Winner winner, pesto dinner.
Food and recipe writing is full of hyper-enthusiastic hyperbole, bluster, and puffery. You know what I mean: “Guaranteed the best, most delicious [insert food] ever!” That kind of thing. Except sometimes, it is an actual fact. Sometimes, you really do get the world’s best basil pesto recipe. The one that actually won the award in Italy, at the World Pesto Championships. And now it’s yours.
Winning the World Pesto Championship in the Liguria region of Italy — the birthplace of Genovese basil — is like winning the World Cheesesteak Contest in Philadelphia. (Which, to my knowledge, does not exist, but should.) In other words, if you win it there, you really are the world’s best. Now you can make this silky, fresh, absolutely delicious pesto at home.
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A Little Background on the World’s Best Pesto Recipe
This recipe’s origin story gets a little muddled, but here are the answers. In 2008, up-and-coming (now famous, and controversial) American chef Danny Bowien worked at Farina restaurant in San Francisco. Italian chef Paolo Laboa owned Farina. Paolo made his mother’s pesto recipe in the restaurant, which Bowien entered in the pesto championships and won, under the umbrella of working at Farina. So, though Bowien was the technical winner, the recipe belongs to Laboa and his mother.
Discovering this pesto was like getting hit with a bolt of lightening, in a good way. Fast forward to today, and you will find Chef Laboa in the kitchen of unassuming, but amazing, rustic Italian restaurant Solo Italiano in Portland, Maine. I ate at Solo Italiano last summer, tasted the pesto, and needed to know more: Why is this so smooth and silky? How is it possible for pesto to taste this good? Why am I finding this in Portland, Maine and not some obscure trattoria on the northern Italian coast?
The answers lie in a combination of some cool — literally — techniques, and the use of the very, very best ingredients: the right basil, the right olive oil, and the right cheeses.
The Technique: The World’s Best Basil Pesto Recipe
A couple of interesting techniques happen here, which I have never seen before.
First, this recipe calls for soaking the basil in cold water for 15 minutes, with several rinses. This adds weight to the leaves. The water that clings to the leaves when they go into the blender helps emulsify the pesto.
Second, get your blender ice cold to reduce oxidation of the basil leaves. Oxidization can cause bitterness. Chef Laboa suggests freezing the bowl of the blender. I do not know ’bout you, but I do not have room for a big blender bowl in my freezer. Instead, I add ice cubes and water to the bowl and chill it that way until it is time to blend.
The Ingredients: The World’s Best Basil Pesto Recipe
As noted above, this recipes uses the very, very best ingredients: the right basil, the right olive oil, and the right cheeses. Chef Laboa uses young Genovese basil. This is the most common type of basil you see in the store. But he makes sure to use only young, bright green leaves, and not the large, tougher leaves. He says that these have a different, less delicate flavor.
That said, not everyone can source cold-pressed Ligurian olive oil and Italian pine nuts. I will say that this recipe will still taste very, very good with even regular, above-average olive oil, regular-sized basil leaves, commonly-available pine nuts (likely from China), and authentic pecorino-Toscano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses.
The cheeses are the two ingredients you definitely cannot cut corners on. Do not use regular parmesan. Use the real-deal, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. And pecorino-Toscano — don’t tell Laboa I said this — can be substituted with the more common pecorino-Romano cheese, which you may see branded as Locatelli at the store. This tastes saltier, though, so use a pinch less salt.
Sourcing the Pesto Ingredients
If you want to go for the gold and make this recipe to the exact specifications, here is where you can source the ingredients:
- Italian or Portugese pine nuts, or pignoli: Nuts.com or Gustiamo
- Fruity, Ligurian olive oil: Gustiamo
- Fiore Sardo or aged Pecorino Toscano cheeses: DiBruno Brothers
- Genovese basil: This is the most common basil found in grocery stores, but look for containers that have smaller, bright green leaves, and not the bigger, tough leaves of late summer. I even buy a whole supermarket basil plant, or some living basil, which usually costs about the same as the plastic clamshell variety.
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The World's Best Pesto Recipe
- 6 cups loosely-packed Genovese basil, preferably young, bright-green leaves
- 1/3 cup pine nuts, preferably Italian
- 1/3 of a small, fresh garlic clove
- 1/2 cup fruity, mild extra-virgin olive oil, preferably from Liguria
- 1 teaspoon medium or coarse flaky sea salt, such as Maldon or fleur de sel
- 1/3 cup freshly-grated pecorino-Toscano cheese (pecorino-Romano is an ok substitute)
- 1/3 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Chill the blender bowl either in the freezer or by adding water and ice cubes until ready to blend. Meanwhile, rinse, then soak, the basil leaves in water for about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Combine the nuts, garlic, and olive oil in the blender. Blend until the nuts are very finely chopped and the mixture is creamy. Add the salt.
- In several handfuls, lift the basil from the bowl of water. Shake some of the excess water off, but not all, and add it to the blender. Pulse in the blender until it is a smooth, beautiful green color. If necessary, add more water a teaspoon at a time until it blends and emulsifies fully.
- Add the cheeses and blend again until fully incorporated and serve.PRO TIP: To store pesto, place it in a container and cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil. This acts as a seal, preventing oxidization. This pesto can be frozen for up to 3 months. Do not heat to defrost; let it thaw at room temperature for about an hour or two, or overnight in the refrigerator.