores – with the newest one, , located at 338 E. Silver Spring.
“I used to cook with olive oil, but was never happy with the results – and then I tried fresh olive oil and was blown away,” said Saiia, who launched his Whitefish Bay business in November of 2009. “I was told that it would smell like a freshly mowed lawn and that it would have a hint of pepper. It did. It was like no olive oil I’d ever tasted before, and I immediately wanted to bring fresh oil like that to Milwaukee so other people could have the same experience.”
Within three weeks, Josh was in California meeting with award-winning olive growers. Upon returning, he operated a tasting station at Brookfield Square and six months later opened his first store in Wauwatosa. Josh launched his Whitefish Bay business in November of 2009, he said, to cater to a growing North Shore clientele, who previously frequented his shop to the west.
Oro sells oils sourced from growers in the northern and southern hemispheres, basing purchasing decisions on harvest season and taste notes, rather than location, to ensure that he’s selling the freshest, most flavorful olive oil possible.
“There’s a nice romance attached to Italian olive oils, but the truth is oils all over the world are winning awards,” said Josh. “The best oils come from olives that are pressed the day they’re picked, so they don’t have a chance to mold, ferment and lose their antioxidants, which is what gives olive oil its health benefits.
“Olive oil’s taste also changes for the worse the longer it ages, which I believe is why the U.S. only consumes 8 percent of its fat from olive oil. People like the idea of using more olive oil, but then they try the store-bought oil that can be three or four years old and tastes like silly putty or crayons – which ruins food rather than enhances it – and they go back to using butter or margarine. In contrast, Europe and countries around the Mediterranean consume fresher oil. It’s tastier, so consequently, they consume more of it than we do.”
Educating consumers and correcting popular olive oil misconceptions, Josh says, is an integral part of the Oro di Oliva shopping experience – as is encouraging customers to sample as many oils as they wish before buying.
“A lot of people think they need to have a chef help them use olive oil correctly, or that olive oil is meant for only fancy dishes, but that’s not the case,” said Josh. “Olive oil is versatile. It can make even simple foods, like a salad, so much more enjoyable.
“Oro di Oliva is an interactive store. Like wine tasting, we want people to taste test, so they don’t leave the store wondering if they’ll like what they bought.”
Josh carries an extensive selection of extra virgin, nut and flavored oils, ranging from fruity to robust to buttery. He also sells a wide variety of balsamic and wine vinegars.
As a specialty shop, Oro di Oliva’s stock is naturally higher-priced than grocery store, name-brand oils. Still, according to Josh, the added expense has not been a detriment to his business.
“Sometimes customers say ‘olive oil is olive oil. What’s the difference?’ Then they taste ours and say ‘now, I get it.’ Once they’ve tried fresh oil, they find that there’s no going back. Customers tend to have a difficult time with what not to buy.”