Total Time: 20 minutes

Pesto pasta recipe originated in Genova. Who knows how this mix came to be. Probably out of some ingenuity, in the effort of giving some zest to ordinary food, using readily available ingredients.

Some claim that especially basil, grown elsewhere but around Genova, doesn’t seem to have the same fragrance and properties. If climate, location and soil are unique, so it can be for basil too. In fact it is true that fruit, wine, animals, even people are influenced by geography.

Eating in an elegant restaurant, Villa Italia, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania years ago and talking with the Italian owner, he acknowledged this fact. Even the Neapolitan cook, admitted that the dishes made the same way with the same ingredients, didn’t completely   result as flavorful and tasted the same as in his native Naples.

On the other hand it’s also possible that with pleasant company, in certain places, on leisure or vacation time, food is more pleasant. Just one of those situation can make a difference. In fact food seems to taste better in somebody else’s house. I even know of cooks who prefer to eat somewhere else but their kitchen.

Whatever the story, you certainly don’t have to go to Naples for a pizza or a good plate of Spaghetti.

The word pesto means pounded, crushed. That was the way the pine nuts and basil were treated using a marble mortar and a wooden pestle.

Now it is easier and more convenient to use a food processor or a blender. Another way to do the process, would be by using a sharp chef knife or a half moon blade and to chop, chop, chop away.

But purists argue that the way to prepare the pesto pasta recipe is the old fashioned way pounding and crushing the ingredients in a mortar. A blender or food processor will chop the basil leaves and the oils won’t be fully released.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to know the difference. If you use a food processor, blend the ingredients with quick bursts, so the blades won’t become hot.

Because of the name, other ingredients that are crushed the same way can be called pesto. They can be from peppers, olives, dry tomatoes and who knows what else. Almonds and walnuts are used too. Also parsley may be used or arugula and spinach. In some cases these kind of pesto may be used as a dip or to flavor a recipe.

The pesto pasta recipe par excellence is called pesto alla Genovese to avoid confusion. Ingredients are garlic, salt, pine nuts, basil, olive oil and cheese.

Some came up with the idea of toasting the pine nuts, thinking to improve the sauce. What happens, the oils in the delicate nuts will dry out and loss of flavor will derive. Pesto is never subject to this practice.

Pesto pasta recipe is traditionally associated with trenette a ribbon pasta narrower than fettuccine. But other long pasta marries well too.

Boiled potatoes, thin sliced are also used. As matter of fact purists cook sliced potatoes with the pasta and even string beans.

Pesto pasta recipe has become so popular in the States that creativity borders on the weird. So there is pesto with chicken, spread on steak, on fish, on sandwiches, mixed with cream, ricotta. There is even pizza with pesto. Will it find its way in coffee?

On a serious tone, I don’t want to offend anybody’s preferences.  I just like to say that the pesto pasta recipe in Italy has its limitations.


Ingredients for 4 people

  • 3 cups basil leaves (1 ounce and 1/2)
  • 1/2 ounce pine nuts
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup parmigiano reggiano
  • 1/4 cup pecorino
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

makes about 1 cup



Wash basil leaves in cold water and pat them dry on paper towel without rubbing.

Put garlic, salt, basil leaves and pine nuts and crush them finely.

Then add cheese and keep pounding lightly with twisting the pestle in a circular motion. While doing that, add a little oil at a time and let to be absorbed in the mixture. Keep pounding and twisting and adding oil until you obtain a smooth creamy sauce.


Note:  Or another way with a mortar: start by crushing garlic and salt, then basil leaves a few at a time and pine nuts in that order. Add cheese and then oil, both little at a time. Oil must be absorbed in the mixture.

If you use a mortar the traditional way, do the preparation very quickly to avoid oxidation. After pesto is prepared, oil should have been absorbed and not floating on top.

For a crunchy taste and more flavor, add some coarsely chopped pine nuts to the mix.

The pesto pasta recipe requires you use the best ingredients, don’t compromise. Use extra virgin olive oil and parmigiano reggiano or grana padano.

You can use a mixture of parmigiano and pecorino, more parmigiano than pecorino or whatever proportions you like. Some don’t like to mix cheeses. Pecorino romano can be a little too strong. The ideal can be a mild pecorino.

Save some water from the pasta. You’ll need it to liquefy the thick pesto sauce when mixing with the pasta.

More sauces for pasta

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