Armando Manni, the Italian filmmaker who founded MANNI in 2001, takes food very seriously. What started as a personal mission to create the best organic extra-virgin olive oil turned into a 20-year-long endeavor to produce the best premium organic extra-virgin olive oil on the market.
And his commitment to quality has paid off. Manni’s products are used by some of the world’s top chefs and food purveyors, including Michelin-starred restaurateurs like Thomas Keller (American chef of The French Laundry), Jean-Georges Vongerichsten (French chef of Jean-Georges restaurants), Heston Blumenthal (British celebrity chef and TV personality), and many more.
MANNI stands out thanks to its dedication to quality. In fact, as stated on their website, they “work in collaboration with the Department of Pharmaceutical Science at the University of Florence in Italy, regularly monitoring for their organic properties and chemical values to ensure the taste, quality, and antioxidant concentration.”
Thanks to this collaboration, MANNI goes the extra mile to ensure their oil is not only certified organic Toscano PGI but also that it will still be extra-virgin by the time you receive it (more on both in a minute).
You’re about to get a lesson in extra-virgin olive oil you didn’t know you needed, and you’ll be glad you did.
Q&A With Armando Manni
Organic Authority: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MAKE THE SWITCH FROM BEING A FILMMAKER TO PRODUCING EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL?
Armando Manni: After I won a Golden Globe, I also won the festival in Jerusalem. The year after that, Benini won the same festival with Life is Beautiful. After that he won the Oscar. So when I came back to Italy the Minister of Culture was very happy, because he said, “Oh, we are always winning in Jerusalem, and now you’ll go to the Oscars.”
And he had two daughters. So I told him, “I would like to give my son a perfect extra-virgin olive oil. The problem is that on the market it doesn’t exist. I would like for you to put me in touch with someone at the national research council of Italy and then to some universities because I want to create that sort of protocol.” And he did.
After that, I created a scientific research project with the University of Florence. I built olive trees to make oil for my son. And after that, flying to LA, where my agent was – I was preparing a new movie – I was stopping all the time in New York, because it’s a long flight with a nine-hour time difference. So I was flying to New York and stopping for a couple of days. And I’ve always been a gourmet – a foodie. So I was going around in Michelin-starred restaurants. At that time I was at Jean-Georges in Columbus Circle, and I had some samples of the oil, and I offered it to him. He got so enthusiastic, and he ordered 800 bottles. And of course I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a production line – nothing.
So when I came back, I bought everything and we started the business. And because of that, in a year, we became the best olive oil in the world. So I took a sabbatical. And I’m still on it. That was in 2001/2002.
OA: THE OLIVE GROVE FOR MANNI OIL IS IN VOLCANIC, NUTRIENT-DENSE SOIL. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THAT PARTICULAR LOCATION?
AM: We had several advantages there. One is the volcanic soil that is rich in minerals and nutrients for the trees. The other advantage that is very important is that you have another kind of olive tree that exists only there. And this kind of tree is very resistant to the cold. Because we’re on the slope of a mountain. So the difference in the climate between the day and the night is huge. You can have a drop of even 20 degrees. The fact that we are at altitude and that it can be cold, especially in the winter, is a great protection against the olive flies. The flies lay eggs inside the olive. If you crush olives with the eggs inside, then you are pressing not only vegetables but also proteins and these proteins have a terrible smell and taste.
So because of that it’s difficult – especially now with climate change – to do good organic oil, because you have the problem of the flies. But thank God, being in the mountains, we have a climate that’s not nice for the olive flies. They prefer the coast and flat land and not to come up to the mountain. So it was a good choice.
OA: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EXTRA-VIRGIN, VIRGIN AND REGULAR OLIVE OIL?
AM: The polyphenols. They are antioxidants. The polyphenols are life soldiers. They are the reason why the oil is so healthy for us.
The composition of extra-virgin olive oil is 95% monounsaturated fat cells, which makes the extra-virgin olive oil the healthiest fat we can use, compared to the animal fat that is saturated and has bad cholesterol. The other 5% of the oil is polyphenols. The reason for them to be there is to protect the fat cells against self-oxidation. Because everything in nature is oxidized. The polyphenols are staying close to the fat cells, trying to not oxidize. And they sacrifice themselves in this action every day. So like soldiers, one by one they are going to die, sacrificing themselves to protect the fat cells of the oil against the oxidation.
Why the oil is so healthy? Because in the moment that you have an intake of real extra-virgin olive oil full of antioxidants, your stomach absorbs everything – including the polyphenols. And these polyphenols are going in the bloodstream. You know that in the bloodstream, we need to have fat, because otherwise we can’t absorb and process the vitamins during digestion. The polyphenols in the bloodstream are taking care of the good cholesterol, protecting the fat cells against the free radicals. The free radicals are arriving and making the fat cells explode, transforming the foam that will stick in the arteries.
[Ed note: According to Joseph J. Richardson, PhD, an expert in polyphenol-based materials for biomedical application based out of the University of Tokyo, the “foam” Manni is referring to “is probably a class of white blood cells. These foam cells are found in plaques, but not necessarily bad or related to bad outcomes.” For further information on plant polyphenols, Dr. Richardson recommends this study from ACS Publications. And for further information on oxidation, Dr. Richardson recommends this study from Springer Link. OK, back to Manni.]
The same action that the polyphenols are acting inside the bottle, they are acting inside the bloodstream. Their mission is to protect the fat cells against oxidation. And oxidation means in our body free radicals attack and transformation of fat in this foam.
[For this reason,] it’s important to consume an oil that is rich with polyphenols. Our extra-virgin olive oil is made up of 95% fat cells and 5% polyphenols. The fat cells do not have a taste or a smell. The smell comes from the polyphenols.
[Ed note: According to Manni, a surefire way to know if your oil still contains polyphenols – and can therefore still be categorized as extra-virgin – is by taste and smell. So the moment your oil loses that distinctive olive oil taste and aroma of olive oil is the moment you know the polyphenols are no longer present.]
OA: CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR PATENTED BLACK BOTTLES?
AM: Everything oxidizes in the light. Your skin, my skin, our body, our organs. So the same natural oxidation is happening also to the oil. But the natural oxidation could be increased enormously by three different factors. First, the UV rays – so the light. Then the oxygen – the atmosphere that contains oxygen is a great booster for natural oxidation. And then the temperature. Very very cold or heat affects the oil and increases natural oxidation.
So if you buy an oil in a transparent bottle, in two months, this oil will lose 60 percent of the polyphenols, the antioxidants, the natural preservatives of the fat cells contained in the oil. So you don't want to buy oil in transparent bottles, because you know that this will increase the oxidation of the oil just after bottling. When you buy a bottle, you don’t know when it’s been bottled.
From the Organic Authority Files
So when you buy a bottle labeled extra-virgin olive oil you’re not buying an extra-virgin olive oil. You have the right to print the label as extra-virgin olive oil at the time of pressing and bottling.
But this extra-virgin olive oil will oxidize and will start losing the antioxidants and polyphenols that are the soldiers that are defending the oxidation of the fat cells. So the moment they are gone, the oil without defense will turn to be a simple virgin almost without any antioxidants. So it will lose all of the health benefits. We’re not talking about rancidity. We’re talking about the natural oxidation increased by external factors also that is turning the oil from extra-virgin to virgin. And in fact, if you read a label of an extra-virgin olive oil, there is no expiry date. There is a suggestion for consumption. So best before, which is normally 18 months after bottling.
What you want to have is an oil that is still extra-virgin when you buy it. With MANNI oil, you have the [guarantee] that the moment that you get the olive oil at home, that oil is still extra-virgin. Then of course if you leave the bottle open for a month, the oil will turn from extra-virgin to virgin, because the oxygen will oxidize it.
We don't use transparent glass. We use a very dark glass that is a German pattern that protects 99 percent against UV rays. Inside our bottle there is no oxygen, because we pour inside inert gas, which ensures us that the oil isn’t in contact with oxygen, so oxidation isn’t fed.
And then there is our temperature. Our packages are made to go all over the world and delivered in 48 hours. Then we have to recommend to people not to put the oil close to the fire. And in general the kitchen is the worst place because it’s the hottest place.
The size of the bottle is another super tip. You don’t buy a bottle of wine, open the bottle, and leave the wine there standing in your kitchen open for a week. But you do that with the oil. Why? You know that the day after, the bottle will be oxidized. You don’t want to do that. You want to have the pure wine. But the same is for the oil. So never buy a big bottle. Buy only small bottles you can finish quickly. Never buy oil in transparent bottles, because for the most part, it won’t be extra-virgin anymore. And then watch the harvest, because you don’t want to buy a bottle that is three years old and has been standing in a store for two years. Because the percentage [of fat cells to polyphenols] isn’t extra-virgin anymore.
OA: MANNI OIL IS CERTIFIED ORGANIC TOSCANO PGI (PROTECTED GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION). WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
AM: Certified organic means that the olives are controlled and certified organic, as is the pressing process to obtain the extra-virgin olive oil and the bottling process. So the oil is 100 percent organic certified.
Toscano PGI means that the oil contained in the bottles is made 100% only with olives cultivated and harvested in Tuscany. It gives to the consumer the certification of the origins, and every bottle has a seal with a serial number. Going on the Toscano IGP website, you can see who is the producer, when and where the oil has been [made]. You just need to type the serial number of the bottle to have that information.
OA: YOU MENTIONED USING A WINEMAKING APPROACH TO MAKING MANNI OIL. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT A LITTLE MORE?
AM: Yes. It’s about the harvest point. So you know in the wine business, they harvest based on the chemical analysis of the grapes. They know more or less when they could harvest. But then every season is different, so they start to make an analysis of the grapes, and when the quantity or the sugar and the other parameters are in place – because their goal is to make every year a wine that’s similar in taste to keep the consumer familiar with the taste and being recognizable. If you are blind tasting a wine and if you are a grape wine expert you say this is Brunello di Montalcino 1995 made by this or this is Cheval Blanc and so on.
So the goal for the winemaker is always this: to be recognizable by the connoisseur. The harvest point is made by the ripeness point.
In the olive business, this didn’t exist before us. So we start to make an analysis of the olives in order to harvest in the moment where practically you have a crossing line between the quantity of olive oil inside the olive and the quantity of polyphenols inside the olives. Because if you do an analysis of an olive in September, you’ll have a very high quantity of polyphenol and a very small quantity of olive oil.
In the past, of course, all the olive oil makers were waiting for the oil to go up, up, up, but they didn’t know that at the same time the polyphenols was going down, down down. So if you put a graphic between these two lines you’ll see an ideal point where the coming down of the polyphenols where the ripening process is going on and the coming up of the quantity of oil inside the olives are crossing. And we start to harvest in that exact point. It’s changing every year, so because of that you have to make analysis of the olives.
OA: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEBODY WANTING TO START A FOOD BUSINESS LIKE YOU HAVE?
AM: Be a model. Change your business. For us, the mission is to create culture. To make the people conscious. You’re putting food inside of yourself.
OA’s Review of MANNI’s Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
We were so inspired after this interview that we decided we had to try Manni’s products ourselves. In two words: We’re hooked. While there are many, many wonderful and thoughtfully crafted extra-virgin olive oils you might enjoy, there are some attributes of MANNI that we find especially exciting.
To begin with, the oil arrived in a gorgeous package. The bottle itself was thickly bubble wrapped for extra protection, and the weight of the bottle as we unwrapped it felt nothing short of luxurious. As extra precaution to ensure it wasn’t tampered with, the bottle was covered in a thin layer of plastic boasting the Toscano PGI certification and corresponding serial number in plain view. While the bottle was black, the lid was painted with zebra stripes. This signature style was one among six options to choose from when we ordered it.
The oil itself was silky smooth: neither too thick nor too thin. It has a fresh spiciness that appears as the oil passes along your palate and then delicately evaporates, leaving your mouth with a clean feeling that's never fatty or greasy. All signs of a fresh, thoughtfully made olive oil!
Manni advised us not to cook with olive oil, because it destroys the polyphenols, but rather to pour it over cooked vegetables or salads as-is. (Ed.: We’ll be exploring this claim in the future, because it’s not cut-and-dried. In the meantime, we encourage you to read our recent coverage of cooking safely with vegetable and olive oils.)
Our EIC Laura Klein likes to sip it neat out of a room temperature cup or drizzle it over her favorite burrata, seasonal fruit, bread, salads, pasta and even ice cream.
In Summary: Choosing The Best Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
In selecting an extra-virgin olive oil, remember that a few key factors matter most: when the olive oil was bottled and how much exposure it had to light, heat or cold, and oxygen. All of those factors will speed up the oxidation process, which destroys polyphenols, degrading the oil from extra-virgin to virgin or simply olive oil. The polyphenols are the antioxidants that make extra-virgin olive oil so good for you, so it’s important to keep them intact for as long as possible.
When it comes to buying the best organic extra-virgin olive oil, consider the following:
- Notice when it was bottled.
- Make sure it was cold pressed. High heat can oxidize oil, so it's best to extract it quickly under high pressure and with few chemical solvents. This minimizes both the amount of heat needed to extract the oil as well as the amount of time the oil may be exposed to any heat, effectively preserving the health properties and the integrity of the oil.
- Do not buy it in a transparent bottle.
- Buy it in small quantities (small bottles), and consume the oil within a few weeks to preserve the health benefits from the polyphenols.
- Store your olive oil in a cool, dry place like a wine cellar, cabinet, or countertop where it won’t be exposed to direct sunlight or heat. (The MANNI bottle is so beautiful, we opt for a countertop away from outdoor sunbeams so we can still enjoy looking at it.)
- If you want an extra insurance policy for Tuscan, single-origin olive oil purity, look for the Toscano PGI seal with a serial number.
Feeling indulgent? Try MANNI for yourself. We think it’s the most delicious, beautiful extra virgin olive oil we’ve ever had.
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