Much Ado about Pesto
I am a food romantic. Before venturing to a new destination, I envision what typically regional dish I will eat, what sort of carefully paired spirit (there always seems to be some sort of alcohol involved in these ruminations) I will enjoy with said dish and most importantly what kind of effortless characteristic ambiance will surround me as I eat. At times this overly calibrated romantic approach to dining leads to my inevitable disappointment or bemusement.
Once in Rio de Janeiro, I had envisioned the perfect way to enjoy Feijoada, the national bean and pork dish of Brazil. I would take a little tram into the hills overlooking Guanabara Bay, sip a Caipirinha, slurp some Feijoada and listen to João Gilberto’s gentle Bossa Nova. That never happened. Instead, I unwittingly took a local bus directly into the heart of the infamous Favela Rocinha and started dry heaving as the bus driver implied I needed to get off the damn bus as it was the ‘ultima parada!’
This was the year City of God had graced American cinemas, so my dry heaving quickly turned into a sort of nervous epileptic fit as I imagined being taken into white slavery and having my organs harvested. The bus driver took pity on me. We ended up at local bar drinking Brahmas with other Carioca bus drivers. I did get to eat my fricking Feijoada. My views were of a Formica table, a naked fluorescent light bulb and a frayed poster of Garrincha. The background music was not Bossa Nova. It was a Brazil-Argentina soccer match. It could not have been more perfect. And as far as I know, both my kidneys and my liver (though a little worse for wear) are still in tact.
It would therefore come as no surprise that when Giuseppe and I pulled into the port of Genova a few days ago, I was already in full pesto fantasy mode. Where will we eat this famous Genovese pesto for the first time? I was imagining a dark little trattoria with fraying menus and sturdy wooden furniture. A boisterous nonna would be presiding over the kitchen and barking orders at wayward employees as she charmed her guests. Naturally, I would be her favorite patron. She would invite me into her kitchen and share her family recipe for pesto with me. Her adoption of me would not be so distant into the future.
Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. We arrived in Genova during the height of a ‘Snow Alert 1’ for all of Liguria. As we quickly learned a ‘Snow Alert 1’ in Liguria indicates potential breakout of a zombie apocalypse, the second coming of Christ and more ominously according to RAI 1, ‘qualche centimetri’ of snow. With all of this hullaballo, I was still undeterred. I was going to have my goddamn pesto experience come hell, high water or two centimeters of snow.
The only problem was, there were only two restaurants open in the center of Genova. One was a pizzeria. Giuseppe and I rarely eat pizza outside of Naples and as I may have mentioned, I wanted Genovese PESTO! The other dining option was a silly little frufru restaurant that had velouté on the menu. We chose the silly velouté restaurant. There was no pesto on the menu so we ordered some nutty version of octopus with a Parmesan tweal and the famous velouté. At some point in the evening, I rather accidentally reached for a glass of water and sent a grissini flying through the air only to hit a Spanish diner in the face. There was subsequent restaurant chatter that Giuseppe and I, being of Neapolitan extraction, might also be members of a certain pernicious organization. We left without our gratis digestivos and still no PESTO!
The following morning, the pesto if not the second coming of Christ, was bound to happen. With a cursory look at a map of Genova, I lead us on a hijrah to the far-flung neighborhood of Boccadasse, where surely my adoptive grandmother was anxiously awaiting my arrival. Somewhere along the way, we became tired of walking, it started raining (not snowing!) and we found ourselves on an abandoned beach promenade near Lido. Our only restaurant option was called ‘Squash.’ I rather reluctantly entered because I was sure that my adoptive Ligurian Grandmother was not quite the sort of lady to work in a restaurant called ‘Squash’.
But stranger things have happened. The restaurant was a decadent beach club of the art deco style. There were no patrons. There was no nonna. But there was a nice lady who greeted us with sparkling Ligurian wine. She made as an excellent pesto so I was quite happy. She poured a stiff drink, so Giuseppe was even happier. I still have no Ligurian nonna. It still has not snowed in Genova. But we do have a recipe for pesto, and here it is.
Serves 6 as primo with pasta
1 Clove Garlic
1 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Cup Basil leaves (Do not wash or submerge the basil in water; clean with a paper towel)
¼ Cup Parmesan Cheese
2 Tablespoons Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
2 Tablespoons Grated Pinenuts
1/3 Cup Ligurian Extra Olive Oil (If not Ligurian olive, any high quality extra virgin olive oil will do)
This recipe is for the true Ligurian pesto method of mortar and pestle (from which pesto derives its name.) Avoid using a wooden mortar and pestle. The wood will absorb much of the flavor and fragrance from the basil. The best type of mortar and pestle to use is marble. If you prefer you can also use a food processor but your Genovan street cred will be seriously reduced.
Cut the garlic in half vertically and remove the green stem that runs through the center.
Cut the garlic into thin strips.
Place the garlic and salt in the bowl of the mortar and mash with the pestle.
Add the basil to the mortar and begin to ‘pestle’ it by rotating the pestle to the left several rotations and then to the right. Continue these rotations until the basil reaches a thick paste like texture.
Add the cheeses and pinenuts and pestle in rotations.
Slowly add olive oil to pesto and mix with pestle.
Store pesto in hermetically sealed container. It will keep for over one week in fridge.