A Pesto with Pedigree

Sicilian Nut Pesto and Pesto Rosso 


I can safely say that almost without exception, my taste for the finer things in life waited until I was well past childhood to come out of hiding. In eschewing just about anything that might impart an ounce of nutrition, by the time I turned ten most people assumed I was well on my way to a permanent place in the junk food hall of fame; after all, my principal yardstick for edibility was based on sugar and cheese, with occasional allowances for other things as long as they were drowned in enough ketchup. I’m sure most people who knew me had already written me off as a lost cause, thinking I was doomed to a life of fast food and Velveeta; I might well have been if it weren’t for a sudden explosion in my tastes that happened around this time. I owe it all to pesto.

I can thank my father, the man better known for his affinity for certain members of the gourd family, for introducing me to pesto. At some point in my childhood he started shopping at one of Oakland, California’s most esteemed purveyors of Italian food, the Genova delicatessen. Every time he went he came back loaded with boxes of their homemade ravioli, softly misshapen and bulging with cheese. I was more wary, however, of the pint-sized containers of vivid green sludge that he also brought home, especially as they filled the room with an indescribable pungency the instant the lid was taken off. The abbreviated ingredient list specifying ‘extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, parmesan cheese and garlic’ was the only indication of their contents, but at that point it might have been written in Italian for all these fancy words meant to me. I’m not sure what force moved me to try it the first time (it certainly wasn’t its color – I had an almost religious aversion to anything green), but that one taste was all it took: by the time the first spoonful reached my stomach, I was a pesto convert. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was developing a taste for a pesto with a pedigree, and I would have to wait years until I tasted anything again that would live up to it.

It’s really no wonder this pesto wormed its way into my heart the way it did. The birthplace of basil pesto is the Ligurian coast of Italy, whose capital city is Genoa, or Genova in Italian. Genoa is widely regarded by Italians as being the only place in the country to sample authentic pesto, but I hadn’t realized just how significant this was until I found myself there years later. At this point it was probably at least seven or eight years since I’d last tasted pesto from the Genova delicatessen, and the intervening time had been filled, on the pesto front, with incalculable mediocrity. As pesto had caught on more popularly in the U.S. I’d tried every mass marketed supermarket variety and restaurant version I could get my hands on, but it all paled in comparison to my memories; I’d had some decent results making it myself, but no matter how many ‘authentic’ recipes I tried, it never tasted quite right.  I had even started to doubt my own memory, thinking perhaps the rose-colored glasses of hindsight had made me remember a taste that never existed. Then one day on my first backpacking tour of Europe, I was traveling by train along the west coast of Italy, and I had to change trains in Genoa. Realizing as I disembarked that I had half an hour to kill before my connecting train arrived, I wandered out of the station and found myself on the doorstep of a small supermarket. I stepped inside, grabbed a loaf of bread and some cheese, and was about to leave when I passed a refrigerated case that contained nothing but small plastic containers of emerald green paste. They had no label, for it was assumed everyone would know what these contained; I grabbed one and headed back to the station.

If Proust’s moment came in the form of a madeleine, and Nigella’s came in the form a cheesebread, mine came in the form of this pesto, on a rickety train making its slow path down the coast to Portofino. With one bite my doubts about my recollections were erased – I had never known a simple taste to bridge space and time so seamlessly. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was that made it perfect, but there was a freshness, an intensity and a creamy pungency that had been lacking in every other pesto I’d tried over the years, and just inhaling its fragrance transported me back to my father’s kitchen in California.

I briefly wondered whether all pesto in Italy would be this good, but was soon to discover it wasn’t; in fact, in most parts of Italy the pesto can be as bad as bad pesto anywhere. A few weeks later, an interesting conversation with a hostel owner on Lake Como clued me in to why. We had gotten to talking about the differences between regional Italian cuisines, and I described my experience with the Genovese pesto. He smiled knowingly and replied that a true Ligurian pesto cannot be perfectly replicated anywhere else because of the quality of the basil. The soil around Genoa, he explained, contains a particular mix of minerals that create a basil that is both spicy and delicate, without the harsh grassiness that characterises basil elsewhere. The Ligurians also know how to grow their basil to its maximum potential – it’s always shaded from direct sun and picked before the leaves get too large and tough. I must have looked dubious because he asked his wife to whip some up that evening from the basil growing in the hostel’s garden; when he brought me up a sample to taste I had to agree that although it was very good, it was still a far cry from the Genovese gold standard.

I could give you a recipe for basil pesto, but it would be futile. You see, unless you happen to be looking out your window on a field of tender Ligurian basil, my recipe won’t get you closer to the real thing than any other recipe. In some ways I regard my uncompromising taste for true Genovese pesto as a handicap; in most situations I would rather not eat it at all than be disappointed. Then again, it has also been something of a blessing, as without this desire to avoid disappointment I never would have started experimenting with other kinds of pestos. As it turns out, chunky herb and nut sauces are made all over Italy, and despite the fact that the basil variety has become the darling of the international dining scene, there exist countless delicious versions incorporating every kind of herb and nut imaginable. I give you, therefore, two of my favorites that you shouldn’t have any trouble reproducing wherever you are.

For my part, I still dream of returning to Genoa one day to reconnect with the pesto of my dreams, but with alternatives as good as these, you can be sure that in the meantime my ravioli isn’t going to go naked.


Sicilian Nut Pesto

Source: based on a recipe in Erica DeMane’s The Flavors of Southern Italy 
Yield: about 2 cups
Notes: I was blown away by the complex flavors in this multi-nut pesto from Sicily. Although I briefly considered dropping the mint, thinking it would ove
rpower some of the other flavors, I was so glad I didn’t – the mint adds an underlying note of freshness to the basil that beautifully compliments the rich profusion of nuts. Also note that there are versions of this pesto that contain cheese, but I prefer this one without as there are already so many subtle and complex flavors vying for your attention, and the nuts make it plenty rich without.

1/2 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 plump cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup (packed) basil leaves, chopped or torn
2/3 cup (packed) mint leaves, chopped or torn
about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt, to taste 

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Begin by toasting the nuts in separate batches on a baking sheet just until golden and fragrant, about 10-12 minutes for the almonds and hazelnuts, and 7-9 minutes for the pistachios and pine nuts. (If you think you’ll be vigilant enough, you can stick them all in the oven together in different pans, removing each kind of nut as it turns golden.) Set them all aside to cool. Using a towel or moistened hands, rub the skins off the hazelnuts. Combine everything in a food processor (or a mortar and pestle, if you like things done the old-fashioned way) and pulse until reduced to a slightly chunky paste, adding more oil if necessary.  Taste for salt, then store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can use this as a sauce for pasta, or as a topping for fish, chicken, vegetables, or foccacia. It also makes a killer sandwich spread.

Pesto Rosso

Source: adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria
Yield: about 2 cups 
Notes: While the above pesto is fragrant, herbal and fresh, this one is gutsy, punchy and robust. It goes well with just about everything, including stronger flavors like red meat and pork. When I use it for pasta, I have no qualms about showering this one with copious amounts of cheese.

10 whole sundried tomatoes, packed in oil
4 cloves garlic
about 20 oil-cured black olives, pitted
1/2 cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons (packed) fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
1 small dried hot chili, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Combine everything in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse lightly until a chunky paste is formed. Taste for seasoning, correcting the balance of salt, sugar or vinegar if needed. Keeps covered for at least a week. See above recipe for serving suggestions.


31 thoughts on “A Pesto with Pedigree

  1. Well… That was a really nice post, as usual. I don’t think I ever had anything remotely resembling the ligurian pesto you evoke so beautifully — alas. But your substitutes look awesome. Thanks !

  2. I’ve had the exact same experience!!! I spent a few days in Cinque Terre, right off the Ligurian Sea, and after one bite of that pesto nothing’s been the same since. I kept hoping that you’d have the magic recipe at the end of the post, but I think you’re right — We’ll just have to go back to the source.

  3. I made a Sicilian pesto from Marcella Hazan that I blogged about back in the fall (late summer?) – it was totally delicious and so easy, but differed from Patricia Wells’ in that it used fresh tomatoes, no olives, rosemary or vinegar. Ok, so it was entirely different! But delicious… 😉

  4. And yet another wonderfully informative post with a vibrant picture! I’ve been twice to Sapri and Maratea in the South, where I’ve always bought jars of wonderfully cheesy & spicy red pesto alla calabrese. Now I have another two pesto recipes to try..

  5. Oh, that’s funny!! just today I posted a pasta with pesto receipe :-)) (well, that is, if you manage reading some italian :-))Anyway, compliments to blog and pictures, I’m reading you since a while now…

  6. hi melissa, beautiful post and gorgeous picture! it’s funny how it’s the simplest of things that are the most difficult to transplant and replicate beyond their birthplace.for some strange reason, reading about the pesto rosso has made me crave some catalan romesco!

  7. I truly do not know why Genovese basil is so famed. I’ve eated the pesto, it was out of this world but I wonder if it is a different species of the herb. Maybe it’s like vitello albese, a special breed of cow that is raised only in piemonte, if you have had veal tartar cut by hand you will know what I mean.I really have to do more research…Thanks for a great post and I have to get down to Sicilia to sample the nut pestos firsthand.

  8. basil, mint, nuts and garlic. all of the best ones are here…. hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios… it sounds incredible.I have one particular gripe about this recipe, and that is nothing to do with the food in particular – you see, basil gives me heartburn. when I taste pesto in sandwiches, I know I’ll suffer later. Sometimes it comes as a "surprise", they sneak some in, or there’s basil in the olive paste or whatever… So I eat and stock up on "tums". Am I the only one who gets this indigestion thing from basil?

  9. Hello Melissa,I am glad to be back to find such a lovely post to read. As I read about the Ligurian basil, I close my eyes and feel the sun and the scent around. Since I am just back from summer, I have no troubel imagining I am almost in Italy!Your picture, the green and red jars are so inviting! Like anyone back only for a few hours, I have little clarity to know what to cook. I wish I could just dig in these pesto pots! Grrrrr! Glad to read you again! NZ was amazing as expected!!!

  10. What a delicious post. I was really lucky when I was in university. My flatmate (my final year in school) was obsessed with making really good pesto. He’d make huge quantities of the most delicious pesto, eating some right away and freezing the rest. Of course, I stole it as often as I could.My favorite pesto and way of eating it is a coriander-basil pesto spread over a nice steak–a la Peter Gordon’s famous dish from Sugar Club.Beautiful pictures as always. Gorgeous contrast and detail.

  11. Melissa,There is nothing better than a freshly-made pesto with basil that has been just picked and is still warm from the summer sun.We are still working our way through another long Canadian winter … but this post has made me think that Summer is not that far away!Merci!

  12. I love Genova too! Both the deli in Oakland, and the city in Italy. But only had pesto in the sea-side city (in Italy) since I don’t think I can ever get enough of it. Genoa is amazing and really worthy of more than a 30-minute stopover. At least you were saavy enough to grab a taste, on the run.

  13. Perhaps pesto has the same magic as my mother’s meatballs — only the touch of her hands can create that flavor I’ll always hope to experience again.Christina

  14. Your blog is beautiful, so "esthétique" (sorry, I’m French and I’m not sure aesthetic has the same meaning). Thank you for such beautiful pictures and, apparently, great recipes.

  15. I really liked the picture,congratulations. Just waiting my basil to grow from the seeds which has been placed in yet warm mediterranean soil. Sun dried tomatoes are just marinating in extra virgin olive oil from my father in-law’s olive trees. What should I ask for more? Thank you for sharing the recipes

  16. The first time I tasted pesto was on my sister’s homeade pizza. Now we put it in so many recipes. We can’t wait to try making one of these before I move to Germany. I think I’ll have to take a cooking class over there because I won’t have all my family to observe and someone "keeping an eye on me" so I don’t burn the house down. Thanks again for the time you take to share your stories and inspirations along with the recipes.

  17. These do look and sound like the essense of summer.Your photography is super-I love the textures and surface lights. You’ve cheered up my cold and snowy day.

  18. Hi Liza – Thank you, and I hope you get the opportunity to taste real Genovese pesto someday. It’ll blow your socks off! Hi Cheryl – I wish I had a magic recipe to offer… Then again, having a reason to go back there is not the worst thing in the world, is it? ;)Hi Luisa – Can you give me the link to your post on Marcella’s pesto? I trawled through your archives a bit but couldn’t find it. It sounds like a great addition to the pesto list!Hi Pille – I’ve had a pesto calabrese from Barilla, but never come across a recipe for it myself. Hmm, I’ll have to do some digging!Hi AG – Thank you, and nice to hear from you!Hi Sigrid – Unfortunately my Italian is a little rusty (considering I never studied it!), but I admired your pesto post nonetheless. I take it you were using the San Lorenzo brand – is it really good? You take beautiful photos, by the way!Hi J – Funny you should say that about romesco, since that thought crossed my mind when I made it! In fact, when I added the almonds to Wells’ recipe I worried for a moment that it was only my subconscious desire to eat romesco that was compelling me to do so… Luckily the end result was different – and delicious – enough in its own right to wipe any doubts away.Hi Matt – Thank you!Hi Gia – It is strange, isn’t it? If you manage to uncover any fascinating information about Ligurian basil, do let me know. And I was thinking the same thing about a trip to Sicily!Hi Malka – I’ve never heard about anyone getting heartburn from basil. I wonder if you have a mild allergy to it? I guess if you ever do find yourself in Genoa, you’d better make sure to pack plenty of Tums! ;)Hi Bea – Glad to have you back! It must have been wonderful to have a few weeks of summer to break the monotony of all this cold. With recipes like these I seem to be dreaming of sunny places too… I would love to jet off for a little in situ pesto eating right about now! Hi Chubby Hubby – Lucky you! I think in college I was that roommate, pawning off my pesto attempts on people I lived with. They never seemed to mind 🙂 I’ll look up that Peter Gordon recipe, it sounds fantastic.Hi Ivonne – I know how you feel… Winter in Scotland has seemed particularly long and dark this year. Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps me going is the growing list of all the things I’m planning to cook this summer!Hi David – I should have stayed longer, I know! But at that time I put too much faith in Let’s Go, who told me this grimy port city didn’t have much to offer besides pickpockets and brothels. It’s a mistake I’ve been meaning to rectify for far too long.Hi Christina – Ah yes, the mysteries of food. I’m sure the experts would say it’s all in our heads, but we know better, don’t we? :)Hi Flo – Compliments are most welcome in any language, naturally 🙂 Thank you!Hi Tülin – You’ve made me positively jealous! I wish I could transplant a bit of that warm Mediterranean soil and a few of your father-in-law’s olive trees up to these cold northern climes. You’re lucky to have such a wonderful bounty on your doorstep!Hi Gypsy – I love pesto on pizza too, along with just about everything else! And a cooking class sounds like a wonderful idea, since it’ll bring you in contact with lots of like-minded people in your new home.Hi Gustad – It is definitely worth seeking out!Hi Lindy – Thank you 🙂 Now if only that essence of summer could work some magic on the weather…

  19. Fabulous pictures and lovely post, but I have a question… I noticed that you took the picture inside jars used for storing thing, I was wondering if this means that your pesto will actually last a while? Do you know how long? I would love to whip up some pesto even if finding the ingredients here could mean a month long quest, but with only 2 people in the house it would be great to know how long I might be able to use it for. Thanks!

  20. Hi Katy – Don’t worry, they keep pretty long, I would guess up to two weeks in a sealed container in the fridge (and maybe even longer, though I haven’t tried). Both of these recipes make a relatively small batch, however, and if you end up using a bit here and there like we do you’ll be amazed at how quickly it disappears! 🙂

  21. My friend insisted me on learning to make pesto sauce. Just by reading these comments I think I understand why and I am quite sure that I am going to love it too!Just one thing is bothering me:isn’t it dangerous to use so much of cheese and nuts for the people who already have an overweight problem?Actually: is it really possible to loose weight by eating Italian food as in most of the dishes they use cheese?

  22. WOW! I never was much of a pesto fan. you made me want to go to Italy again! I am always ready to go on a plane there. You opened up all my senses. (and the smell of the bread that is baking in my oven definitly helps to get in the story.)

  23. What a wonderful idea to add some mint leaves to the ligurian pesto.Our local supermarket had loads of Basil leaves on reduced offer, so have spent this rainy morning in London making pesto ! Reminds me of our summer holiday on Lago Maggiore in August.Adding the mint leaves raised the taste experience to a new level. I think though you can be much more generous with the Garlic. Now… for Sunday lunch of Penne, home made Pesto, a tomato and spring-onion salad with a 15 year old Balsamic vinegar, with a bottle of Gavi di Gavi. For dessert we might try some Zabaglione with red-currents, followed by a Espresso corretto al Sambucca.Who needs Italy !!!Buon Appetito from London

  24. i adore your photos. i think photos with recipes are very important thing. i always look for recipes only with pictures, and your pictures make me say "wow". i would like to have a good camera…

  25. Melissa,Can one make the pesto rosso without the almonds? My roommate and I are having a dinner (and we wanted to make it easy, but good, so I thought pesto!), but one person is allergic to nuts. Do you have a substitute for nuts??? Thanks! I love your site and one day, I will finally get around to trying all the lovely recipes, mmmmmm.

  26. Michelle – Hmm, hard to say what to substitute. Maybe something creamy, like some goat cheese? Then again, you could certainly just leave them out – it’ll be a different sauce, but no less tasty, I’d imagine. Good luck!

  27. I too have tasted the true Genoa pesto and whilst you can’t get the exact same tast by growing your own Ligurian basil – it’s still worth effort. Feel free to give it a go one time.Danny – Growing Basil Blog

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