I got a chance today to sit down with Rhonda Reis, co-owner (with her husband, Steve), of Bella Vita Gourmet Olive Oil & Balsamics. The storefront is a beautiful, airy place, with gleaming silver fustis (seamless vessels that hold the oils and vinegars, to protect them from light) lined up in rows. The smell of the balsamics hits you as you open the door, a little sweet, a little acidic, but guaranteed to make you hungry. Here’s what Rhonda had to say.
Q. What got you interested in oils and vinegars?
A. I had started doing wine dinners for friends and others who booked me back when I was living in Tucson, and I got a hostess gift of balsamic and oil from a friend. (I asked Rhonda if she remember what varieties, and she did: Blenhaim Apricot White Balsamic and Lemon Infused Olive Oil) This sparked a passion, which we eventually turned into a business. We moved from Tucson to Dallas in August and just opened Bella Vita at the Highlands in late November.
Q. I know one of the highlights of your store is that you do custom pairings of oil and vinegar based on each customer’s tastes. What is your personal favorite pairing?
A. The answer to that question changes every day. At the moment, I’d say Blackberry Ginger Balsamic with Orange Fused Oil. Fused oils tend to have more flavor than ones labeled “infused.” To fuse an oil, the ingredients actually spend time in a centrifuge, and after the solids are removed, much more of the juice and plant oils remain.
Q. What is the first thing someone should look for when choosing an olive oil?
A. Look for a crush date on the container, along with a notation on where the oil is from. These two pieces of information can help you make sure you are not wasting money on an inferior product (or a really old one – some time as much as 5 years). In fact, when you shop for oil at a grocery store, you may not be getting 100 percent olive oil at all. Sometimes distributors use cheaper oils – such as canola or soybean oil as a “carrier” oil. Most “light” olive oils have a very low percent of actual olive oil. In a real olive oil, you should be able to smell a strong fragrance of fresh olives. The company we buy from tests every batch to ensure it is 100% olive oil.
Q. What about choosing a vinegar?
A. Fruit flavors are often created in the laboratory. Look for vinegars that don’t list chemicals in the ingredient list. This can be a real problem in people with allergies. Also look for vinegars that don’t rely on sugar to boost the flavor.
Q. What should people know about Bella Vita?
A. Our main clientele are people on special diets, from weight reducing to gluten free. Our products do not include added sulfites. They are also all gluten free and safe for people with allergies to soy, eggs, dairy, peanuts. With the exception of nut oils (which are produced using separate equipment) they are also safe for people with tree nut allergies. There is never any added sugar. Because the oils are so fresh and intensely flavored, you need to use very little. You wind up ingesting fewer calories while still having beautiful tasting food. Except for the sample bottles, all the bottles you see are empty. We store our oils and balsamics in the fustis to keep them at thier best quality, and pour them into the bottles for each customer.
Thanks again to Rhonda for taking the time to tell us about Bella Vita. To learn more, visit her web site www.bvoliveoil.com. Rhonda trained as a pastry chef, and now makes fresh baguettes at the store every Thursday – Saturday. If you want one, it is best to order in advance, as they sell out quickly. Rhonda also does cooking classes. This month’s classes – which feature such delicious-sounding options as Chocolate Balsamic Strawberry Trifle -- are booked solid, but keep an eye on the web site for future offerings.