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A Pesto Pounding

June 23, 2010

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 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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    June 23, 2010 8:58 am

    Dr. Wikipedia notes that pesto can be a generic term for any sauce made by pounding together the ingredients– a credible defense?

    In any case, I don’t think I’d order a pesto that wasn’t just, you know, pesto. Spinach? Yikes.

    • Sarah M. permalink
      June 23, 2010 2:38 pm

      And seeing B’s rejoinder further down the page: let me clarify that I mean pesto-pesto in the sense that I understand it. I want liquidy greenness, I want intense basil, I want the ever-present dread at the possibility of another pine mouth incident.

  2. beck permalink
    June 23, 2010 9:12 am

    Interesting that Marcella Hazan’s pesto includes butter – I’ve never heard of pesto containing butter before, but it sounds like a good idea to me. I imagine cold butter would melt nicely and move things along when tossed with the hot pasta. Daniel, do you add butter to your pesto when you make it? Also, what pasta do you think should be paired with pesto? I have fond memories of my best friend’s mother making her Pesto Pasta (using store-bought pesto) using rotini, which worked well, at least to my 13 year old palate.

    As far as the quotes around “spicy goat cheese,” I don’t know if I think they’re obnoxious or not, but I was left wondering, after reading the review, what sort of goat cheese was spicy. The only thing I can see is that it had some sort of spices or chiles added to it, but Ruth didn’t specify.

  3. June 23, 2010 9:16 am

    I’m a big fan of Ina Garten’s pesto recipe. Turns fast though, so I ended up putting it on just about every snack from 12pm on (not that I’m complaining).

    Would have been terribly disappointed when presented with something pesto-ish without basil. That summery tasting little leaf! Not entirely sure what to make of tomato pestos, which almost always disappoint, and which I now suspect are mis-named.

  4. June 23, 2010 9:24 am

    As you say, Genoan pesto has a fairly strict recipe. But anyone who knows anything about Italian food knows that it’s so vibrant because of regional variation. what you’re talking about is specifically Pesto alla Genovese (forgive if I misspell), not pesto as a whole. Spinach is a common addition to Sicilian pesto variants, in fact. Pesto is not Champagne; what you’re doing here is like saying a French restaurant isn’t authentic if they serve a sparkling wine from any other region.

    But the real lesson here is that if you’re overprescriptive about food, especially food from a cuisine celebrated for its rich regionality, you won’t really enjoy it.

  5. Phairhead permalink
    June 23, 2010 9:38 am

    I agree w/ you 100%! Pesto is a very specific sauce. God knows I love Giada De Laurentis but I find her invention of Italian hummus deplorable.

  6. June 23, 2010 9:48 am

    I made some legit pesto a while ago, complete with proper ingredients and did it in the mortar (do not recommend doing this if you are not insane).

  7. imajovigirl permalink
    June 23, 2010 10:24 am

    No foods make it “off the boat” in tact, especially Italian foods. People feel the need to Americanize everything…I guess they feel we won’t like authentic foods. If you ask 5 Italians how to make one dish, you will get 5 different answers. Growing up I was never served spaghetti! It was not considered “italian” for whatever reason. Look at what we’ve done with pizza!? Neapolitan pizza is the way it’s done in Naples yet on every corner we have nothing but greasy “bread like” slices.

    I don’t usually don’t go to Italian restaurants because no one makes sauce like my family. If I do go, I will order vodka sauce. I will never turn down macaroni, I mean are there really any bad macaroni dishes??

  8. Kerosena permalink
    June 23, 2010 10:27 am

    I don’t know…it is pesto, it is not pesto. Whatevs. The true effect of this post is to make me want to go home immediately and pillage my basil plant. Thanks for the dinner idea :)

  9. Elyse permalink
    June 23, 2010 10:28 am

    I don’t really care about pesto, but I really want to know what your philosophical differences are with the Honest Weight Food Co-op cheese counter. Have you already dedicated a post to this? Where else can you even buy cheese around here? Farmers markets?

  10. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    June 23, 2010 10:41 am

    B is correct; Daniel B is wrong. Genoa pesto has become the generic default meaning here for all pesto, but pesto is any herb, cheese, garlic, olive oil “paste.”

  11. mr.dave permalink
    June 23, 2010 11:33 am

    I read Fantasia’s review. Is it just me or does she infuriate anyone else? I don’t know why but I find her almost comically droll. If I was going to write a humorous, subtle parody of a gomer food writer it would come out much like what she writes.

    • Kerosena permalink
      June 23, 2010 12:13 pm

      Droll? No, not at all. In fact, most would describe her as comically opposite of droll: annoying, boring, tiring, unfunny.

      (Antonyms provided by Roget’s)

      • Kerosena permalink
        June 23, 2010 12:19 pm

        But yes, she does drive me bonkers with her boring-ass reviews. I hate how she tells the reader about neat-o items on the menu and then proceeds to order “one of the least ambitious dishes on the menu.”

        That sort of comment is totally fine in a restaurant discussion among friends, but should lead to an automatic penalty when written by a restaurant critic. So wrong!

  12. Stevo permalink
    June 23, 2010 11:41 am

    Daniel, I get where you are coming from, but, I think we are all well aware that Mrs. Fantasia is not a terrifically sophisticated restaurant critic. Seriously, if she was, would she allow her husband to order fried squid every damn time she takes him on a review dinner? I am of the mind that she actually, is perfectly suited to the tastes of the average Times Union reader. When subway is voted best sandwich shop, do you really expect them to understand or frankly, give a crap about the nuances of Italian cuisine? I don’t.

    But hey, look on the bright side, she brought her daughter with her this time.

    On a related note, have you read the piece in the USA Today where Marcella Hazan goes to Olive Garden? Hilarious!

    One more thing: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is on my bookshelf and I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is THE bible of Italian cooking.

    • June 23, 2010 8:12 pm

      Marcella renders judgment in a word.
      “No,” she says, pushing her bowl away.

      Classic. Thanks for the link.

      • Kerosena permalink
        June 24, 2010 1:15 pm

        I love this. Just “No.”

  13. theresa permalink
    June 23, 2010 12:46 pm

    I read the review in the paper on Sunday and your quoted text actually caught my eye. I am a casual reader of reviews and not particularly fussy over semantics but this post made me laugh to myself. The description of the dish made my brows furrow….generic use of the word pesto or not.

  14. June 23, 2010 2:08 pm

    I’ve never seen butter in pesto! That will be fascinating to try out….

    When I was learning how to make my Sicilian father-in-law’s tomato sauce, and asked if I should buy fresh herbs. He said that his parents (one born in Sicily, the other in Abruzzi) would have just used what they had on hand. I think you’ve got to look at Italian and all non-haute cuisine through that perspective. Folks use what they have and the food tastes better for it, though never the same way twice. How else could you explain braciole, and all its different versions throughout the country?

    Embrace your garlic scape pesto and try it with basil and walnuts next time. The walnuts have better nutrition and flavor, anyway. Be freaked out by the spicy goat cheese because it comes off as “gloopy” pretension, not because it dares to call itself pesto.

  15. June 25, 2010 9:47 am

    Just have to say excellent posts from B and Leah and I agree wholeheartedly with you both. I love ya Fussy but I think you get too hung up on “authenticity” which is a fuzzy notion at best.

    The pesto at Grappa 72 did not get labeled as authentic pesto from Genoa. Perhaps it would have been better if on the menu they listed it as “pesto”?

    This is what I found in the Barron’s Food Lover’s Companion regarding pesto: ‘An uncooked sauce made with fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan or pecorino cheese and olive oil. (*not* butter, Marcella) The ingredients can either be crushed with a mortar and pestle or finely chopped with aq food processor. This classic, fresh-tasting saue originated in Genoa, Italy and although used on a variety of dishes, it is a favorite with pasta. Now there are “pestos” made from myriad other ingredients from cilantro to mint.’

    • June 25, 2010 10:01 am

      Thing is, Dan misses the entire point of “authenticity” when talking about Italian cuisine here. I’d love to see him tour Italy and try authentic food there, he’d probably have to shut this blog down in response.

  16. Delmaron permalink
    June 25, 2010 12:59 pm

    Not a big fan of Ruth F., or for that matter, what passes for restaurant criticism here in the Cap Dis. It all seems so cotrived to me.

  17. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    June 27, 2010 1:05 pm

    My apologies, Daniel B. You are correct: pesto originally referred to the Genoan creation.

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