How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

If you've ever tasted pesto in Italy you know that the pesto here in the United States just isn't the same. I received a lesson in how to make pesto from a real Italian grandmother last week and now I understand the difference and what makes this pesto recipe so special.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

A Special Pesto

My friend Francesca makes the trip from her small town near the pesto-epicenter of Genoa, Italy to San Francisco once or twice a year - this time (lucky for us) she brought her mom and two-year old son Mattia. Her mom makes a beautiful pesto (and perfectly light, potato gnocchi to go along with it) and offered to show me and my friend Jen how it is done. I have to say, it was a complete game-changer. If you love pesto, you really have to try this. Her technique results in an incredibly special pesto.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

Chop by hand or blender?

Most of the pesto you encounter here in the U.S. is different for a few reasons. First off, most of what you see is made by machine, usually a food processor or hand blender. This holds true even if it is homemade. Don't get me wrong, it usually tastes good, but because the ingredients aren't hand chopped you end up with a texture that is more like like a moist paste and there little to no definition between ingredients.

During my lesson I quickly began to realize chopping all the ingredients by hand and not blending them is key because this prevents the ingredients from becoming a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. When you dress a pasta with a pesto that has been hand chopped the minuscule flecks of basil will separate from the olive oil in places, you get definition between ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don't when they've been blended into one.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

Choosing the right basil

Another thing, Genovese pesto is famous in part because it is often made with young, small basil leaves. For us non-Italians it is easy to find Genovese basil in stores and at farmer's markets particularly in the summer, but chances are it wasn't picked young. I wouldn't worry about it too much, simply by hand chopping all your ingredients, you will see a major shift in personality of your pesto. If you grow your own basil, I'm envious.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

The technique

If you're serious about making good pesto, using this technique, get a good, sharp (preferably large, single blade) mezzaluna, or a good knife - you'll need it. Chopping the ingredients will take twenty minutes or so. Whatever you use to chop, make sure it has a sharp blade or the basil will turn dark. Once you chop your ingredients, you'll form them into a cake, pictured above. You add olive oil to this cake, and it's magic - below. 

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

How to Store Pesto

Store any pesto you might use in the next day or two, refrigerated, under a thin film of olive oil. You can also freeze it in snack-sized baggies. Thaw and toss whatever gnocchi or pasta you like with it.

Let me know if you try this and what you think! Use your beautiful fresh pesto with this gnocchi recipe. Or this simple homemade pasta. Tutto bene!

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

4.16 from 103 votes

One key to perfect pesto is chopping all the ingredients by hand, preferably with a sharp mezzaluna or knife. This pesto will keep a bit in the refrigerator, but it really hits its peak when served soon after it is made. The technique here is: chop a bit, add some ingredients, chop some more. I think part of the reason she does it this way (instead of chopping everything all at once) is because some things get chopped into oblivion, while some, not as much - it encourages spectrum of cut sizes throughout the pesto contributing to the overall texture. All told, the chopping took me a leisurely twenty to thirty minutes, I wasn't in any particular rush.

You'll also notice this recipe doesn't have any added salt (just the saltiness from the cheese), make sure your pasta water is well salted if you are going to use this pesto on pasta or the overall flavor profile will fall flat. Also, be sure to adjust for seasoning before serving. With food this simple, you need to get the seasoning right. Trust your tastebuds.

Ingredients
  • 1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
  • 3 medium cloves of garlic
  • one small handful of raw pine nuts
  • roughly 3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
  • A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Special equipment: a mezzaluna for chopping (optional)
Instructions
Chop Ingredients
  1. Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. I scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil "cake" - see the photo up above. Transfer the pesto "cake" to a small bowl (not much bigger than the cake).

Form a Paste
  1. Cover the pesto "cake" with a bit of olive oil. It doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons. At this point, you can set the pesto aside, or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving, give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil. Francesca's mom occasionally thins the pesto with a splash of pasta water for more coverage, but for our gnocchi this wasn't necessary.

Serves
4
Prep Time
20 mins
Total Time
20 mins
 
If you make this recipe, I'd love to see it - tag it #101cookbooks on Instagram!

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Comments

  • You can substitute nuts like pecans or almonds, they must be toasted, it wil taste different but good. You can substitute cilantro for basil as well - great on burritos! No way! Stick to the real ingredients folks ;-)

    Raffaella
  • Sorry for the delay in responding (this week has been unusually busy!) - regardless, it looks like you all came up with plenty of great suggestions on your own. I love reading them. Robin, I'm not exactly sure what the inspiration was behind the naming of Mattia, but HC's insight is interesting. I will ask her, I suspect there is a story there, but it might be a personal one. As far as the chop vs. smash debate goes: I've done pesto with the mortar and pestle before as well (also wonderful), but really love everything about this particular method and the flavor and texture it yields...

    Heidi
  • i would venture to say that the difference between home-grown and store-bought basil is more telling than technical differences in how you process it into pesto sauce. herbs are so easy to grow, and the quality difference is just too great to even remember it properly when you have accustomed yourself to grocery store substitutes.

    chris
  • Heidi, as always another fabulous entry. I can't wait for you to share the potato gnocchi recipe. I am a sucker for gnocchi; I see it on a menu I order it!

    Oscar From CIA
  • Heidi, I knew that you should chop by hand for better results, but I never heard that you should chop, add, chop, add and so on... I will definitly try this next time I make pesto! Thanks for all those details! Ps: The more I hear about your book, the more I itch to order it. Lucky amazon 's here!

    flo
  • @Heidi and especially @Fabien - a VERY IMPORTANT POINT from my Italian wife: Genovese basil (Ocimum Basilicum 'Genovese' I believe, aka 'Lemon Basil'), like the basil grown throughout Provence, just down the coast in France, does *not* have very large leaves! The fully mature leaves are small and flat compared to the curled variety commonly found in the US and elsewhere. They are also a lighter shade of green and have a delicate flavor all their own. There are 150 types of basil (!) growing around the world (try making pesto with Thai basil for a wild variation), but for the true Genovese experience, making your pesto with this variety will take it to the next level.

    HornCologne
  • I've also heard that pumpkin seeds can be substituted for pine nuts, but I haven't tried this yet myself. I have successfully used pumpkin seeds in place of almonds in a red mole sauce. (My fiancée is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, some forms of soy, and, sadly, mushrooms.)

    Steve Dunham
  • My suggestion would be to substitute the pine nuts for pistachios. You'll be surprised how much you won't miss the pine nuts. Of course, taste is a personal thing, but at least give it a try.

    Derek
  • Ms. Swanson, I've used sharp kitchen scissors to good effect on herbs to avoid the darkening / brusing. If one is lacking a mezzaluna or half-moon pizza cutter, they might serve as well. Just a thought... -Jonathan

    Jonathan
  • I've always toasted the pine nuts before chopping, to bring out more flavor. Is that not the case here?

    Amber
  • Oh my! I just "food processed" my way to sun dried tomato pesto last night. When I told my mom about your post, her reply (since 1/2 my family is from Genoa) was - "Yes, how else should it be made?" Thanks mom....Missed that in my home-culinary lessons...ha! ha! ha! Thanks for this. I can't wait to try it.

    Chris
  • I'm pretty attached to my (American I guess!) pesto recipe but some time will have to try this traditional way, I do love pesto!

    David
  • Thanks for that. In Katrineholm, Sweden we have pretty good pesto.

    Katrineholm Review
  • My husband bought your beautiful cookbook for me at Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA. I love it. Thanks for writing/photographing it.

    Aprille Clarke
  • In Frankfurt we have a herb based sauce called „Grie Soß” (green sauce) which is very different to pesto, but its secret is the same: chopping it instead of blending because otherwise the sauce turns bitter and the very different tastes of the (seven) herbs mix too much. Although I have always made pesto in the mortar I’ll try this, hoping for a more rough but singular taste of every ingredient. And to add one ingredient after the other just makes it easier to chop, I suppose. Thank you very much. (But: I wouldn’t wash the basil. And I’d add some salt and more oil, if you want the pesto last. Sorry for Denglish)

    Sebastian
  • This recipe sounds fantastic, and being Italian, myself, I can tell it is made the old-fashioned way.

    Book Diva
  • I can't wait to try making pesto this way. It doesn't sound overly difficult, and I can tell from the recipe that my dear Italian grandmother, would have used a recipe like this, in her life time. Thank you.

    LorriM
  • Guilty as charged -- I rely on my Cuisinart to make pesto, but after this post I will reconsider next time. Last year I did grow my own basil in window boxes off my railing, and while they did have a superior flavor to the bland store-bought creatures, they still didn't compare to basil in Italy proper. I don't know if it's the soil, the sun, the water, or just being in Italy that makes the difference. I love, though, that in Italy you buy basil as a living plant in the produce section. The flavor begins draining from the leaves the second the plant is cut. I wish we had that in our grocery stores.

    Sean
  • Beautiful! Yum!

    janelle
  • Heidi, Regarding your plans to make a variation on the lasagne with pesto, my father-in-law (who lives near Florence) makes my favorite dish in the world which is simply alternating layers of bechamel sauce and pesto with lasagne. Put a generous dusting of parmesan/romano on each layer. Make sure you use a lot of the bechamel as it can turn out dry if you don't. When I was in Genova, as the commenter Andrea said, the pasta al pesto was prepared with boiled potatoes, which added an interesting texture and buttery flavor to the mix.

    Rebecca
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