Many people have had this dish at one time or another and some will have made it at home but I would guess that few people have enjoyed it at its very best and I say that because even in Italy we’ve often been disappointed in restaurants.
The pesto is obviously not cooked so there's no hiding place for sub-standard or average ingredients. It requires the freshest basil, the best olive oil you can find and genuine parmigiano reggiano and pecorino.
If you only have average olive oil or if your basil isn’t freshly picked and is wilting or has some blackened leaves because you mistakenly thought that putting it in the fridge was a good idea, then just cook something else because if your ingredients aren’t the very best then this dish will not turn out well.
Even with excellent raw materials there’s more to this dish than meets the eye and it will take a little practice before you can confidently make it for non-family members.
Elena is the queen of pesto in our household and the only place that can beat her is a small backwoods restaurant in a place with the shortest name in Italy, Ne, which is 5 miles up into the mountains from the interesting town of Chiavari on the Ligurian coastline half way between Genova and the Tuscan border.
The restaurant is called La Brinca (left, buried in autumn foliage) and despite its location it is a serious restaurant. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that it’s perhaps the most reliably excellent restaurant that we know and the only pity is that it's too far away for regular visits. For a change the TripAdvisor ratings are right and when Italians from Genova, who know a thing or two about Ligurian food, sing its praises then you know you've got a winner on your hands.
The above pesto picture is from their website and when you confidently display something like that then your pesto better be exceptional. It is, of course, and we also discovered why we’ll never be able to quite match it at home.
Pesto Genovese is a Ligurian dish and the reason why it’s better there than anywhere else is because there is a type of basil grown in Liguria, especially in Prà in the western part of Genova, that has unusually small leaves which help to concentrate the chlorophyll when the temperature drops at night. This process creates a more intense flavor than with larger leafed basil.
Prà is proud of their basil crop and their giant mortal and pestle in town will make sure you don’t forget it. It's a serious business however with DOP certification and some Italian restaurants in Europe even flying the basil in directly from Prà so they can make exceptional pesto for discerning customers.
A few observations before we get to the ingredients and directions:
1. The traditional way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle but unless you're only making a a very small quantity it's far more practical to use a food processor. The disadvantage of doing so is that it comes with the risk of heating up the pesto as it's being made, so the way to avoid this (and you really do need to avoid this) is to put the blades and the container in the freezer beforehand and also to pulse it rather than give it a long burst when using it. If the basil oxidizes with the action of the food processor it will become darker and also slightly bitter, so it needs to stay cold.
If you plan on using a mortar and pestle and don't have basil with very small leaves then you should cut the basil into smaller pieces first because otherwise there will be some stubborn leaves at the end that never quite break down.
2. There are two camps when it comes to the cheese and they are divided between supporters of pecorino and those who advocate parmigiano. The consensus of chefs from Genova seems to be two-thirds parmigiano reggiano and one-third pecorino Sardo so we'll go with that. You can substitute pecorino romano if you need to.
3. Garlic is always controversial in it's raw form and in Liguria they put very little in the pesto, typically with the central part removed. One clove for this recipe would be more than enough for most people or burying it whole in the pesto and then removing it before eating is another way to leave a more subtle flavor.
4. Ligurian olive oil is lighter than most others so you don't want to use an oil which will overpower the delicate flavor of the basil, especially as this dish requires a fair amount of olive oil. We use a lightish Sardinian oil rather than a Tuscan oil for that reason. Sardinia by the way has very close historical ties to Genova.
5. Pasta: Strangely there are two traditional pasta shapes used for this dish, trenette and trofie but, as they are typically very difficult to find, linguine has become the pasta of choice for just about everyone outside Liguria.
6. Don't be surprised to see potatoes and green beans in this recipe because they are an essential part of the dish in Liguria, even though they might seem a little incronguous at first. You should reduce the pasta quantity a little to allow for the potatoes.
7. Final thought. Fred Plotkin's recipe pops up everywhere from the New York Times to the Chicago Tribune and even the Financial Times and while his book 'Italy for the Gourmet Traveler' is very good, his pesto recipe is a disaster in my opinion. I don't know what you'll be able to taste after crushing 4 cloves of garlic. Also one teaspoon of pine nuts is hardly worth bothering with and he uses only pecorino romano (not even Sardo) so I don't suggest following his recipe. Why English language newspapers around the world can't find a chef from Genova like Ivano Ricchebono or at least a real Italian to tell them the proper recipe is beyond me.
Ingredients for 2:
220 grams ( 7.7 oz ) linguine
120 grams ( 4.25 oz) new potatoes
90 grams ( 3 oz ) green beans
85 grams ( 3 oz ) very fresh basil
75 grams ( 2.8 oz ) cheese (66% parmigiano and 34% pecorino)
25 grams or two tablespoons pinoli (pine nuts)
1 clove garlic (optional)
a little more than 75 ml/grams ( one third cup ) olive oil
1. Lightly rinse the basil in cold or even iced water and then let it dry completely on paper towels. Grate the cheese, chop the raw potatoes into smallish pieces and chop the green beans into 1 inch pieces.
2. Toast the pinoli for a few minutes in a hot pan but watch them carefully so they don't burn as they are expensive and delicate.
3. Reassemble the food processor from the freezer and start the pesto with the basil, some salt and the pinoli (and garlic if you're including it). Don't overwork the pesto at this stage.
4. Add just a little olive oil next so it's easier to blend the cheese. Add the cheese and then after a few more pulses start adding more olive oil until you have a achieved a bright green paste. Everything should be done quite quickly while the blades are still cool, otherwise the bright green color will start turning darker.
5. It's easier to boil the potatoes and beans separately to the pasta to avoid the problem of different cooking times. Have them ready a couple of minutes before the linguine.
6. When the pasta is almost ready start adding a little of the pasta cooking water to half of the pesto (photo above) to loosen it. Then add the potatoes and beans and mix well (photo right).
7. Transfer the pasta using tongs so the pasta water is retained (photo below left).
8. Add the remaining pesto and mix well; check the consistency to see if more pasta water is needed. Plate and serve with a generous pour of your best olive oil.