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Pesto Change-o

Getting to the root of this flavorful Italian sauce.

Sam Gugino
Posted: July 20, 2000

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Pesto Change-o

Getting to the root of this flavorful Italian sauce.

By Sam Gugino

Veal Vincenzo was a popular dish on the menu of a restaurant I operated in Philadelphia a number of years ago. When a customer called to ask if she could cook it at home by substituting vegetable oil for butter, eliminating the cream and changing the shallots to onions, I said, "Lady, you can do whatever you like, just don't call it Veal Vincenzo."  

Fred Plotkin feels that way about pesto, the sauce of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and cheese, from Italy's Liguria region. "People think they can mash up anything and call it pesto. It's not. It's just a sauce," says Plotkin, author of Recipes From Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera.  

Classic pesto, like most Italian culinary creations, requires ingredients of impeccable quality, particularly the basil, olive oil and salt. Indeed, one can make a very good pesto with just these three. (Early versions of pesto did not contain nuts or cheese, but they most likely did contain garlic.)  

Liguria is known for pesto largely because its basil is superior to that found elsewhere in Italy. "There is something about the proximity to the sea that promotes delicacy and flavor. It's not too minty or oily," Plotkin says. Even within Liguria, some areas, such as the town of Prà, are considered to have higher quality basil than others. The problem with American basil is that it is too strong. To mitigate this, use only the small leaves from the plant, or grow your own. Look for seeds labeled basilico Genovese.  

Despite their quest for purity, Ligurians do add things to pesto, such as ricotta (good for lasagna recipes) and prescinseha (a kind of sour cream or yogurt) to enrich it. Crème fraîche and softened butter are nice too. As for nontraditional pestos, I found that in place of basil, kale, especially when blanched, makes a nice faux pesto topping (without cheese) for bruschetta. Spinach is a bit too mild, so go easy on the garlic. Arugula is the reverse. They're all fun to make. Just don't call them pesto.  

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Cooking to Beat the Clock.

For complete version of this article, please see the July 31 issue of Wine Spectator, page 25.

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