Pesto - the taste of Genoa, Italy

The Food of Italy: Genoa and Pesto

By Region Culture North-west Italy

Continuing the ItalyNewsOnline series on the culinary delights of Italy, we head to Genoa for a condiment that now has a worldwide following – pesto.

When I found myself sharing a hot tub with a couple from Genoa on a cruise, it wasn’t the fact that Columbus hailed from their city of which they were most proud. Nor was it the many examples of Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture that abound there. No, it was pesto which was the crowning glory.

That gloriously green sauce with which so many of us adorn our pasta is a source of pride in Genoa. There are other variations, but it is pesto alla genovese which most of us know and love.

Where does the name pesto come from?

The etymology can be found in the Genovese verb pestâ (Italian: pestare), meaning to pound. This in turn relates to the method of production which is to pound or crush the ingredients, usually using a pestle and mortar.

History of pesto

Pesto is thought to have derived from the Ancient Roman paste ‘moretum’, made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil and vinegar together. The making of moretum is detailed in Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of poems.

In the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in Genoa was agilata – a mash of garlic and walnuts. Garlic is prevalent in the cuisine of Genoa, and Liguria as a whole. The region grew rich on its maritime trade, and the sailors believed that garlic was good for keeping illnesses at bay.

However, the first reference to pesto as we know it, is in the 19th century cookery book by  Giovanni Battista Ratto, La Cuciniera Genovese (1863). There have been several variations over time to the recipe, and many households have their own individual take on pesto. However, in essence, the recipe for pesto alla genovese is as we detail below.

READ: Best pesto in the world

What is in pesto alla genovese?

According to Ratto, the ingredients are garlic, basil, salt, cheese, pine nuts, olive oil and a little butter.

“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.”

The preferred cheeses nowadays are Parmiggiano and/or Pecorino Sardo. The reason Ratto mentioned Dutch cheese is due to the preponderance of northern European cheeses in Genoa at the time, due to the city’s maritime trade.

Variations of pesto

Pesto alla trapanese/siciliana comes from the ports of Trapani, Sicily where Genoese ships once landed with products from the East. They replaced the Ligurian ingredients with those of their own land: tomatoes, almonds, pecorino cheese, red garlic and basil. Instead of green, this is a red pesto.

Pesto alla calabrese is from Calabria. It is decidedly spicier and includes grilled peppers, onion, chillis, ricotta, black pepper and oregano. Wetter than standard pesto, it also doesn’t require a mortar and pestle – should it be called pesto?

Pesto alla Genovese Recipe

Pesto alla genovese recipe
Serving Size:
10 minutes


  • 80g fresh basil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts
  • 2 heaped tbsp pecorino sardo, grated
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste


  1. Remove the basil leaves from the stems, wash and pat dry.
  2. Put them in the mortar and add the garlic clove, trimmed of its interior sprout, the pine nuts, the cheese and half the oil.
  3. Pound until the ingredients have turned into a creamy mixture.
  4. Pour the pesto into a small bowl and mix in the rest of the olive oil.
  5. Add to hot or cold pasta. Alternatively, use on bruschetta with other toppings.
  6. Note: using a blender will oxidise the basil. If you really want to use a blender, put it on a low setting and pulse only.

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