Though it was two hours out of the way, the port of Genoa, the birthplace of pesto, called us for lunch. We dropped off our bags at the train station and set off in search of Trattoria da Maria. Though several versions of pesto predate those found in Genoa, Genoa has been the city to perfect it of hundreds of years. That basil grows very well in the Liguria region is also a key factor in Genoa's roll as the origin of pesto. (I've heard that Genoa uses parsley in their pesto, too. Can anyone verify this rumor?)
My girlfriend, Kristin, makes the best pesto I’ve ever had and she likes to make it every week at least. So going to Genoa was like going to Disneyland for her. Having had so much experience with it, I asked her to write her experience with Genovese pesto:
The pesto I make, adapted from my mom’s recipe, adapted from The Silver Palate cookbook, contains basil, walnuts (pine nuts if I feel rich, although I’ve come to prefer walnuts), a mixture of olive oil and canola oil (a matter of saving money, not taste), and parmesan—or, more often, Pecorino-Romano from Trader Joe’s. I love pesto. I toss linguine or fusilli with it and serve with a side of pesto, and heap it on top throughout the meal.
The Genovese pesto taught me a thing or two. Or at least, made me want to learn a thing or two, because I don’t actually know how they do it. The dish was called Trenette al Pesto alla Genovese. Trenette, it turns out, is just like fettucine. It was served in a bowl: a nest of trenette, naked, topped with a pile of pesto. Also in the bowl: one boiled potato and one cooked green bean. (Mattie’s bowl had three potatoes. He gave me one.) I mixed the pesto with the pasta and took my first bite. It was the best first bite of my life.
First of all, I was eating pesto in the town where it was invented, a place that had taken on mythic proportions for me. Second, it was as good as I’d hoped. Pesto has always been connected to summertime for me, eating a bowl of it on the patio on warm California nights. This pesto tasted more like summer than any other I’ve had: light, both in consistency and in flavor. This pesto had more and better olive oil than I use, and very little garlic, cheese, or nuts, as far as I could tell. It was mainly basil—delicious, fresh basil—and olive oil and salt. I am generally a proponent of excess, at least when it comes to food, and especially when it comes to pesto, but I didn’t want any more pesto than enough to coat the pasta, and even the two bites of potato and the single green bean were enough. They added something. A little texture, mainly. What I learned: Use only olive oil, and use good olive oil, and use more olive oil. A small amount of very good, real Parmaggiano. I think this pesto had walnuts, not pine nuts. Also, I need a Cuisinart that grinds things up very finely.
After lunch, we headed toward Alba, where we hiked a mile with our bags to the beautiful Hotel Langhe, where we were immediately give two cold glasses of Arneis wine, and a plate of salami and local cheese. This, among other things, is the reason I highly recommend the hotel to anyone going to Alba.