Like most people who cook pasta a couple of times a week, I have always been slightly too proud of my ability to make pesto, the raw basil slurry that is a specialty of the Italian port city Genoa. And while most of the time I succumb to the convenience of the blender, in which you can throw a perfectly good pesto together in 30 seconds or so, at least a third of the time I pull out my mortar, a massive, rough clay bowl a friend brought back from England, and the heavy, ceramic Louisville Slugger of a pestle that goes with it.
You can really whomp the hell out of a pesto in a mortar like mine, which is, to be honest, probably better suited to grinding out aioli for a crowd than it is for smashing fibrous basil leaves into a really suave purée, but the combination of the rough surface and my own force can awaken something primal in a sauce when they burst a million garlic cell walls in a single brutal swipe. Grind some anchovy, drizzle in a little olive oil, toss in a handful of mixed chopped herbs, and you've got a salsa verde to dream on, a fluid with the power to transform a leg of lamb. Make a traditional pesto instead, and you've got a sauce that slithers into the pores of hot pasta, a dish that perfumes the kitchen for days. Trenette with pesto, maybe augmented with slices of boiled potato and a handful of snipped green beans, is a Tuesday-night dish with the ability to keep the family together.
When an organizer of this year's Genoa International Pesto Championship asked me to participate in the Los Angeles preliminaries, not as a judge but as a contestant, I had the hubris to agree — even when I was told that I would be allowed to dip into neither my stash of Ligurian pine nuts nor my favorite wheel of Pienza pecorino cheese, to use neither the pungent hard-neck garlic I prefer nor my treasured English mortar and pestle. The prize was a trip to Genoa to participate in the pesto championship itself. And pesto is a level playing field — how hard could it be? I listened to Genoese choral music as I practiced, caught an early-morning Sampdoria game or two on the Fox Soccer Channel and searched YouTube for relevant instructional videos. (This one — bit.ly/bIEl7U — which features a hairy, disembodied forearm, is epic.) My acquaintance with Genoa itself is slight — I've spent more time in nearby La Spezia — but I was determined to get into the proper state of mind.
There is one, only one, official formula for pesto — garlic and pine nuts, basil and salt; Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino cheeses plus a little olive oil — but there are treacherous seas to be navigated within the parameters of the sauce. Italians tend to use a lot less garlic than Americans do, because they know how much the mortar amplifies its powerful flavor, and they work the pine nuts into the sauce at the beginning of the process for their creaminess, rather than at the end for their pleasant grit. A skilled pesto hand will incorporate coarse salt with the leaves, where it acts as a hundred tiny grindstones. When basil juices puddle, signifying that the cell walls of the leaves have been broken down, there is a distinct moment when a pesto maker eases his or her pounding into a grinding motion. Oil can be worked in near the beginning, where it helps to preserve bright color, or near the end, where it is tastier, but unable to improve the appearance of a pesto that may have started to resemble day-old guacamole.
As with shaking cocktails, form counts: Crisply pounded pesto inevitably tastes sharper and less oily than one lazily stirred. A half-gram too much or too little cheese at the end can undo half an hour of dedicated work.
Any Italian will tell you that Genoese basil is substantially different from the basil you find everywhere else in the world — smaller, more tender, more fragrant. At Vincenti restaurant in Brentwood, the site of the competition, they had placed by each competitor's station practically a bushel of the local stuff, vivid green but with tough leaves the size of a tall man's palm. The pine nuts, an Italian brand, were squat, tasteless and undoubtedly Chinese. The pulverized Parmigiano-Reggiano was fine, but the Sardinian pecorino was soft, spicy, far more pungent than anything I had ever used for pesto. The eleven of us – artists, restaurateurs, small-business owners — were provided splendid Genoese mortars for the occasion, smallish-eared bowls carved from the Carrara marble mined just south of the Ligurian border, and worn wooden pestles.
I would like to tell you that the hours of practice turned out to be useful, that the tough leaves fell into creamy submission; that the lightly fragrant Ligurian olive oil fell into an emulsion as sturdy as a well-whisked vinaigrette. I would like to be submitting this column from a grand Genoese hotel. My pestle sang as I tore through the basil, the few drops of oil bound the leaves into a loose mayonnaise and, with five minutes left out of the allotted 30, I was confident of victory. But like Ron Artest clanking one off the rim at the buzzer, I sprinkled in too much of the sheep cheese at the last second, and the sauce suddenly took on the rough-hewn resonance of Sardinia — not bad, exactly, but not suave Genoese luxury either, and impossible to rectify. The time elapsed. The judges included Angeli's Evan Kleiman, Vincenti's Nicola Mastronardi and Genoese pesto master Roberto Panizza. The pesto failed to place among the top three. The winning pesto of Andrea, an elegantly dressed painter who lived around the corner from the restaurant, was by all accounts superb.
Still — there was Mastronardi's all-pesto dinner afterward, which included a grilled langoustine with pesto that reminded me of why I had named Vincenti the best Italian restaurant in Los Angeles in an extensive Weekly survey two years ago. Mastronardi can flat-out cook. And when I returned to the restaurant, eager to visit those sections of the menu that did not necessarily include pulverized basil, I remembered why I liked it so much. A composition of grilled squid and cuttlefish sang with the flavors of salt, clean ocean and smoke, unmarred by so much as a sliver of lemon zest or a scrap of parsley; each grain in the saffron-yellow risotto Milanese was distinct, slightly firm, bathed in a micrometer of creamy starch. There was wood-roasted pork shoulder cooked on the spit, crisp and savory, alive with fennel. And in the end, I was unable to stay away from Mastronardi's gnocchi with lobster and pesto — an unconventional sauce, less finely ground than the classic pesto he had made just the week before, less cheese-intensive, suaver but perhaps less elemental. I understood immediately that the changes were intentional, made to cosset the delicate butteriness of the lobster. Pesto is large. It contains multitudes.
Vincenti: 11930 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 207-0127. Dinner Mon.-Sat., 6-10 p.m.; lunch Fri., noon-2 p.m. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.