Pesto Envy

Pesto. One of Italy’s most beloved and versatile ingredients. It can be used as a sauce or as a flavoring and like most Italian food there are regional variations based on local flavors that inspire and incite rivalries as deep as those of the Medici – Pazzi .

Each region of Italy favors a home-grown preparation, the most famous being the green pesto of the Ligurian Riviera. Considered to be the birthplace of pesto, the temperate Mediterranean climate along the Ligurian Sea produces a classic Genovese basil (Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’) prized for its fragrant aroma and spiciness. The leaves are crushed with pine nuts, mountain grown garlic and salt in a mortar with extra virgin olive oil added until you have a creamy consistency. Grated cheese (half Parmigiano and half pecorino) is added and mixed well. In some areas pine nuts are substituted with almonds, pistachios or walnuts and parm and pecorino with ricotta or other cheeses. And here the divergence begins.
Farther south the pesto gets spicier and redder. A popular pesto in Sicily is made with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. Sicilian pestos contain ingredients like capers, chilies, raisins, anchovies, fennel and mint creating a southern style pesto that is richer, thicker and spicier than their Ligurian counterparts.
Our Nonna was from the Northern Italy and our grandfather from the South. When the two sides of the family got together you better believe there was some pesto envy going on. Pesto alla calabrese looks nothing like the Northern pesto of our grandmother. Pesto alla calabrese, often described as pesto with a passion, is made with peppers and chili for a very robust sauce .
Nonno’s Pesto alla Calabrese
2 fresh whole red peppers
1 cup of Ricotta cheese.

½ cup of Grated Pecorino

½ cup of grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano

½ tsp of crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)

2-3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
salt and pepper to taste


Outside of Italy there are pestos made with parsley, peas, spinach and arugula, hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds and macadamia nuts. I’ve even seen a pesto made with beets, broccoli and kale. I guess they all qualify as “pesto” as long as the ingredients are crushed; traditionally with a mortar and pestle “alla pesto” referring to the original method of pounding (pestare) or crushing the ingredients dating to the time of the Romans. Whether or not a cardinal sin is committed in making pesto in a food processor remains in debate; some say no true Genovese would use any device other than a mortar and pestle others find it completely acceptable. What most do say is that a good pesto has a creamy consistency with defintion between the ingredients and that size does matter. Young, freshly picked small leaf Genovese basil makes the best pesto.

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