Pesto alla Genovese – One of my Favorites

pesto alla genovese

Pesto alla Genovese – The Original

Once again, I draw my inspiration for the pesto alla Genovese from Sandra Lotti at Toscana Saporita Cooking School.  Their pictures made me miss Cinque Terre and the pesto in Liguria.  Each and every visit to Vernazza, Cinque Terre, I ate pesto as my first meal, and almost always with the traditional pasta, trofie. And I must confess, it made me a bit of a pesto snob, almost thinking that unless it’s Ligurian pesto, it should have another name.  I am wrong, of course! 😊

Why do I make this association?  Liguria, more specifically Genoa, is the home of pesto, which consists of pine nuts, basil, olive oil, garlic, cheese, salt and pepper – and that’s it.  In Italy, you learn that garlic is only an enhancer flavour, it is not dominant.

Pesto and Trofie

The word, pesto, itself refers to the method of making it – pesto from pestare which means to pound or crush, taken from using a mortar (typically marble) and a pestle to grind or crush the ingredients.  Even today, it is better to grind it by hand than to use an electric blender, albeit harder work!

Trofie is pasta from Golfo Paradiso, a strip of land in the Riviera di Levante near Genoa including maritime towns like Recco, Sori, Camogli and other comuni in the area. In the traditional recipe for trofie, the flour is either wheat or chestnut flour, and now sometimes also potato.

This is a wonderful introduction to trofie, from A Small Kitchen in Geno:

“The story of trofie (or troffie or trofiette) speaks of women seated at the kitchen table rhythmically modelling, one by one, with a swift and expert gesture of the palm of their hands, hundreds of little twists of fresh pasta all identical to each other. It speaks of women who spent slow and monotonous hours preparing the meal for their family on whichever day of the week. It speaks of women who also brought home the bacon with the experience matured in years spent kneading the dough because restaurants and pasta laboratories in the area brought them at home tender wheat and the next day came to pick up the fresh beautiful trofie just handmade, ready to be cooked or to be re-sold.”

Also from A Small Kitchen in Genoa, this is a wonderful video about it, as well as a wonderful travel video.  Watching makes me extremely homesick for Italy and will make you want to go immediately!

Some Pesto Background

Not surprisingly, pesto has an ancient Roman predecessor, a paste made from garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar, and sometimes pine nuts.

In Genoa in the middle ages, this sauce was named agliata and combined, garlic, walnuts and garlic.  Garlic was a nutritional staple in Liguria, especially for the seafarers.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, where I ate my first pesto Photo credit Chris Wildgen

Basil became a main ingredient in the mid-1800s, included in a recipe in the book La Cucineira in 1863 by Giovanni Battista Ratto.

“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 Trofie are dressed with this mash, made more liquid by adding a little hot water without salt.”

Interestingly, it uses butter, which the modern versions do not – they use extra virgin olive oil, preferably from Liguria, of course!

Adding Basil

pesto alla genovese
Pesto alla Genovese with trofie pasta and potatoes and green beans – to be authentic!

Although sweet basil was and is abundant in Liguria and Provence, it seems to have taken a while for it to be added to the pesto sauce. However, it is seasonal so that’s why the other herbs are offered as alternatives. This basil is sweet basil and not at all like the basil in grocery stores in North America.

And at the time, Dutch cheese was more common in Genoa than Sardinia cheese, thanks to hundreds of years of the commercial trade of the maritime republic.  Even the basil itself would have been due to this trade as it was probably from India.

Due to the basil supply and access to all the ingredients, pesto alla Genovese became a staple.  And as always in Italy, each family has slight variations to the recipe.


It finally crosses the Atlantic

Though a staple in the Ligurian diet, it didn’t become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s.  Maybe this was due to tourism as it started to discover the Ligurian Levante.

In fact, I think my first encounter with it was in Vernazza, Cinque Terre on my first visit to Liguria in 2008!  I may have been slow to come to the party, but I have made up for it since!

Below is the recipe for pasta alla Genovese.  And yes, if you must, you can use different nuts, such as walnuts, and different herbs (I cringe as I write this) depending on what is available seasonal, which would be following the Italian ethic of always fresh and seasonal.

The recipe lists 2 different kinds of cheese, but it’s okay to just use one.  Be sure that it is fresh that you grate yourself, not the pre-grated kind.

Also, use only the leaves of the basil by picking them off the stems.  It makes a better pesto, with no bitterness.

Lastly, to be authentic, you should also add boiled potato and green beans to the mix of pesto and trofie.


Recipe Pesto alla Genovese


boiled potatoes

cooked green beans


Crush garlic using a mortar and pestle. Add pine nuts; crush with the garlic. Add basil leaves gradually, making circular movements with the pestle, until smooth paste forms.

Mix Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and pecorino Romano cheese using a wooden spoon. Stir in olive oil until pesto is blended.

When boiling the pasta, add potatoes and green beans to cook with it.  Drain and add pesto.  If you want, you grate extra cheese on top.

Store leftover pesto in the fridge covered by extra virgin olive oil in a container with a lid.


Short story of trofie and the recipe of chestnuts trofie