I am obliged as an honorary member of the Confraternita del Pesto—a “brotherhood” founded in Genoa in 1992 to celebrate and protect the integrity of this famous paste of crushed basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil—to inform you that you have probably never had the real thing. And you certainly can’t reproduce it at home in Sausalito or Sarasota. That’s because unless you live in or around Genoa, the seaport capital of Italy’s Liguria region, you just don’t have the right kind of basil. At least that’s what the Genovese will tell you. And they should know.
Though now found everywhere in Italy (and the world), pesto all but defines this ancient metropolis. Thus the Genovese are simply safeguarding their patrimony when they announce, as they do rather frequently, that the only basil fit for pesto is that grown on the Liguria coast or in one of the urbanized agricultural communities that surround the city—Prà, Pegli, Palmaro, and Voltri—or in the backyard gardens or window boxes of Genoa itself. It’s a question of soil, climate, and farming methods, they say—of what the French call terroir. What comes out of the ground here is l’unico vero basilico al mondo, the only true basil in the world.
Well, maybe not. But it is pretty good—brilliant green in color, immensely fragrant, and almost completely lacking in that peppery, minty flavor that most basil has. In Genoa, it has one and only one place: in pesto. Basil is the perfect constituent of the perfect sauce, the local philosophy seems to be, so why use it for anything else?
“Whenever I get home after traveling,” Pietro Uslengo, a founding member of the Confraternita del Pesto, once told me, “the first thing I do is cook some pasta and make up a batch of pesto. It’s a drug.”
The first published recipe for pesto as we know it today didn’t appear until 1848—and that was in a cookbook printed in Florence! Pesto became strongly identified with Genoa only in the late 19th century, around the time that entrepreneurs started growing basil year-round in heated greenhouses on hillsides around that city.
The success of Genovese pesto depends on the nature and quality of all its ingredients, of course, not just the basil: mild garlic; long, thin Mediterranean pine nuts; fruity extra-virgin olive oil; freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Sardo. Purists also insist that pesto must be made with a mortar and pestle, saying that its very name, derived from the Genovese verb pestâ, to pound or beat, demands as much.
There’s hardly a restaurant in the region that doesn’t serve pesto in some form or other. A couple of my favorites in Genoa are a glorified wine bar called Sola Enoteca (Via Barabino 120, 39/010-594-513) and an upscale trattoria called Da Rina (Mura delle Grazie 3R, 39/0102-466-475). I’m also partial to the simple, primal version served at Luchin in Chiavari, 23 miles east of Genoa (Via Bighetti 51, 39/0185-301-063) better known for its farinata, the Ligurian chickpea-flour pancake.
As you might expect, the Genovese have definite ideas about how pesto should be served. They mostly just stir it into minestrone or toss it with one of the pasta forms native to the region: Trenette (the local version of linguine) or trofie (little pasta twists) are lovely topped with sauce. That’s about it. Pesto on spaghetti or ravioli? Marginal. In risotto or on pizza? Are you kidding? As a sauce for fish or chicken? You are kidding. This isn’t catsup we’re dealing with here. It’s Genoa itself. A
1 garlic clove, finely chopped (remove and discard any green core)
3 tbsp pine nuts, Mediterranean if possible
A pinch of coarse salt
2 cups basil leaves, tightly packed*
1⁄4 cup each freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo (or 1⁄2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano); omit cheese if making pesto for minestrone
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian
1. Place garlic, pine nuts, and salt in a large mortar, then crush them with a pestle, using smooth, regular motions, until you have a smooth paste.
2. Add basil to mortar a little at a time. Crush to a coarse paste, grinding leaves against side of mortar with pestle. Add a pinch more salt and continue crushing, then gradually stir in and crush the cheese.
3. Drizzle in olive oil and continue working until pesto is very smooth and no large pieces of basil are visible. To serve, dilute with one to two tablespoons of pasta cooking water and toss with trenette (linguine), trofie, or other pasta.
*Use the smallest (i.e., youngest) leaves possible. To avoid bitterness, trim off the stems so that literally just the leaves are used—and if the leaves are very large, cut out the center vein.
Photos by Chiara Goia. This appeared in the July/August 2010 issue.