A recipe for pesto Trapanese, a fresh, aromatic, and nutty pasta sauce recipe I learnt from a native of Trapani, the city where it comes from.
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If you say pesto, people immediately think that you are talking about what Italians call pesto alla genovese (pesto from Genoa), a mix of basil leaves, olive oil, pine nuts, and parmesan cheese often sold in jars in Italian delis and supermarkets the world over. But in Italy, it’s not that simple as there are many different kinds of pesto, using many different ingredients, and from many different areas of Italy. Pesto literally means pounded, that is, made in a pestle and mortar. So, it can refer to many different dishes made in the same way. Equally famous in Italy are pesto di fave (fava bean pesto, another speciality of Liguria), pesto Modenese (from Modena in Emilia-Romagna and made of lard, garlic, and rosemary and served as an accompaniment for tigelle, a kind of flatbread). Then there is pesto di pistacchi (pistachio), pesto di rucola (with rocket leaves and walnuts) and pesto Siciliano (Sicilian style with sun-dried tomatoes).
My favourite pesto also comes from Sicily, in particular from the town of Trapani. This town, of just over 67,000 people, is on the western tip of Sicily and is an important fishing town and port for visiting the beautiful Aegadian islands. It is also popular amongst tourists because it has an airport favoured by well-known budget airlines. I got the recipe from my friend Giampiero, who is from Trapani and served it for me for dinner one night. I had to have his recipe, which has been handed down through his family, and I am sharing it here with his permission. It uses ingredients local to Trapani, particularly almonds which are a speciality in many parts of Sicily. The tomatoes should be of the datterino or San Marzano variety. These are bigger than cherry tomatoes but smaller than vine tomatoes. If you can’t get them then use about 15 cherry tomatoes instead. If you can’t get fresh tomatoes, then you can substitute with sun-dried. The quantities here are for four people and go perfectly with a standard 500g (1 pound) pack of dried pasta.
Not only is this sauce quick and easy but it has a freshness pasta sauces often lack. Really ripe tomatoes will give you an almost piquant note. (If you want an even more piquant note, Giampiero suggests that you add a little peperoncino: just a little however, unless you want a real kick.) This is toned down by the creaminess of the almonds and backed up by sophisticated aromatic notes supplied by the basil. Unlike pesto genovese the basil doesn’t dominate but stays in the background pushing the tomatoes and almonds, the real stars of the piece, forward.
Pesto Trapanese is usually served with busiate pasta which is similar to fusilli but tighter wound. If you are lucky enough to live near a branch of Eataly, you will be able to find busiate there. If not, then you can use fusilli as I do in the recipe below. Although it should be made in a pestle and mortar, the fact is that many Italians will use a food processor for this and other types of pesto. Therefore, I have written the recipe for a food processor but if you want to make it in a pestle and mortar, be my guest.