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THE OLIVE DETECTIVE

VILLA ROMANA IS AN extra-virgin oil pressed from an previously unknown and likely ancient olive variety that grows exclusively on the shores of Lake Garda, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. Sergio Cozzaglio, who discovered the olives on trees amid the 2,000-year-old ruins of a Roman nobleman’s lakefront villa, rummaged around in his office and pulled out a single half-liter bottle, labeled with only an extra-large Post-it note. But he wasn’t sure whether he was going to let me taste it.

“This is the special reserve, from this fall’s harvest,” Cozzaglio announced. “But I’m not satisfied with it.” He was standing in the storefront of La Zadruga, the olive-oil company he runs with his wife and partner, Ilaria Galetta, in the tranquil lakefront village of Toscolano-Maderno, a 90-minute drive east of Milan. In his right hand, he cradled a plastic cup halffilled with a liquid whose green glow called to mind an undiluted shot of Czech absinthe. Warmed by the heat of his hand, the oil, still vivid with chlorophyll undegraded by light or oxygen, perfumed the air with the odor of freshcut grass.

“Not that there’s anything bad about this year’s oil,” continued Cozzaglio, a modest but intense man who precedes his bolder assertions with a sustained hum. “No defects. But, in my opinion, this year’s Villa Romana is at only 70 percent of its potential.”

For the third time that weekend, I reminded him that I had come from afar to get a taste of precisely a yearly guidebook published by Italy’s leading food and wine magazine that rates upwards of 700 of the nation’s best olive oils. The same oil that had been pressed from a cultivar, or variety, of olive that until recently was unknown to modern science. The very oil, in other words, that he seemed determined to withhold from me.

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