Classic Italian Pesto alla Genovese: A Homemade Recipe for the Best Basil Pesto
Pesto alla Genovese is a versatile sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy, and has become a beloved staple in Italian cuisine. This basil pesto, while certainly not the only kind of “pesto” in Italy, is so delicious it has come to dominate this category of sauces in popular conception. After we briefly explore the basics of pesto, we’ll share the authentic recipe and provide tips on how to make and serve the best Pesto alla Genovese.
What is Pesto?
The name "pesto" comes from the Italian word "pestare," which means to crush or grind, referring to the traditional method of making pesto using a mortar and pestle. Any sauce made in this manner is considered a pesto. The variations of pesto are almost endless, and each region in Italy has its own twist on the classic recipe. For example, Pesto alla Trapanese from Sicily is made with almonds and cherry tomatoes, while Pesto alla Calabrese from Calabria is made with roasted red peppers.
The History of Pesto
The origins of pesto can be traced back to ancient Rome, where a sauce called "moretum" was made by grinding herbs, garlic, and cheese together. However, the modern version of pesto, as we know it today, can be traced back to the port city of Genoa in the 16th century. At that time, Genoese sailors would use a sauce called "aggiadda" to preserve their food while at sea. This sauce consisted of garlic, salt, olive oil, and vinegar-soaked bread. It’s a delicious condiment and we highly recommend checking out our simple recipe here! Over time, this maritime pesto evolved into the now-famous basil variation we know and love today.
The Ingredients for Pesto
Pesto alla Genovese is made with just a handful of simple ingredients: garlic, salt, pine nuts, basil, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and extra virgin olive oil. Any substitution, addition or omission might yield a decent sauce, but it will definitely not be real Pesto alla Genovese. It’s very rare to find store-bought pesto which sticks to the right ingredients—even more reason to make it from scratch!
In Italy, only Ligurian basil is used for pesto, but it can be difficult to find outside of the region. Look for the freshest basil you can find and try to use the smallest leaves possible. The smaller they are, the sweeter they will be.
The Best Way to Make Pesto
The traditional way to make pesto is with a marble mortar and pestle, also known as a “mortaio” in Italian. The circular grinding motion is gentle and helps to release the flavors of the ingredients without bruising them. On that note, you can be firm while grinding the ingredients but avoid banging the pestle up and down like a hammer.
While it may be tempting to use a blender or food processor for convenience, it is not advised as it will overheat and cook the ingredients, altering the taste of the final product. Pesto is, and should be, a raw sauce from beginning to end. However, if you do not have access to a mortar and pestle, you can use a food processor as a last resort. To minimize the risk of cooking the ingredients, it is best to freeze the blades and bowl beforehand and pulse the ingredients to avoid heat buildup.
How to Serve Pesto
Pesto is traditionally served with trofie or linguine pasta. Usually, pesto pasta is cooked in Liguria with potatoes and green beans—a classic dish called Trenette al Pesto. Pesto can also be used as a condiment for vegetables, pizza, or in a sandwich. The potential uses are almost endless!
Watch the Pasta Grammar video where we make Pesto alla Genovese here:
PESTO ALLA GENOVESE RECIPE
Makes: About 1/2 cup
Cook Time: 30-40 minutes
For this recipe, you will need:
3 garlic cloves, chopped
Coarse salt, to taste
1 tbsp (10g) pine nuts
1 oz. (30g) fresh basil
1.5 oz. (40g) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or to taste
2 tbsp (30g) extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
A smooth stone mortar and pestle, preferably the largest size you can find
Place the chopped garlic and a generous pinch of salt into the bowl of your mortar. Using a circular grinding motion, mash the garlic into a paste. Next add the pine nuts and mash these as well.
Adding a small amount at a time, grind in the basil next. When this is mashed into a paste (which can take some time, be patient!), you can grind in the Parmigiano Reggiano. Finish by mixing in the olive oil.
Taste the pesto and add more salt or cheese as you prefer. Pesto can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. To prevent the pesto from spoiling or discoloring, cover the surface of the sauce with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil before storing it in the fridge.
Want to put your pesto to use? Check out our recipe for the traditional Trenette al Pesto pasta recipe to see how they eat pesto in Genoa! Interested in a different kind of pesto? Give our spicy Calabrian pesto recipe a try!