To enhance every dish—from a Mediterranean mezze platter to a luscious spring tabbouleh—local extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar make a fine splash.

The Mediterranean diet—which has been around for more than 5,000 years and is considered one of the world’s healthiest—has been extensively studied for its nutritional benefits since the 1950s. It’s packed with fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, and uses little or no red meat, sweets, sugary drinks or butter.

In the Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) takes a starring role. EVOO can do wonders for our health, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School and leading health and nutrition experts around the world. EVOO provides monounsaturated fat, which lowers total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (“bad” LDL) and raises high-density lipoprotein (“good” HDL). It also supports brain health, combats inflammation and blood sugar levels, and contains antioxidants that protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

A lesser-known component of the Mediterranean diet is aged balsamic vinegar, an acetic acid that also boasts amazing powers: It’s been shown to lower cholesterol, stabilize blood pressure and keep glucose levels stable in diabetics. Some research suggests it can also work as an appetite suppressant, and it contains strains of probiotic bacteria that are good for your gut.

Understanding that these ingredients were more than just a flash in the pan, Jim Milligan took a leap in 2008 from the international corporate world and opened a shop on East Front Street in Traverse City called Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars. He envisioned a niche market for his oil-and-vinegar emporium in the emerging foodie region of Northwestern Michigan, and despite the Great Recession, it became an immediate hit.

That was 15 years ago, and the Mediterranean diet and Fustini’s—named after the beautiful stainless-steel drums that store olive oils and vinegars in Italy—are both going strong. Townies and travelers flock to sample the artfully labeled and packaged bottles filled with fragrant oils and vinegars. Tasters not only enjoy mouthwatering flavors but also learn how to use each product to enhance their meals. Special events, a cooking school, kitchen accessories, cookbooks, chefs, restaurant partners and other foodstuffs are all part of the gastronomic adventures, and Fustini’s now sells more than four select extra-virgin olive oils, 20 infused olive oils, two specialty oils, 35 balsamic and five non-balsamic vinegars.

Fustini's in Traverse City

Photo by Fustini's

Fustini’s Denise Walburg explains what sets real-deal extra-virgin olive oils apart: “What makes EVOO a true EVOO is no heat or chemicals used in extraction, and no damage in the olive handling—sitting on the ground, getting wet, taking too long from harvest to milling, adding refined olive oil.”

Olive oil quality can range widely because there is no governing body to verify authenticity, so Fustini’s relies on taste as well as a chemical profile to ensure the highest quality olive oil.

That quality comes from harvest and processing practices that produce far healthier oils. Walburg says Fustini’s Select EVOO is harvested an average of three weeks earlier than most olives. “Three times the number of olives is needed for the same yield because they are still green, but the result is vastly superior olive oil with higher polyphenols and a longer shelf life.”

Fustini’s 18-year traditional dark balsamic, imported from Modena, Italy, is made with Lambrusco, Sangiovese and Trebbiano grapes. Referred to as the black gold of the culinary world, the first mention of this thick sweet-sour vinegar dates to the 11th century, and by law it can only be produced in Northern Italy’s Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces. In its early days it was used as a disinfectant and a cure-all; today it’s a divine ingredient as a finishing sauce, a salad dressing, drizzled over fish, glazed for meat and vegetables, and it pairs well with fruits such as raspberries and desserts.

For a fun and healthy appetizer try Greek yogurt blended with Fustini’s Citrus Oregano balsamic, Fustini’s Delicate SELECT olive oil, and za’atar seasoning. Serve the yogurt with pita chips, cherry tomatoes, mixed Greek olives and cucumber slices (picture above). Check out the full recipe.

Spring dish recipe from Fustini's

Photo by Fustini's

Asparagus and other spring vegetables love a drizzle of EVOO and balsamic, whether after a quick roast in the oven, or chopped into a dazzling Spring Tabbouleh. This ultra-fresh recipe—with green lentils, asparagus, fava beans, almonds and lots of fresh mint and parsley—is dressed with lemon, Fustini’s Citrus Oregano Balsamic and Fustini’s Gremolata olive oil.

Kick Up Your Cooking: 6 Ways to Improve Your Health

  • Move over bottled dressings: Mass-produced products are loaded with artificial flavors and sugar. Instead, make dressings, marinades and sauces using olive oil and balsamics—but because there are no preservatives in Fustini’s products, mix your creations just before using.
  • You CAN cook with EVOO. Fresh olive oil has a higher smoke point than that found at the grocery store. An experiment at the University of California-Davis heated olive oil at 350 degrees for 36 hours with no change to the chemical profile of the olive oil.
  • Pairing brighter balsamics with sweeter greens works well in salads. Use two parts oil to one part balsamic. For stronger-tasting leaves, like arugula, a Mediterranean-inspired option is mixing Gremolata olive oil with Citrus Oregano balsamic. Or try Persian Lime olive oil with the Traverse City Cherry balsamic, made with fruit concentrate from cherries grown on the Leelanau peninsula.
  • A game-changing tutorial on Fustini’s website teaches how to use the products to marinate, emulsify, caramelize, sauté, deglaze a pan, make a reduction sauce or a simple syrup, clarify butter, roast peppers, toast nuts, and make a chiffonade of herbs or leafy vegetables.
  • Fustini’s offers more than 2,500 recipes on its website; each bottle of oil and balsamic features a QR code to direct you to recipes that use that specific product. Try the balsamic-glazed roasted cauliflower with tomatoes, red onion, green beans, Basil Crush olive oil and the 12- or 18-Year balsamic.
  • For virtual hands-on fun, sign up for one of Fustini’s small-group 90-minute classes, taught by local chefs. Some current classes, which begin at 6 p.m., include Cooking with Citrus, Italian Cuisine, Steak Night, Spring Brunch and many others at

For more healthy cooking inspiration, visit

4 olive oils and vinegars from Fustini's

Photo by Fustini's

Photo(s) by Fustini's