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Pesto derives its name from the Genoese word for pound or crush, in reference to its traditional method of preparation, using mortar and pestle. (Photograph by Berthold Steinhiber/Laif/Redux)

Pesto-Perfect Italy: Liguria

If there is one aroma that unifies Liguria—the region that arcs along Italy’s northwestern coast, joining France to Italy, Alps to sea—it’s Genovese basil.

Fragrant bouquets of basil line the stalls at outdoor markets and sit in windowsills, wafting a scent as pure as it is intense. And if you ask any locals the one food that showcases their world-famous basil, they won’t hesitate to answer: pesto.

The leafy, sweet herb is protected by the European Union with DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta certification) status—meaning it has to be grown in this region.

The ingredients are few in a traditional pesto Genovese. But they need to be as specific as they are fresh: Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo cheeses, Tuscan pine nuts, garlic from nearby Vessalico, salt, and extra-virgin oil from the region’s Taggiasca olives. And, of course, bright green Genovese basil.

Pesto that’s made with other herbs might be tasty. But it’s not pesto Genovese. “We’re shocked when we see red pesto, or coriander pesto,” confesses Sara Di Paolo, director of the Pesto World Championship, which held its fifth edition in Genoa, Italy, in March. “Pesto is green. You need basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano in it to be the real thing.”

In Liguria, locals add a dollop of pesto to their minestrone soup and slather it on bread. But the most common way to consume it is also the most classic: on pasta—especially trofie, or twists, which can hold on to the slippery pesto.

Outside of a Ligurian nonna’s kitchen, one of the best places to try pesto is Il Genovese, a 102-year-old restaurant in the heart of Genoa that not only prepares the sauce with the gold standard ingredients—including sea salt from Trapani—but still grinds the basil with a mortar and pestle.

  • Travel Trivia: According to local legend, when a woman places a pot of basil outside her door or on her balcony, she is inviting suitors.

This piece, written by Amanda Ruggeri, first appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.