A Pesto Pounding
Three thing have collided this week
1) My love affair with near-authentic Genoese pesto.
2) Ruth Fantasia’s review of a new Italian restaurant, Grappa ’72.
3) The rising tide of basil being harvested by my CSA.
Here’s the thing. I believe words matter. Thus I find it upsetting when someone calls an American sparkling wine Champagne or a tomato sauce with ground beef Bolognese. Pesto too is a thing to itself.
I have mentioned in the past being a disciple of Marcella Hazan. This is what she has to say on the matter in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking:
Pesto may have become more popular than is good for it. When I see what goes by that name, and what goes into it, and the bewildering variety of dishes it is slapped on, I wonder how many cooks can still claim acquaintance with pesto’s original character, and with the things it does best.
Pesto is the sauce the Genoese invented as a vehicle for the fragrance of a basil like no other, their own. Olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, butter and grated cheese are the only other components. Pesto is never cooked or heated, and while it may on occasion do good things for vegetable soup, it has just one great role: to be the most seductive of all sauces for pasta.
Especially after this description, who could not love this dish? Which brings me to point number two.
I don’t know who to blame more, Armand Lule, the owner of Grappa ’72, or Ruth Fantasia, our newspaper’s chief food critic. In a post on timesunion.com Mr. Lule was quoted as saying, “I want to show the true roots of Italian cuisine, every region of Italy.” He further went on and declared, “There will be a lot more pure Italian cuisine.”
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, Ruth Fantasia’s review mentions that she ordered the pesto. Here are the few relevant lines of criticism:
From the list of pasta and risotto dishes, I chose the walnut and spinach pesto with penne ($18). It was one of the least ambitious dishes on the menu, but the inclusion of spicy goat cheese in the sauce gave the dish a bit of zip not usually found in pesto. While the flavor of the sauce was outstanding, it could have been a little less gloppy.
Regardless of whether this dish was tasty or not, I find it wrong on many levels. Just like certain wines traditionally go with certain foods, like a Bandol Rosé and grilled sausages, certain pasta sauces are traditionally paired with corresponding pasta shapes. I’ll have to write more about this in the future, but pesto and penne are not simpatico. Although ultimately my biggest complaint is that spinach, walnuts and “spicy goat cheese”* do not a pesto make. For a restaurant that seemed to pride itself on offering pure dishes true to the roots of Italian cuisine that express authentic regional Italian cooking, this is disappointing.
I’m not expecting them to import their basil from Genoa or slave over a mortar and pestle pounding away until a few simple ingredients come together into pesto. But spinach, walnuts and goat cheese (spicy or not) is just straying too far from the dish’s origins to let it slide. And frankly I am also disappointed, if not really surprised, that our chief food critic let this lapse go by without notice.
That said, I am not opposed to creativity in the kitchen. I have been using Marcella’s pesto technique and applying it to sauces that aren’t pesto. And if I do say so, they have been mighty tasty.
Before the basil was coming in, I took a bunch of garlic scapes and parsley, chopped them up with walnuts and emulsified the paste with olive oil. Then I blended in some freshly grated Parm Reg and softened butter by hand. Salt to taste. The raw sauce went beautifully when tossed with hot spaghetti. But it was not pesto.
Just as meat sauce that includes sausage is not Bolognese.
Of course all of this is even more relevant because the basil is really starting to show its stuff. I have never experienced Genoese basil, but the bunch I brought home Tuesday had a stunning fragrance. It is destined for a pure pesto, true to the roots of Italian cuisine.
That is, of course, if I can actually find the right cheese: fiore sardo. Regrettably I have some philosophical differences with the fine folks at the Honest Weight Food Co-op cheese counter, so I will be focusing my efforts elsewhere. I guess I’ll need to get on the phone and start calling around to the local Italian markets, unless any of you can tell me where to get it.
* For the record Mrs. Fussy thought it was obnoxious to put “spicy goat cheese” in quotations. But frankly I found the entire notion of spicy goat cheese to be obnoxious and felt that leaving it out of quotations might somehow validate its existence.