EUROPEAN cooks, especially those in the Mediterranean Basin, take their olive oil quite seriously. In fact, the cult surrounding its production in Italy, France and Spain approximates the fanaticism which accompanies wine-making.

Good oil should remind you of the olives it comes from in color and taste. There are two general categories: sweet bils, which are mild and usually straw-colored; and fruity oils, which are fragrant with more body and flavor, usually golden with green or deep green touches. The style of the producer, the types of olives used (there are hundreds of varieties) and the state of the crop determine the category of the oil.

Olive oils are like wines: Their flavors are affected by the soils in which they are grown. Connoisseurs distinguish between various vintages, and some prefer it aged rather than fresh.

The type of oil to buy depends on how you are going to use it. Olive oil has a pronounced flavor and should not be used promiscuously. If it is to

A note about storing olive oil: It is usually cheaper to buy in large quantities, but the oil will turn rancid quickly if it is exposed to heat and light, especially if it is the unrefined variety. Decant olive oil into smaller containers and use one, keeping the others in a cool, dark place. To be extra safe, you can keep the oil in the refrigerator, but bring it to room temperature to liquify before using.

In making salad dressing, where raw oil is used, anything but the highest quality will result in an inferior salad. But you may prefer, or your salad may require, a lighter-tasting oil rather than a heavy, cloying one.

When sauteeing with olive oil, you can probably get away with a cheaper brand, or use vegetable or corn oil. Your pockebook and palate should guide you.

The finest olive oil comes from the first pressing and is not refined -- so-called virgin oil, labeled Extra Bergine in Italy and Huile Vierge Premiere Pression a Froid in France. These exact words must be on a label to signify oil from the first pressing. In Italy and France, the best oil is produced by farms sometimes connected (Text Omitted) all of the olive oil imported to the U.S. is made in factories, is either the second or third pressing, or is cut with refined olive oil which is neutral in flavor, resulting in a loss of character.

The Washington-area offerings run the gamut from extremely pale and delicately-flavored to murky, green, almost brackish types. Some are so fragrant that they remind you of the air in the village on the day the olives are pressed. Our search of local stores even turned up some of the assessments below, while not comprehensive, are derived from tasting a score of olive oils purchased in several local stores.

(Prices are approximate, and vary from store to store. Popular sizes are listed, but others are available.)

SPECIALTIES

These are all virgin oils from the first-pressing of the olives. Each is available in only one place in Washington and in extremely small quantities. But every shipment is awaited eagerly by shoppers who know that these oils are lovingly made of the most exquisite olives on small farms.

Olivieri. Sidney Moore, of May-flower Wines and Spirits, 1733 DeSales St. NW, explains that this oil is made on the property where her parents live in Tuscany. She brings this oil to her shop with shipments of Italian wine. It sells for $4.95 per half liter and $8.95 per liter.

Of all of the oils we tasted, this has the most distinctive flayor, described by one panelist as reminiscent of alfalfa. The color is such a dark green as to be almost opaque. Olivieri has a lingering aftertaste with a appealing, bitter tinge, which probably comes from the pits of the olives, and a very potent, olive flavor.

Pasolini. This oil comes from the olives grown between the vineyards in the Chianti region and is brought to The Perfect Cup in White Flint Mall in Bethesda in containers of Italian wine. The price is $7.50 per liter.

Its color is a rich, deep green with a flavor to match -- full of olives with a nutty overcast. One taster called Pasolini a "sexy" oil. This oil has a bit more subtlety than Olivieri, with a lingering aftertaste.

Sciabica (pronounced Sha-bee-ka). Only six farms are making olive oil in California by the old-fashioned cold-pressed method, and Sciabica is the only one which sends its oil to Washington, where it is sold at the Georgetown Wine and Food Company, 1015 Wisconsin Ave. NW. The Sciabica family, whose ancestors came from Sicily, has been making this oil from the Mission olive in Modesto since 1936. It costs $4.50 a pint and $8.29 per quart.

Sciabica oil is available in two forms. One type comes from olives pressed in January; it is dark green, sharp and bitter, which aficionados enjoy. The second type, from olives pressed in the summer, is a light yellowish-green with a smoother flavor. Both have luxurious body and a persistent aroma.

LIMITED DISTRIBUTION

These oils are available in just a few local shops and ethnic groceries. Following each listing are examples of where the oils can be purchased.

Goya. Light green color with a good, olive flavor. This is the oil, although it is Spanish, that is favored among all of the imported varieties by Giuliano Bugialli, author of "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking" (8 ounces: $1.23; El Progresso, 3158 Mt. Pleasant Rd. NW).

El Toro. Spanish oil with a heady aroma, a pleasant flavor and attractive medium green color. Good salad oil and acceptable for cooking foods to which you don't want to impart an overly-strong flavor. (2 quarts, $6; Skenderis Greek Imports, 1612 20th St. NW, and 5558 Randolph Rd., Rockville, Md.; Columbia Deli and Groceries, 1778 Columbia Rd. NW; Thomas Market, 2650 University Blvd., Wheaton, Md.)

Sensat. A palatable oil from Spain with a yellow-green cast and mild taste of olives (8-ounces: $1.37; El Progresso).

Minerva. Deep green color with medium body and clean aftertaste. Excellent flavor. This Greek oil is preferred by Roy Andries de Groot, author of "Feasts for All Seasons," when he chooses among imports (33.3 ounces: $3.50; Skenderis Greek Imports and Thomas Market).

Crinos. Another Green oil whose taste was preferred over Minerva by the tasting panel. Described as "enticing" and "juicy," this oil has a rich color and strong olive taste (1 quart: $3.50; Skenderis Greek Imports and Thomas Market).

Madre Sicilia. This Sicilian oil has an exceptionally attractive, deep green color and a great deal of body and olive flavor. Marcella Hazan, author of "More Classic Italian Cooking," recommends this oil to her students in the United States (1 gallon: $11.50; Litteri, 517-19 Morse Ave. NE).

James Plagniol This oil is from Marseille and represents the characteristic flavor found in all imported French oils: champagne-colored with an extremely fruity aroma, excellent flavor and a bit of an oily aftertaste. Two panelists, who liked the oil, described the flavor as that of "watermelon rind" (1 quart: $6.79; French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW., Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice, 1328 Wisconsin Ave. NW; Bloomingdale's).

Hilaire Fabre. Another French oil with a persistent olive taste and oily texture (1 quart: $8.30; French Market).

Louis de Regis. A midly-flavored oil with a nutty taste and sharp, piquant aftertaste. Suggested as a good salad oil by tasters (1 quart: $7.50; French Market).

UBIQUITOUS

The following oils can be found in many grocery stores and supermarkets in the Washington area.

Bertolli. This is an extremely light and pale oil from Lucca in Tuscany, arguably the area in Italy producing the highest quality olive oils. Our tasting panel found it not unpleasant, but very neutral in flavor. Pleasing aroma, but almost no flavor of olives (1 quart 2 ounces: $3.89).

Berio. Also from Lucca. Many cooks use Berio and Bertolli interchangeably; our panel found their characteristics almost identical.

Pompeian. This oil has an inoffensive but acceptable flavor. Very plain; fine for salads (1 quart: $3.80).

Empress (Safeway brand). Aroma and flavor reminiscent of olives, with an oily aftertaste; a decent oil. Acceptable for salad dressing, too mild for cooking (1 pint: $1.89).

Progresso. Average oil with a touch of a bitter aftertaste. Generally inoffensive, with a light color. (4 ounces: 55 cents, 8 ounces: 95 cents, 16 ounces: $1.75, 64 ounces: $4.59).

SO SPECIAL IT'S NOT HERE YET

Capitol Hill Wine and Cheese Shop, 611 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, brings in olive oil from a cooperative in Tuscany irregularly along with their shipments of wine. The next batch should arrive around the middle of July and sell for $10 per liter. It's not displayed in the store, so you have to ask. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, Matthew Lewis, The Washington Post