Pesto, passion rooted deep in Italy

Jackie Burrell / San Jose Mercury News /

Pesto is a subject that brings out the passion in any devotee of Italian food. Raise the topic with Luca Minna, co-owner of San Francisco's renowned Farina, and you won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

The conversation may start out with references to pine nuts, then veer over to Coco Chanel, before careening into Bay Area fog and Kennedy aphorisms. But suffice it to say, you'll never look at pesto Genovese the same way again. You also likely won't be able to resist the urge to make it yourself, because Minna and his chef, Paolo Laboa, are happy — nay, delighted — to share the recipe that won the Pesto World Championship in Genoa, Italy.

There's just one condition:

We Americans have got to stop calling that chunky, army-green stuff at the supermarket “pesto.” True pesto, says Minna, is a vivid emerald green, silky and redolent of basil, and it contains neither Asian pine nuts nor powdered Parmesan. It's kissed by garlic, not drenched in it. And it's made with love and reverence.

The reason we sought out Minna in the first place was that he and Laura Garrone, his childhood friend and partner at Farina, just penned a glossy coffee table book, “Old World New: Family Meals From the Heart of Genoa” (M3 Media Group, $39.95, 188 pgs.,), inspired by Farina, their Italian restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. The book is an ode to Genoa and to the cuisine of Italy, filled with page after page of photographs that will either send you directly to the Alitalia counter to book the next flight out or to the kitchen. It includes just 24 recipes, divided into four seasonal menus.

The point of my original call to Minna was to ask for help in devising the perfect menu for a summer dinner party or an al fresco repast. But the subject quickly turned to pesto, which runs through the veins of anyone from Italy's Ligurian coast, and Minna was off and running.

Minna, Garrone and their entire kitchen staff all hail from Genoa. Some of them grew up together. The reason they opened their restaurant here in 2007 — OK, the reason for a restaurant at all — was a horrific pesto experience in New York City.

“The true cooking of any country is the real mirror of the traditions, the culture, the influences, the opportunities that nature provides,” Minna says. “It's an adaptation of all our flavors and historical meals. I'm always being invited to Italian restaurants. (People) think they're making me a favor, but the result is a disaster. Oh my God, it's unbelievable how Italian culture is misrepresented.”

They chose to open the restaurant in the Bay Area because the climate is so similar to that of Genoa — the ocean, the hills, the lush farmland and the marine layer that distributes salty minerality over the earth in the form of misty winds, gentle rain and our signature fog.

The goal was to create a restaurant that did the most authentic — a word Minna despises, by the way — Italian fare with Genoans in the kitchen, centuries-old recipes burbling in pots and Ocimum basilicum “Genovese” in the mortar.

“Basil is a very unstable, amazing gift of nature. It can turn into a minty flavor, or basil flavor if it absorbs the right amount of sun and minerality through the rains and weather,” Minna says. “California is an amazing land, exactly my mirror of the Ligurian region. We brought over our basil from Liguria and spent about six months traveling around to find a farmer capable of growing the basil, a perfect match for our basil plants.”

These days, home cooks can find similar basil at farmers markets and most good grocers, he says. Use it with the best quality olive oil and parmigiano, and add garlic with a light hand.

“Garlic is as powerful as the basil. You want to use it properly,” he says. “The majestic final touch is the pine nuts. It's the binding element that glues all the components together to make the magic.”

He recommends using pine nuts from Tuscany, the ones that cost “crazy money.” Their less expensive cousins from Asia are not the same thing. They cost less, he says, “but it ruins the food.”

Grind the mixture with a mortar and pestle, as Italian nonnas have done from time immemorial, or use a blender to yield that “sensual, fantastic, emerald green sauce.” Toss it with the most ethereal, silky pasta, and Minna promises people will say, “It is sinful! It is sexy!”

Dentice in Brodetto con Carciofi

Makes 4 servings.

1 TBS lemon juice

1 TBS flour

4 artichokes

8 TBS olive oil, divided

11⁄2 cloves garlic, divided

3 bay leaves, divided

1 C plus 2 TBS white wine

Whole fresh Thai snapper or branzino (3 lbs)

1⁄4 med onion, roughly chopped

1⁄4 carrot, roughly chopped

1⁄2 celery stalk, roughly chopped

1⁄2 C flat-leaf parsley, stemmed

3 sprigs thyme

4 basil leaves

2 plum tomatoes, crushed

Fill a large bowl with about 4 inches of water. Stir in lemon juice and flour.

Peel away the artichokes' outer leaves until you reach the pale, softer leaves. Slice off the top third to remove any sharp points, and trim all but 1⁄2 inch of stem. Using a serrated knife, cut artichokes in half lengthwise; remove the chokes and purple tipped leaves that surround it. Place the artichokes in the bowl of lemon-water.

Heat a large pot; add 2 tablespoons oil, 1⁄2 smashed garlic clove and 2 bay leaves. Add artichokes, cut sides up, plus just enough water to cover. Add 2 tablespoons wine and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Simmer, covered, 10-12 minutes, until stems are tender when poked with a knife. Remove from pot and let cool.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse the fish. Make a lengthwise cut about 1⁄2 inch deep along the thickest part of the fish on each side. In a roasting pan, combine 1 smashed garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, chopped vegetables, herbs, tomatoes, 4 tablespoons oil, 1 cup wine and 1 cup water. Add the fish. Cook, uncovered, in the oven for 20 minutes, then check for doneness along the cut. The fish should be white and opaque. If it's still translucent, roast 3 minutes more.

Transfer the fish to a warmed serving platter. Strain the remaining brodetto or “little broth” into a small pot. Add coarse sea salt if needed. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, crisp the artichokes. In a saute pan over high heat, add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When hot, add artichokes, cut side down. Saute 3 or 4 minutes, turning occasionally.

To serve, pour a few tablespoons brodetto over the fish and tuck the artichokes alongside. Serve with bread to sop up the brodetto.

— Luca Minna and Laura Garrone, “Old World New, Family Meals From the Heart of Genoa” (M3 Media Group)

Mandilli di Seta al Pesto Genovese

Makes 4 servings.

4 C basil, preferably Ocinum basilicum “Genovese,” loosely packed

1⁄3 C pine nuts

1⁄2 C extra-virgin olive oil

1⁄2 tsp chopped fresh garlic

1 tsp coarse sea salt

1⁄3 C finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

1⁄3 C finely grated pecorino cheese

Pasta dough (see recipe below)

11⁄2 TBS coarse sea salt

4 basil leaves, garnish

For the pesto: Wash the basil in cold water. Gently pinch leaves from stems. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water for 1 hour.

Put the pine nuts, olive oil and garlic in a blender. Pulse to make a coarse paste. Add basil leaves, 1 cup at a time, shaking off some, but not all of the water (a little water helps the ingredients emulsify). Pulse a few times after each addition. When all the basil has been pureed, add salt and blend on high until the pesto is smooth.

Add the cheeses and pulse to blend. (Take care not to overblend at this stage or the sauce will heat up and separate like a broken sauce.) Pour the pesto into a broad, medium-size mixing bowl. If it's more than 20 minutes before serving, cover pesto with a thin film of mild olive oil to slow oxidation.

For the mandilli: Feed the pasta dough 3 or 4 times through the widest setting of a pasta machine. Move the roller to the next narrower notch and pass the dough through twice. Continue 2 passes on each successive notch until you can almost see your hand through the pasta sheet. Cut the pasta sheets into handkerchiefs about 6 inches square.

Fill a large pot with water and place it over high heat to boil. As the water warms, stir in the salt. Drop the pasta gently into the boiling water and cook until al dente, testing after 2 minutes. As the pasta cooks, scoop up a tablespoon of the hot pasta water and stir it into the bowl of pesto to melt the cheese and meld the ingredients. (Never heat pesto over a flame. It kills the flavor.)

Add the cooked, drained pasta to the pesto and stir gently to coat. Place pasta and any remaining pesto on plates. Top with sprinkles of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a basil leaf. Serve immediately.

Basic Pasta Dough

2 C Caputo brand “00” flour (or all-purpose flour)

2 lg eggs, room temperature

1⁄4 C dry white wine

1 TBS Parmigiano-Reggiano

Mound the flour on a cutting board and make a deep well in the center. Crack the eggs into the well and beat them lightly with a fork for 20 seconds. Add the wine and cheese to the well, then gradually push dry flour into the well, stirring in a circular motion with your fingers, until you have a single ball of dough. Press your thumb into the ball. If the dough sticks to your thumb, add a bit more flour. When your thumb comes away clean, the dough is ready to knead.

Knead dough for 7 to 9 minutes until smooth. If you don't use the dough immediately, cover it with a damp cloth. Or, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to three days. Remove it from the refrigerator an hour before using it to warm it up and make it pliable enough to work with.

— Luca Minna and Laura Garrone, “Old World New, Family Meals From the Heart of Genoa” (M3 Media Group)

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