Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pesto genovese: Accept no substitutes for this international favorite

Here in Montecarlo, we are only two hours from Genoa, the home of Cristoforo Colombo and the capital of Liguria. But more relevant today, it is also the home of pesto, a pasta sauce that has gained international recognition only in the last sixty years or so, despite its ancient origins. In honor of one of my favorite foods, I’d like to include some information on pesto gleaned from an interview with Italian cooking instructor Elena Benvenuti and online articles by chef Rosario Scarpato, Wikipedia and several other websites.

The name derives from the Italian word pestare, to pound, crush, beat or trample on, a reference to the original method of preparation, wherein the ingredients were ground in a marble mortar through a circular motion of a hard wooden pestle (a word that derives from pestare as well). Pesto traditionally consists of crushed garlic, Italian pine nuts, coarse salt, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pecorino sardo (cheese made from sheep’s milk and originating in Sardenia), all blended with extra virgin Italian olive oil.

Benvenuti pointed out that pesto is a generic term for anything that is made by pounding, and the word is used for several types of sauce in Italy. Nonetheless, she added, pesto genovese is definitely the most popular, both in Italy and in the rest of the world.

“All the other diverse variations floating are nothing more than bogus and unsuccessful aberrations of the original,” Scapato said. “Pesto is an ageless benchmark and a contemporary symbol of Italian cooking around the world.”

Pesto is thought to have two predecessors in ancient times. Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. A variation called for the addition of pine nuts. The use of this paste spread on bread in the Roman cuisine is even described in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of Virgil’s poems. During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the cuisine of Genoa was agliata, a mash of garlic and walnuts. “Seafarers ingested great quantities of it, since they believed it warded off illnesses and infections during the long voyages in conditions of extreme hygienic precariousness,” Scarpato said. “(Agliata) can be considered, in some manner, to be the predecessor of pesto.”

Troffie with pesto
The introduction of basil, the main ingredient of modern pesto, occurred in more recent times. The first documented recipe appeared in 1863, when gastronome Giovanni Battista Ratto published his book La Cuciniera Genovese in 1863: “Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil. Lasagne and troffie (a Ligurian variety of gnocchi) are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.”

Although it likely originated in India, basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy, and Provence, France; it was abundant in Liguria, though only when in season, so marjoram and parsley are suggested as alternatives when basil is lacking. Ratto mentions Dutch cheese (“formaggio olandese”) instead of pecorino sardo, since Northern European cheeses were common in Genoa at the time, thanks to the centuries-long commercial trades of the maritime republic.

This recipe for pesto alla genovese was often revised in the following years, and it shortly became a staple in the Ligurian culinary tradition, with each family often featuring its own pesto recipe (with slight differences to the traditional ingredients). Chef Scarpato further explains: “In the 1800’s, the pasta al pesto was considered to be a working class dish, and nowadays the recipe of that time has remained substantially the same. There was and there is still in Liguria the habit of adding potatoes, broad beans or French beans, and sometimes zucchini cut into small pieces and boiled together with the pasta. Rules are not always fixed. In general it is said that in Liguria it’s difficult to find two equal versions of pesto, because of the variations, sometimes within the same family, such as the addition of walnuts, ricotta or other cheeses. This has happened with various typical Italian dishes, many of which have ‘terminated’ their evolution only within the most recent decades. In Italian cooking, the variations of a dish not only represent the wealth of diversity, but also an indirect legitimization of its generally accepted version.”

Sinatra loved both pesto and Genoa. During a concert in Genoa
in 1987, he told the audience, "Two very important and
wonderful people came from Genoa, Christopher
Columbus and my mother." 
In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini. Pesto did not become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s. According to some sources, pesto reached its greatest popularity is the United States in the 1980s. At the beginning of the 90s, its popularity grew even more when Frank Sinatra sponsored a pesto sauce that carried his face on the label.

To prepare your own pesto, put garlic and pine nuts in a mortar and reduce to a cream. Add washed and dried basil leaves with coarse salt and grind to a creamy consistency. Then mix in Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino. To help incorporate the cheese, pour on a little extra-virgin olive oil. Personally, I like to add whole pine nuts just prior to serving for added texture and flavor. In a tight jar or an air-tight plastic container, covered by a layer of extra-virgin olive oil, pesto can last in the refrigerator for up to a week. It can also be frozen for later use.

Elena Benvenuti offers Italian cooking classes in Montecarlo. For more information, see her website Discover Lucca with Elena.


  1. Hi Paul and Lucy
    When I started researching our family genealogy a couple of years ago I found your stories on Tuscany Abroad. I have enjoyed reading about all of your adventures. I also see that you are from Washington state and so am I. I found you on an Eatonville Washington Archive. You had a relative that worked in Clay City making bricks. My great grandfather’s family was from Altopascio, Marginone area of Italy and they also lived and worked at clay city. You had mentioned that Your relatives who lived in Clay City may have been lonely not speaking English and it made me think about my great grandparents and grandparents. I'm glad to see there was another Italian family there to communicate with. My great Grandmother (Josephine Montanelli) and my great grandfather (Corrado Marchetti) and their seven children. They came to US in 1906. They continued to live in Eatonville throughout their entire life. I am so excited that a few of my cousins and my husband and I are planning our first trip to Italy in October. There are so many things I want to see but I am most excited about seeing the area in which my grandfather came from. I would like to do research on Marchetti and Montanelli families of Marginone, Altopascio Area while I am there, but I know I won’t have much time. What would you recommend or where do I start once I get to Italy? I hope you continue to keep writing I enjoy all of your adventures and recommendations.

    1. Wow, it's great to hear from another family from Altopascio and Marginone. For sure Montanelli and Marchetti are names from that neighborhood. We often shop at the Trony electronics store near Marginone owned by Angiolo Marchetti. And my great great grandmother was Candida Montanelli, so you and I have some distant family ties! I see Corrado and Josephine and their children on the 1910 census of Clay City, along with my grandparents Michele and Anita, and my aunt Nelda as an infant. They lived there until 1914, so no doubt they knew your family.
      We'll be in Montecarlo from Oct. 22-Nov. 15, so if you are there during that time, we'll be glad to show you around. I would highly recommend that you book a tour with Elena Benvenuti, who lives just across the river from Marginone and is the best tour guide in the area. She can even introduce you to people from the Marchetti or Montanelli families, if you ask. If you want someone who does genealogy work, I also know the two foremost experts in the area. You can email me at


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