We may be most familiar with the emerald- hued, basil-heavy pesto Genovese, but there’s more than one way to approach fresh pasta sauce. That becomes evident when one looks past Genoa and heads south, where pestos are less uniform and more rustic in texture—even red. Pesto, after all, has nothing to do with pigment; it stems from “pestare,” which means to crush or pound.
Pesto Trapanese, named after the Sicilian coastal city of Trapani, shakes up the pesto paradigm with almonds and fresh tomatoes—a prized island crop. One origin story is that it’s a localized version of pesto Genovese, brought to Sicily by Ligurian sailors (Genoa is the capital of Liguria).
Certainly Sicily, the island forever being kicked into the Mediterranean by the elegant toe of Italy’s boot, has a long history of culinary adaptation, shaped by centuries of colonization. As control of the island was wrested from one conquering force to another—Phoenicians, Greeks, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Spaniards and others claimed control of Sicily at one point or another—its ingredients and culinary techniques became more diverse.
Of those influences, perhaps the Spanish and the Moors are most to thank for Trapani’s pesto. The Moors introduced a wide range of nuts, including the almond. And the Spanish introduced the tomato. In Spain, they use picada—a paste made by pounding together toasted nuts, herbs, a little bread and garlic—to thicken stews, sauces, and rice and bean dishes. The same principle is at work in Trapanese pesto.
For our version, we took a page from the Sicilians who adapted Genovese pesto and broke with tradition. Instead of a mortar and pestle—a far-from-universal tool in American home kitchens—we used a food processor to make the sauce.
Next, we tackled the ingredients. Raw almonds are traditional, but toasting them was simple and boosted the dish’s flavor. Slivered almonds, ground together with the tomatoes, felt mealy; whole almonds were better. Briefly pulsed in the food processor, then set aside, they broke down less and added a pleasant crunch.
Because standard grocery store tomatoes can be iffy—often watery and flavorless—we opted for consistently sweet grape tomatoes (which, as a bonus, didn’t require any peeling). But even with these small tomatoes, our first attempts resulted in a sauce that was too thin. The solution was waiting until the end to add salt; any earlier and the salt would draw moisture out of the tomatoes.
Basil shows up in Trapanese pesto, but it doesn’t lead like it does in Genoa’s version. About a cup of packed basil was the right amount to support—but not dominate—the sauce. And while Genovese pesto is packed with garlic, one finely grated clove was all we needed. Red pepper flakes added heat, and a little olive oil bound the tomato sauce together.
Some recipes we found blended cheese in with the tomatoes and nuts, others added it at the end and some skipped it entirely. Our pesto needed the extra hit of salt and savoriness. We tried ricotta, which made the other- wise coarse pesto creamy, but it also dulled the flavor. Added at the end, grated pecorino was perfect.
The rough pesto best adhered to short, sturdy pasta. We liked rigatoni and gemelli best.
With only minimal cooking (toasting nuts) and just 10 ingredients, this bright, bold fresh pasta sauce makes a slightly more effortful, yet far more flavorful alternative to jarred sauce.