Italian Pesto Pasta Recipe: Bring Vacation to the Dinner Table

Bring fresh summer flavors to your dinner table by adding the taste of the Italian Riviera through this authentic pesto pasta recipe. This simple and versatile basil sauce from the Mediterranean Coast is excellent on pasta and is an outstanding addition to many dishes.

August 1, 2022

Italian Pesto Recipe ingredients on a cutting board

Ways Use Basil Pesto?

Summer and pesto go hand in hand.  The most popular way to use pesto sauce is adding it to cooked pasta as a side dish, but it’s also a great addition to summer vegetables and salads.  This Italian basil pesto recipe is excellent on one pound of pasta with about 2 – 4 Tablespoons leftover. Enough for any of these uses later in the week:

  • Give salads a unique zing by adding it to a basic oil and vinegar dressing
  • Make your BLT unforgettable by adding a tablespoon of pesto to mayonnaise
  • Spread on sliced tomatoes or bread
  • Add to cooked spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles for a flavorful side dish
  • Season grilled vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms with a bit of pesto
  • Add a touch of pesto to lasagna by adding it to the ricotta 
  • Spread on homemade pizza
Italian Pesto Sauce ingredients in a food processor

Authentic Italian Pesto Recipe

Pesto derives from the word pestare to pound. Traditional Italian pesto is made in a marble mortar by pounding the basil with a wooden pestle and thus the name. Use a food processor if you do not have a mortar and pestle (me). 

 

This classic and easy pesto recipe contains a mere six ingredients, and it is much tastier than store-bought; Fresh garlic, salt, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, pine nuts, and freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese.

What is the Best Basil to Use?

You may find a few varieties of basil in the produce section or the garden center. According to Culinary Herb Garden, there are 15 types of basil to grow in the garden. Look for Sweet Basil or Genovese Basil for this recipe. 

What is the Best Cheese to Use?

  • Use block cheese and freshly grate it before adding it to the recipe. Pre-grated cheese is convenient, but for best flavor, grate just before using. 
  • Parmesan Reggiano is only made in four regions of Italy and is the most popular cheese choice for pesto. It’s a hard cow’s milk cheese with a rich and sharp flavor that is aged at least two years, and the ingredients and process are regulated by Italian law to be labeled “Parmesan Reggiano.” 
  • Parmesan cheese that is not produced in Italy can be used. There are suitable varieties of Parmesan cheese made in the USA.  Look for an aged cheese in block form. Try both Parmesan Reggiano and Parmesan and decide for yourself, but using Italian cheese will keep the recipe closer to its heritage. 
  • Pecorino Romano can also be added. I sometimes use half of each if I have the cheese on hand. Pecorino Romano is a hard cheese good for grating that is made from sheep’s milk. It is nuttier and saltier than Parmesan Reggiano.  

Notes on Pine Nuts

These tasty nuts are actually seeds and can be found in the produce or nut section at the grocery store come from the pinyon pine tree. They also called pignoli, are the edible seeds of a pine tree. They have a mild taste and creamy texture when blended as a sauce ingredient. They should be kept in airtight containers and stored in the refrigerator for up to two months. They also can be stored in the freezer for three to six months. Because pine nuts are expensive and have a moderate shelf life, I only buy what I need rather than bulk buying. 

Pesto sauce on rotini pasta in a dish

Best Pasta to Use with Pesto

Traditional and gluten-free pasta works well with this recipe. Rotini, fusilli, or cavatappi are great pasta shapes to pair with this basil pesto recipe because the curves and grooves hold the sauce well. Spaghetti-style pasta can also be used. Another delicious side dish that uses rotini pasta is Savory Noodle Kugel Style Pasta.

Note: Hold back one cup of hot, salted pasta water before draining. The hot water helps evenly spread the rich pesto sauce throughout the pasta without diluting the flavor.  

How to Store Pesto

Refrigerate any unused pesto in a jar covered with a layer of olive oil. Place the lid on the container and store it in the refrigerator for one week. Frozen pesto is good for six months. Placing the olive oil on the top layer will stop the basil from oxidizing and help maintain the green color.

how to freeze pesto

Freeze leftover authentic Italian Pesto sauce in ice cube trays
1

Scoop basil pesto into ice cube trays and freeze for a few hours.

Frozen Italian basil pesto cubes ready to be stores in the freezer
2

After freezing, pop the cubes out and place in a freezer bag. Frozen pesto thaws quickly on the counter and can be added to recipes. Pesto can be stored frozen for six months.

What is the Origin of Pesto?

Pesto originates from the region of Liguria in northwest Italy, home to the Italian Riviera and Cinque Terre – five quaint fishing villages along the coast: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Visitors can hike the Sentiero Azzurro trail and explore each town with its sweeping sea vistas. The restaurants are famous for local, fresh seafood and pesto dishes.

Cinque Terre

Years ago, we visited Cinque Terre and began the six-mile hike. The trail winds through the beautiful green terraces and breathtaking sea views. We stopped in the third village for lunch and enjoyed pesto dishes and local wine. Unfortunately, we decided it was time for a siesta rather than completing the hike. We returned by train to the hotel. However, I now have a reason to revisit the famous region to complete the walk and enjoy the excellent food of Cinque Terre.

Try the Recipe

Extend the summer season by adding the tastes of your favorite vacation destinations to the dinner table. What is your favorite way to use pesto? Please share them in the comments below!  If you have tips on optimizing the kitchen, please share them in the comments below!

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Pesto sauce on rotini pasta in a dish

Italian Pesto Pasta Recipe: Bring Vacation to the Dinner Table


  • Author: Karen
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 6 1x
  • Diet: Vegetarian

Description

Bring fresh summer flavors to your dinner table by adding the taste of the Italian Riviera through this authentic pesto pasta recipe. This simple and versatile basil sauce from the Mediterranean Coast is excellent on pasta and is an outstanding addition to many dishes.


Ingredients

Units Scale

Pesto Sauce

  • 2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves, stems removed and rinsed in a salad spinner
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts + 2 tablespoons for garnish
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan-Reggiano, grated
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil + 2 Tablespoons to top the sauce

Pasta

  • 16-oz box pasta rotini pasta*
  • 1 tablespoons salt
  • 1 cup hot pasta water

Garnish, optional

  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, roasted
  • 1/4 cup grated cheese at the table

Instructions

  1. Cook Pasta: Make pasta according to the recipe and add 1 tablespoon of salt to the water—reserve one cup of the salted pasta water just before straining in a colander.
  2. Blend Pesto: Dry basil leaves well and add to the blender or food processor. Add garlic, salt, pine nuts, grated cheese, and a little olive oil. Process the ingredients until they are smooth. Use a spatula to include the ingredients that stick to the sides. Slowly pour the remaining olive oil and blend for a second or two.
  3. Transfer the pesto sauce to a bowl and top with 2 tablespoons of olive oil to stop oxidation and help maintain the green color.
  4. Garnish: Heat a small skillet or cast-iron pan over medium heat. Place 2 tablespoons of pine nuts in the heated pan and roast until golden brown, stirring often. Remove nuts from the pan and place on a plate until ready to use.
  5. Pasta: Scoop one cup of pasta water from the pan before straining. Drain pasta and place back in the pan with ½ cup of pasta water. Add pesto to the pasta and mix using reserved pasta water a little at a time, if needed.
  6. Serve on a plate and garnish with toasted pine nuts and grated Parmesan Reggiano.

Notes

* Traditional and gluten-free pasta works well; the best shape is rotini, fusilli, or cavatappi since they hold the sauce well. Spaghetti can also be used.

Hold back one cup of hot, salted pasta water before draining.

Equipment needed: Salad spinner, mortar, and pestle or food processor.

  • Prep Time: 15
  • Cook Time: 15
  • Category: Pasta
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: basil, Italian sauce, Cinque Terre dish

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