Remembering Pesto

22 Jun

The first time I had pesto was in 1978 in Florence, Italy.  I was studying with cooking teacher Giuliano Bugialli, whose book “The Fine Art of Italian Cooking” (1977), informed my personal cooking style forever. My outlook on seasonality and simplicity was born that summer — the summer of ’78 as I remember it — when I was chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch and lived at Gracie Mansion with Hizzoner.  It was the soft breeze that came through the windowed kitchen door on Guiliano’s terrace that transfixed me silently and totally.  Overlooking an elegant side street in Florence, the perfume of basil wafted into the part of my brain that would, from then on, trigger memories of my collective trips to that town — a “living museum” as I called it then. I was 24 and although I had traveled to Italy, France, Norway and other ports of call, it was the collision of food and culture, art and history made edible, that enamored me.

I remember loving the protocol of an Italian meal, how boiled things were served with boiled things, and fried foods with other fried foods.  That you never changed the order of a meal, and that sitting down to eat was a cultural institution as important as almost any other.  I was struck with the orderliness and logic of pairing certain pasta shapes with particular sauces, and how differently fresh pasta was treated from dried pasta.  I loved learning that good canned tomatoes were the sine qua non of the Italian pantry and that one opted for lusty dried oregano instead of fresh.

But this morning I’m remembering pesto — because the smell of fresh basil is wafting through my kitchen window as a morning offering from my window box.  I also look forward to walking the Union Square market this morning (after all, it’s Wednesday) and thinking of that special time in my culinary journey.  I will remember drying freshly-made pasta over a broom handle that teetered upon two facing chairs, I will remember the slices of simply-fried eggplant splashed with vinegar and dotted with chopped garlic and that dreamy basil, I will remember the roast duck stuffed with pancetta, sage and juniper — that is equally nice, I might add, made with basil.  And of course, there was pasta al pesto whenever you chose.  Moving into my own world of radical simplicity, this week I will slice fresh peaches, splash them with peach schnapps and stir in a bit of julienned basil; I will make scrubbed toast — and grill thick slices of peasant bread, rub them with a cut clove of garlic, and a fistful of basil leaves that I will scrape along the nubby texture.  A drizzle of olive oil, coarse salt, and presto! — the herbal equivalent of the tomato-scrubbed bread one would find in Barcelona. And I will do the same with ears of simply boiled corn, rub it with basil until perfumed and slightly green.  A little melted butter and…

The first restaurant that made pesto famous was a chic spot in Greenwich village owned and run by the wonderful Alfredo Viazzi.  Some of you may remember.

Buy some basil.  Create some memories of your own.

5 Responses to “Remembering Pesto”

  1. ally June 22, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Getting ready to snip basil from my herb garden…a huge vase in the kitchen for pinching and using all day in so many ways…thanks for the simple ideas!!

  2. rozannegold June 22, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Dear Ally,
    I always look forward to your comments. Thank you for being connected as you are.
    Warm regards, Rozanne

  3. Carol Berman June 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful seminar which was called “Liguria: Flavors Between Sea and Sky.”
    What could be bad with Fred Plotkin at the helm? I learned that pesto was actually born in Liguria, and according to Fred, that ONLY pesto made with Ligurian olice oil is a true pesto. I have been making mine with an excellent Tuscan olive oil from Bolgheri. Indeed, Ligurian olive oil is a much more delicate oil. This was quickly realized, when I was treated to a delicious traditional Ligurian dish of pasta with pesto, potato and green beans. Its’ delicate flavors just melted away on my palate and I was totaly hooked!
    The dish was paired with a lovely Vermentino. Perfetto!
    I highly reccommend Olio Calvi from Liguria. I do believe that it is the most beautiful Olive Oil that I have ever tasted, both filtered and unfiltered.

    palate. This was paired with a lovely Vermentino. Perfetto!

    • rozannegold June 23, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

      Carol, that is quite right about the birthplace of pesto! Fred
      is all-knowing. Sounds like a wonderful seminar. Can’t wait
      to try that olive oil. And where do I get it? Grazie mille.

      • Carol Berman June 27, 2011 at 9:47 am #


        I would imagine that any of the Italian specialty shops that really carry the ‘real deal’ ingredients would carry this. If I see it when I am out and about I will let you know!! Actually, I will contact the importer and ask!!


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