Don't be fooled—it may look like pesto, but this is far from it. Rather than being rich and creamy from Parmesan, oil and pine nuts, salsa verde is sharp and savory, zingy and zesty.
Known as bagnet vert or “green sauce” in Piedmont, salsa verde can thank parsley for its grassy freshness and long-lasting color and capers and anchovies for its punch. The combination of ingredients recalls the ancient vie del sale—literally “streets of salt"—that connected the landlocked valleys and hills of Piedmont to the sea at Liguria. Ligurian olive oil, salt, and anchovies made their way through these ancient routes into the heart of Piedmont's cuisine, and they can still be found in the region's favorite sauces, like this bagnet vert and bagna cauda—a warm, hearty sauce of garlic, olive oil, and anchovies.
Salsa verde is most well known in Italy for being the number one condiment for bollito misto, a very traditional and rather old-fashioned dish of boiled beef and offal—but there's so much more that this sauce can do. In Piedmont, you'll find it as a topping on tomini, the delicious rounds of soft cheese, and on halved boiled eggs or on crostini for antipasto.
Try it with roast lamb. Use it on grilled fish. Toss a tablespoon of it through some freshly steamed or boiled new potatoes. Alice Waters suggests serving it over whole roasted cauliflower.
It also makes cheap, simple sandwich into a dish worth remembering. The Florentines know this well: They dollop it on their warm panini of stewed Lampredotto (abomasum tripe, their favorite kind of offal), which is the defining dish of the Renaissance city. And in Piedmont, their go-to panino in a flash is salsa verde with anchovies. Follow that philosophy and try it on sandwiches with leftover roast chicken, turkey, or tuna.
It's also wonderful on pizza. I regularly visit a wonderful hole-in-the-wall pizza place in southern Tuscany's Porto Ercole called Grano, where they make the most sublime pizza rossa (“red pizza”—in other words, no cheese), topped with salted anchovies and bright blobs of salsa verde. With a sauce like this, you don't even miss the cheese.
In traditional salsa verde recipes from Piedmont, many add fresh breadcrumbs, soaked in red wine vinegar, and even egg yolk or a whole boiled egg to thicken it. Probably one of the most important things to know is that salted capers and anchovies—the ones that are conserved in salt rather than pickled (for the capers) or oil-packed (for the anchovies)—are ideal here.
They are superior in flavor and texture, even though they require a tiny bit of extra preparation: Salt-packed capers and anchovies should be rinsed of any excess salt and soaked for a short time in water before using; soaked, salt-packed anchovies will also need to have their spines pulled out—once they're soaked, they should be a little more pliable and it will be easy. Start from the tail end and split the anchovy lengthways to reveal the spine, which can then be pulled out. (All this being said, if you can only find oil-packed anchovies, that's just fine, too.)
The ingredients are chopped together finely or blended or smashed with a mortar and pestle until you have a thick sauce. According to Nonna Genia, the indispensable cookbook of the Langhe area of Piedmont, everything is chopped together with a mezzaluna (to give you an idea of just how finely the ingredients need to be chopped, the original instructions that say this simple preparation takes one hour to make), then olive oil and a good pinch of salt is stirred in until it gains a saucy consistency.
Prepare the sauce a couple at least a couple of hours before serving to let the flavors mingle.
- 2 heaped tablespoons salt-packed capers
- 1 salt-packed anchovy fillet (or 2 anchovies preserved in oil)
- 1 garlic clove
- 3 1/2 ounces (100 grams or 1 bunch) flat-leaf parsley
- 10 basil leaves
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper, to taste
Do you have a favorite way to use (or make) salsa verde? Share with us in the comments!