For the past year and a half, the memory of one dish of pasta has haunted me.
It was our first and only night in Genoa, Italy. We arrived tired and worn from a long day on the train. We lugged our bags, heavy from everything we would need for the next two years of travel on the boat, down narrow streets to the busy port. Frustrated by lack of taxis and grumpy from empty growling stomachs, we stopped at the first restaurant we came to.
It was nothing special, just a few plastic patio tables and chairs overlooking the commercial port. A laminated menu translated a handful of pizzas and half a dozen pastas into a comical form of English. Smelly Blue Cheese seated on Linguini was the one that made me smile. But, I opted for a simple dish of Pesto Pasta that I ordered with Drink Water. I was too tired to try and think of anything more exciting.
When my dish arrived, I was surprised by the color. When I make pesto, a dark green paste is produced. It is strong and bites with the licorice taste of basil. This, in front of me, was creamier and a softer green. I took a bite. It was not as sharp as my version. It was rich in flavor, but smooth and well-balanced. With each bite, a taste of what I could only describe as green filled my senses. I ate the dish with wonder and relished each bite. I wish I could have eaten more.
We left the restaurant and sailed away the next day, but I had not forgotten that one perfect pesto dish. It played in the back of my mind every time I’ve made pesto since.
When the boat returned to Genoa I danced on my toes, excited to go find the secrets of the regions most famous dish. I started at the market, where all good food discoveries begin. Italian men in stretched and misshapen white tank tops called out their greetings to me.
“Buongiorno,” I replied, trying out the few words of Italian I could remember. “Basilico?” I raised my eyebrow, hoping they would understand.
“Si, si.” A man waved me over, wearing no more than a white apron over his faded baby blue boxers and the bright orange clogs that Mario Batali made famous. He handed me a bunch of small-leafed emerald green basil. The tiny delicate leaves meant the plant could be no more than a few days old. He broke off the heart of a stem and rubbed the leaves between his thick rough fingers. He brought them to his face and breathed deeply, shutting his eyes and smiling. He was lost in thought. He opened his eyes in a dreamy lulled way and broke into an Italian soliloquy for the next three minutes. I did not understand a word he said, but his voice sounded like music. I smiled and nodded.
Maybe he knew I didn’t understand him. Instead of repeating, he cupped his hand gently behind my head and held the basil out for me to smell. It was a sensual act. I leaned in, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The aroma nudged my memory.
It was different than the basil I had known. It was sweet smelling and mellow. I smiled with the same hazy look he had had. “Due.” I held up two fingers to make sure he knew what I wanted. As I walked away, in search of the Parmesan and pine nuts I needed to complete my dish, the man broke into song. His deep baritone voice reverberated an opera through the market. It could not have been a more Italian scene if a director set it up.
No wonder the pasta tasted so good. In Italy, there is life and love in everything.
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
1/2 cup olive oil
In a heavy bottomed frying pan, sauté the pine nuts over medium heat. Shake the pan constantly so they do not burn. Toast until they turn golden. Remove from heat and cool.
To create the soft creamy pesto of Genoa, grind the garlic cloves and salt in a mortar and pestle (hence the name pesto). Add the basil leaves and press until a rough paste is achieved. Add the pine nuts and Parmesan and press to incorporate. Slowly add the olive oil to emulsify into the mix.
You can also use a food processor for larger batches, but the blades will bruise the basil leaves and the color will darken.
Makes 2 cups pesto