Nothing screams ‘Italy’ more that a plateful of pasta with pesto, like the ones we serve at Ristorante Via Appia. Pesto is also an ingredient of one of our bruscettas. But have you ever wondered about the story behind this tasty sauce?
Pesto is a sauce originating in Genova in the Liguria region of northern Italy (pesto alla genovese). The name is the contracted past participle of the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare) which means “to pound, to crush” in reference to the sauce’s crushed herbs and garlic. This same Latin root through Old French also gave rise to the English word pestle.
The ancient Romans ate a cheese spread called moretum which may sometimes have been made with basil. The herb likely originated in North Africa; however, it was first domesticated in India. Basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy and Provence, France. The Ligurians around Genoa took the dish and adapted it, using a combination of basil, crushed garlic, grated hard cheese (parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino,, etc.), and pine nuts with a little olive oil to form pesto. In French Provence the dish evolved into the modern pistou, a combination of basil, parsley, crushed garlic, and grated cheese (optional). However, pine nuts are not included.
In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini. Pesto did not become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s.
Historically, pesto is prepared in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle. The basil leaves are washed, dried, placed in the mortar with garlic and coarse salt, and crushed to a creamy consistency. The pine nuts are added and crushed together with the other ingredients. When the nuts are well-incorporated into the “cream”, grated cheese and then olive oil are added and mixed. In a tight jar (or simply in an air-tight plastic container), pesto can last in the refrigerator up to a week, and can also be frozen for later use.
Pesto is commonly used on pasta, traditionally with Mandilli de Sæa (Genovese dialect – literally “silk handkerchiefs” – for lasagna, trofie or trenette. To the dish are also traditionally added potatoes and little green beans, boiled in the same pot in which the pasta has been cooked. It is sometimes used in minestrone. Pesto is sometimes served on sliced beef, tomatoes and sliced boiled potatoes.