The next day Pietro Uslengo greeted me with a dignified smile, one befitting the man who heads L'Ordine dei Cavalieri della Confraternita del Pesto, the Pesto Brotherhood, created to guard the honor of pesto against impostors. "Pesto was our daily poetry, something our nonne made every morning," he said. "Suddenly—boom!—a global industry. Like toothpaste." The best basil for pesto, he continued, is the basilico di Pra that I saw around Voltri. Pra basil has small concave leaves and an aroma that is often described as lemony rather than minty (mentolato is a nasty word in Uslengo's vocabulary).
The word pesto comes from pestare, "to crush," a task traditionally performed with an olive-wood pestle in a large marble mortar. (Mortar pesto is preferable, but even Uslengo confessed to using a blender—occasionally.) Small leaves are pounded and smeared into a paste with tiny doses of garlic, sometimes pine nuts or walnuts, local olive oil, and grated cheese, usually a mix of Parmesan and pecorino. Then again, pesto here changes subtly every five miles: sometimes mellowed with ricotta, for instance, or the yogurt-like cheese prescinseua.
Pesto recklessly tossed on salads or grills?Unthinkable. In Liguria it dresses lasagna sheets called fazzoletti di seta ("silk handkerchiefs"); trenette, long strands of pasta tossed with potatoes and string beans; and troffie, delicious worm-shaped gnocchi made with local chestnut flour. For minestrone, the iconic potage of Genoese dockworkers, pesto is made without nuts. The rules are strict.
My search for hand-pounded pesto took me next to La Brinca, a gem of a hilltop trattoria above Lavagna. Its sun-dappled terrace hung over a precipice, and the dining room buzzed with baptism and retirement parties. The set menu was a primer on inland specialties: fritters of borage leaves and acacia þowers, chestnut-flour focaccias, and rustic pasta diamonds veiled in pesto that had the aroma and not-quite-smooth texture of the hand-pounded article. "For the pasta we revived a strain of wheat that was near extinction," the owners informed me. No, they'd never insult such pasta with a metallic-tasting blender pesto.
My final lunch was in Genoa, at Trattoria da Maria, a battered canteen with sauce-splotched checkered tablecloths inside and laundry þapping outdoors. Naturally, the pesto and the minestrone were finiti. I went to plead with the kitchen, which was populated entirely by octogenarians. Signora Maria gave me a toothless smile. Certo, she'd throw a few leaves into a blender for trenette with pesto. The pesto came. No, it wasn't a sonnet. No, not an emerald. It was just food. Not good, not bad, but somehow completely essential.
ANYA VON BREMZEN's book Ladies and Gentlemen...The World's Greatest Dishes will be published by HarperCollins in February.