Pesto alla Genovese (Basil Pesto Recipe)

  • by Nonna Box April 16, 2020
  • |
  • Last Updated on October 27, 2022
Process of preparation traditional italian pesto genovese sauce

Where did pesto come from?

These days, pesto is more popular than ever. Yet most of us who love it, using it in our pasta dishes or even as a sandwich spread, may not even realize that the traditional form of the sauce comes from Italy. Born in Genoa in northern Italy, pesto alla genovese has been famous in Italy for centuries.

Its further origins date back to the time of the Romans, when a sauce or paste called “moretum” was made by crushing garlic, herbs and cheese, among other ingredients. During the Middle Ages the Genoans themselves had a similar sauce called agliata, which was also based around garlic, with the addition of walnuts. The basil pesto we know today is agliata’s very close cousin.

What is pesto?

“Pesto” itself means anything that’s pounded or crushed. Traditionally this would be done with a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. Today, of course, a food processor is a little quicker to use. Whatever tools you prefer, pesto alla genovese is a very simple, un-cooked green sauce that can brighten any pasta dish.

What’s in pesto?

Genoa is the capital of Liguria, Italy. Pesto’s traditional ingredients reflect its purely northern Italian origins: garlic (a staple of Ligurian cuisine), European pine nuts, coarse or sea salt (Genoa is a port city), extra virgin olive oil from the Ligurian Riviera and hard Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo (made from sheep’s milk). Basil, the main ingredient by which this sauce is known today, is a relative newcomer to Genoan cuisine. It made its way to the city sometime during the 1800’s. However it’s been a staple ingredient ever since.

Process of preparation traditional italian pesto genovese sauce with mortar and pestle

An important note: When you’re making a traditional Italian dish, source your ingredients carefully. One thing to look for is “DOP” on labels and other packaging. This stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or “Protected Designation of Origin.” Which means that jar of pine nuts or that wedge of Grana Padano is indeed from Italy. Sourcing these ingredients means you’ll be supporting Italian-owned businesses, and also that your food will taste as traditional as possible.

What are some variations of pesto?

Once you try your hand at the traditional recipe below, let yourself explore the range of this sauce. Pesto is wonderfully variable. Some versions substitute almonds or, as with agliata, walnuts for the pine nuts. Other recipes call for mint as well as basil. Pesto alla Siciliana, also known as pesto Trapanese, adds those almonds and also tomato. Pesto alla Calabrese is spicier and includes grilled bell peppers.

You can also try a very simple, pared-down French version of pesto. Basil arrived in Provence, France around the same time as it did in Genoa, so French cuisine has a very similar sauce. Called pistou, this version doesn’t always include cheese. In fact, the traditional pistou calls for only three ingredients: basil, garlic and oil.

basil pesto sauce recipe

How do you make pesto from scratch?

Using a mortar and pestle, to follow traditional instructions, you cream together garlic and pine nuts, smashing and smooshing for quite a while. Then the basil and salt are added, then the cheeses. The olive oil is used to make the sauce looser and creamier.

Today you can of course use your food processor to speed this process up a bit, but you’ll still follow those very same steps.

How long does homemade pesto last?

Homemade pesto, especially if you use a food processor, is a super easy, simple and tasty sauce to make. It will keep in your fridge for at least a week, and perhaps as long as a month. It can be frozen almost indefinitely. Make a big batch and freeze half of it to make sure you always have some on hand.

How do you store pesto?

Homemade pesto should be stored in your fridge in a jar with a good tight lid, or some other air-tight container. Put a layer of olive oil on top to prevent discoloration. This is a neat trick for store bought pesto as well.

If you plan to freeze your pesto, pour it into a few ice cube trays first. These individual cubes of pesto are perfect tossed into hot pasta, warmed up to use as a dip or added to some other recipe. Simply freeze in trays, then pop the cubes into a plastic bag or other storage container.

basil pesto sauce recipe

Pesto alla Genovese (Basil Pesto Recipe)

Basil pesto is one of the most famous Italian sauces in the world. Wether you want to add it to your pasta or spread it on a sandwich, this recipe is for you.
4.89 from 9 votes
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Course: Sauce
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 0 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 1 jar
Calories: 1335kcal
Author: Nonna Box


  • 1 bunch fresh basil leaves at least 70 leaves, washed and dried
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, grated
  • 2 tablespoons Pecorino Fiore Sardo grated or cut into very small pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic peeled (more if you like your pesto very garlicky)
  • 2 tablespoon pine nuts optional: toast pine nuts first for added depth of flavor
  • Coarse salt to taste, at least 1 teaspoon


  • Place basil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmigiano into a food processor that has been chilled in the fridge for an hour. Chop coarsely and only for a few seconds. The food processor can sometimes transfer a bit of heat to your pesto, making the color darker. Chilling the machine and processing as minimally as possible helps prevent this
  • Add salt and the Pecorino. Mix well using short pulses
  • With mixer running, add a stream of olive oil until your pesto becomes creamy. This should take about five minutes.
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Traditional pesto preparation with marble mortar and wooden pestle:

  • Crush the garlic and salt into a paste using a marble mortar and a wooden pestle
  • Add the pine nuts and crush well. Then add basil slowly, crushing and stirring well with the pestle until this becomes a paste
  • Using a wooden spoon (a metal spoon may cause the basil to darken), mix in the cheeses. Then stir in olive oil until the sauce reaches the consistency you desire

Other sauce recipes:

2 Responses to “Pesto alla Genovese (Basil Pesto Recipe)”

  1. Cate says:

    I’ve never used a blender but have made exactly this pesto several times using a ‘half moon’ double handed knife (I can’t remember the Italian name) to get the ingredients diced really small. It’s very relaxing! My Italian friends sometimes add a small potato, cubed into very small pieces, to the pasta water. It’s such a gorgeous and sumptuous combination of flavours.

    • Nonna Box says:

      Ciao Cate! Grazie mille, I am glad you liked it! Yes, there’s a recipe that uses pesto, potatoes and green beans, it’s very good! Ah, the utensil you are referring to it’s called ‘mezzaluna’.

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