Updated Sept. 10, 2018: Michael Fiorelli is no longer the chef at Love & Salt.
For purists, there is only one pesto, born in the mid-19th century in Genoa, the capital city of Italy's Liguria region. That version stars the clear, sweet flavor of basil, with supporting roles from Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Sardo, pine nuts, raw garlic and olive oil, mashed together with a mortar and pestle.
But for chef Michael Fiorelli, hewing too literally to this approach would mean missing a larger point about Italian food. To him, the soul of the cuisine does not reside in a checklist of customary ingredients and traditional practices—it’s in the inspired use of items that are already within reach, whatever those may be. “I think all cultures somehow go back to that,” he remarks. In Italian cuisine, this is often referred to as cucina povera, literally “poor kitchen,” which has come to connote a mixture of frugality and creativity.
Fiorelli hit upon a pesto recipe for the ages at his Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning restaurant Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Hoping to cut down on food waste, Fiorelli added arugula—including the bruised, yellow and not perfectly green specimens—to his pesto alongside basil. Pine nuts, the iconic nut of pesto, were jettisoned for cashews. “I like the richness, almost luxuriousness, of the cashew,” he says. And why use raw garlic? “I’m not a fan of that big punch of garlic where everything else just goes away and the garlic lingers,” he confesses. So he roasted it, mellowing its edge. “Texturally, the roasted garlic changes the whole thing. It rounds it out, softens it.”
He even excised the hallowed mortar and pestle. “I make mine in the food processor,” he admits. “I know that’s sacrilege. But I like the texture that a food processor gives you. It’s smooth. You can’t get that from a mortar and pestle.”
Of course, the technology also means faster preparation: In short order, you’re enjoying fresh pesto clinging to earthy, toothsome whole-wheat fettuccine.
“You take a bite of the pesto and you’re like, ‘What is that I’m tasting?’” Fiorelli says. Thanks to the arugula and red pepper flakes, it’s more savory and spicy than a traditional Genovese pesto, yet the texture is silkier and there’s a sweetness to the finish due to the rich cashews and roasted garlic. “It’s kind of like when you sip a glass of wine,” he describes: The more you know, the more you notice.
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Michael Fiorelli’s inspiration, read the companion article, "A Perfect Match: Pesto Fettuccine With Grechetto," in the Sept. 30, 2018, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find other recently rated Grechettos, other Italian whites and Wine Spectator's alternate suggestion, Sauvignon Blancs, in our Wine Ratings Search.
1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Peel off the papery outer layers of the garlic, leaving the head intact. Trim about 1/4 inch off the top to expose the tops of the cloves, drizzle with salt and olive oil and wrap in foil. Bake until a paring knife inserted into a center clove meets no resistance, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and pop each clove out of the skin. Measure out 1/4 cup roasted garlic cloves; if there are extra, reserve for another use.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the arugula, basil, cashews, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, black pepper and red pepper, and blend until everything comes together. Slowly stream in the olive oil to create an emulsion. Add a little more oil if needed to combine.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the fettuccine and cook for 1 minute less than the package instructs, so you can finish cooking it in the pesto.
4. While the pasta is cooking, gently heat the pesto in a large pan on low, stirring often to prevent cooking or burning, until heated through, about 5 minutes. When the pasta is 1 minute from the box’s stated cook time, reserve 1 cup pasta water in a small bowl, and drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the pesto to finish cooking. Toss vigorously with tongs or a spoon to fully coat. If the pesto seems thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water to thin it out. Taste for seasoning. Distribute the pasta evenly (4 ounces each) among 4 small plates, and grate the ricotta salata generously on top. Serves 4 as a first course.