Trofie al Pesto is probably the most famous of dishes from Liguria. The dense green pesto wraps itself around each turn of the trofie, and in each strip of pasta there is a taste of Liguria. There are only seven ingredients in the pesto sauce; basil, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, two types of cheese, pine nuts, and salt.
The official recipe for Pesto Genovese makes it clear that not any ingredient will do. The ingredient list calls for very specific types of ingredients and those of the highest quality. The basil must be basilico Genovese, of course, and it states that the basil should also be young and fresh (giovane e fresco). The olive oil should be extra-virgin, from Liguria and not be too strong. The garlic should be sweet and of the best quality. The Parmigiano Reggiano must be DOP grade and the Pecorino can only come from one of four regions; Rome, Tuscany, Sardegna or Sicily. If your pesto doesn’t meet the list of requirements, you cannot call it Pesto Genovese.
The directions for preparing the pesto, at times reads more like the Kama Sutra. They begin by stating, “To make real Pesto Genovese you need a marble mortar, a wood pestle and a lot of work and patience.” The directions continue on like this: Add a little of the salt and a little of the basil leaves, don't add either all at once. With a gentle and prolonged movement rotate the pestle against the mortar to slowly coax the flavor from the leaves. Your movements should not be too harsh or too slow. Too harsh and you risk bruising the leaves and making them bitter, too slow and you risk oxidation. (I had to double check that I was actually reading a cooking recipe and not something else.) The official recipe allows for making pesto in a food processor, but warns that it won’t be as good (nor as fun). Along with an official recipe, there is also a Pesto Genovese Consortium, and a bi-yearly Pesto Championship. Ligurians take their pesto seriously.
You might be inclined to think that with all these rules and regulations, all the pesto in Liguria is about the same. Hardly. Each home, trattoria and restaurant has its own uniquely flavored and textured pesto. (I guess it’s all in the wrist motion of the maker.) Some are good, while some sauces are thin, watery even, and lacking much basil flavor. Others are thick, chewy and an overdose of basil. For me a perfect pesto keeps basil as the star but brings all the other ingredients together in a way that creates a balance of density and creaminess.
One of my favortie pesto sauces comes from Ristorante Pizzeria Vulnetia in Vernazza (the Cinque Terre). Vulnetia, with its small cluster of umbrellas, hides in the corner of Piazza Marconi, the piazza on the marina. It can easily get lost amongst the bigger umbrellas of the other guide-book listed trattorie in the piazza, but it's definitely worth a visit.