GENOA — You know pesto is popular in the United States when you can order a chicken sandwich at McDonald’s and it arrives spread with the basil paste. Well, it happens in Italy too, where I ate pesto on top of what was essentially a cut-up pancake — and it was one of the best meals of my life.
Genoa is a somewhat grimy medieval port city on the Italian Riviera, and the capital of Liguria. It is home to a specific strain of basil so beloved that it was granted DOP status (Protected Designation of Origin, a European Union guarantee to consumers) by the Italian government. Genovese basil really does taste different from any other basil you have eaten, and it’s difficult to say exactly how. It’s dark green, and the leaves appear more matte than the shinier basil we grow in the States. The taste, if this makes sense, also seems more matte, more of a concentrated basil flavor, and somehow less sweet.
Ligurians take pesto quite seriously, and don’t put it on just any pasta shape. Trofie, trenette, “mandilli di saea” (literally “silk handkerchiefs” in the Genovese dialect), and gnocchi are pesto’s most common foils, but the 20-year-old chef responsible for my transcendent plate of pasta went a different route.
Chef Davide Morciano of restaurant A Cornabuggia, tucked in a small piazza in the tangled mess of Genoa’s historic center, served his pesto over testaroli, an ancient pasta native to southern Liguria and northern Tuscany. Though it is referred to as “pasta,” it really does fall somewhere between “pancake” and “crepe,” and is not unlike the spongy Ethiopian bread injera.
Testaroli is quite easy to make at home. You don’t need a pasta maker, and you don’t need a lot of time. All you need is flour, water, a little butter, and about 20 minutes.
As for the pesto, it’s almost as simple as the pasta. Morciano’s basic recipe, which he told me over the phone, uses five ingredients: basil, olive oil, salt, pine nuts, and grated Parmesan. The result is silky with body, and perfect to pour over testaroli. Just pretend it’s green maple syrup.