Pesto: Genoa’s Famous Sauce

Pesto originated in the Ligurian city of Genoa in Northern Italy. Some historians believe that it was first made around the 1700s. Others believe that it originated with the Ancient Romans who ate a paste of cheese, olive oil or butter and herbs called moretum that is mentioned by the poet Virgil. When basil made its way to Italy, it became a fixture in Liguria and the Ligurians around Genoa made moretum into the dish we now know as pesto.

Agliata is another sauce that influenced modern pesto. It showed up during the Middle Ages and included garlic, cinnamon, and chicken stock. The garlic in pesto comes from agliata. Some also believe that the high concentration of garlic in modern pesto originated in a time when sailors took the sauce with them on long voyages. The garlic acted as a preservative because of its antibacterial properties.

The pesto that is best known around the world is the green version. Traditional pesto ingredients include garlic, basil, and pine nuts that are combined with Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Sometimes almonds are used in place of the pine nuts and mint is often included along with the basil. There are other variants including a red variety that gets its color from ingredients like red bell peppers or tomatoes. The tomatoes in a red pesto may be fresh or sun-dried.

The name pesto comes from the pesta, a Genovese word that means to crush. It is a reference to the old-fashioned method of preparing the sauce, which involves grinding it with a mortar and pestle. If you want to go about making pesto in a truly traditional way, you need to use a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. Grinding is necessary to release the full aroma and flavor of basil leaves.


While it has been around for a long time, pesto’s popularity in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only became widely known in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Pesto flavor profile

Pesto has a bright herbaceousness from the basil, which has notes of mint and licorice. It gets a solid dose of saltiness and umami from the parmesan cheese, which is enhanced by garlic. You also get the earthy notes and richness from the olive oil.

Health benefits of pesto

Pesto is considered a particularly healthy sauce because of nutrients in its ingredients, which include:

  • Healthy fats: Olive oil is one of the main ingredients in pesto and it is full of monounsaturated fats that have numerous health benefits.
  • Flavonoids: Basil contains phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties.
  • Vitamins: Basil is a rich source of vitamins. A serving can provide you with vitamins A, C, and K with the latter two being present in the highest concentrations.

You can add pesto to your diet to treat or prevent health problems like:

  • High cholesterol: The monounsaturated fats in pesto can help to lower your cholesterol, which means it can lower your risk of diseases that result from high cholesterol. Garlic can help to lower blood cholesterol as well. Also, garlic is known to help stabilize blood pressure.
  • Diabetes: Monounsaturated fats help to lower blood sugar, which makes them useful for preventing type 2 diabetes.
  • Cancer: Pesto’s antioxidants can help fight the free radicals that cause serious diseases like cancer.

Common uses

In Liguria, pesto is traditionally served with flat trenette noodles or along with potatoes and green beans. You can use it in lasagna and it is an important addition to a minestrone.