Pesto alla Genovese

September  3, 2013

Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.

Today: A breakdown of traditional pesto, Liguria's favourite pasta sauce.

Pesto alla Genovese from Food52 

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Elizabeth David wrote in Italian Food that a plate of Genova's favourite pasta, linguine-like trenette with pesto, is “perhaps the best pasta dish in the whole of Italy.” Undoubtedly one of Italy's most famous sauces, pesto is loved the world over for its simplicity and freshness. A symbol of Liguria's unique cuisine, shaped by its coastline and its history of seafaring, foraging inhabitants, the true, original pesto recipe is the pride and joy of the region's capital, Genova.

It's a simple recipe, naturally, but it all comes down to the balance of quality ingredients -- and the way these ingredients are treated when combined. Let's break it down.

Pesto alla Genovese from Food52

First. The indisputable tools for making a proper, bright and creamy pesto consist of a traditional white marble mortar with a wooden pestle and patient but quick hand grinding to avoid oxidation of the basil. “Pesto”, after all, comes from the word pestare, to pound, grind, smash. Failing this, any mortar and pestle will do, but the heat and metal of a blender, food processor or even a 'mezzaluna' knife will oxidize the basil leaves, leaving you with an undesirable, dark-colored pesto. 

Then, raw garlic -- a small, sweet smelling clove should do it. Avoid musty or overpowering garlic, as pesto should never be too garlicky. It is pounded in the mortar with a pinch of coarse sea salt, which helps preserve that brilliant green hue that good pesto should have. 

The basil leaves should be the smallest, sweetest leaves you can find -- the best, of course, is the local basil of Genova, known as genoese basil. They are pounded quickly, but methodically with a twisting motion of the pestle. Then, in go the pine nuts, which must be raw, not toasted -- pesto is all about preserving the sweetness of the ingredients.

Pesto alla Genovese from Food52

You need a balance of both Sardinian pecorino cheese (imported from across the sea by Ligurian mariners for centuries) and Parmesan (or Grana Padano, which comes from the neighbouring Emilia-Romagna), ideally in a ratio of 1:3. To finish, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil, more delicate than its Tuscan or southern counterparts, a little dribble at a time. It adds gloss and shine, corrects texture, and provides slick protection from any further oxidation. 

Proportions are variable, changing from household to household. A little less garlic for some, exclusively Parmesan for others, but the ingredients are these with wide variations rare -- aside from a couple of acceptable substitutions. In one of the first written recipes for pesto from a cookbook from the late 1800s, it is noted that if basil isn't available, marjoram or parsley can substitute. Quite a different result, but delicious when done well. Walnuts can be used to replace pine nuts. 

This is pesto alla genovese.

A very traditional way to enjoy freshly-made pesto is to toss it with cooked, sliced potatoes, green beans and pasta. Known as pesto ricco, “rich pesto”, it's a wonderful combination with a little more substance than simple pesto. When made well, there's really nothing quite like properly-made pesto for a quick, fresh, fragrant meal.  

Pesto alla Genovese

Pesto alla Genovese 

Serves 4

For the pesto:

1 or 2 cloves of garlic
A pinch of coarse sea salt
2 ounces of basil leaves (one large bunch of basil)
1 to 2 tablespoons of pine nuts
2 tablespoons of grated pecorino
6 tablespoons of grated Parmesan
1/3 cup (delicately-flavored) extra virgin olive oil

To serve:

11 ounces dried pasta such as linguine

2 small-medium sized potatoes, peeled, quartered then cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 cup of green beans, cut into 1 inch sections
Extra virgin olive oil

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Isolina Surci Marvelli
    Isolina Surci Marvelli
  • Anna Consonni
    Anna Consonni
  • pierino
  • Emiko
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Isolina S. November 5, 2014
I agree with Anna certainly a very good and authentic recipe. I just want to add that if you add potatoes, they should be boiled in the same pot as pasta and so the fagiolini. Not too sure about their cooking time, I boil them first to the right point (potatoes quartered or anyway in smaller pieces) reserve and add them again in the last minute of cooking the pasta. If you want the pesto more creamy, you can add a spoonful of yogurt. This way the pesto will be closer to the old recipe when they used a sort of junket for the pesto
Anna C. September 4, 2013
Finalmente una ricetta del pesto giusta su un sito straniero. Non dimenticatevi mai di usare l'acqua della pasta per allungare il pesto (o anche altri sughi). L'amido rilasciato nell'acqua dalla pasta è il segreto.
Emiko September 4, 2013
Grazie mille! Si, infatti ho scritto nella ricetta intera (vedi il link sopra) di aggiungere l'acqua della pasta - importantissima!
pierino September 3, 2013
Hey, in the photo that's not linguine. Much better still it's trofie, the traditional little pasta twists of Liguria.
Emiko September 3, 2013
Hey Pierino, if you go to the full recipe, you'll see the most traditional suggestions for what pasta goes best with pesto, and yes, I used trofie, which I love. But probably THE most traditional are trenette, bavette or linguine - all of these come from Genova. And these long pasta are the most traditional for pesto ricco, even though I used trofie - some purists would even say with trofie you should only use just pesto or maybe pesto with green beans but no potato. The discussion can go on and on! ;)