First-of-the-season pesto really needs a white wine

First-of-the-season pesto for a summer supper pairs with with La Ginestraia Pigato, a Vermentino from Liguria.
(S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times)

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been pinching the tops off my basil plants, the better to make them grow bushier and fend off flowering. And this weekend I celebrated with the first pesto of the season.

I go for the classic -- just basil leaves, a little flat-leaved parsley, garlic, olive oil, a handful of pine nuts -- and, of course, freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. In this case, I had some beautiful Pecorino Romano, so I used some of that too. Check your pine nuts before starting: They have a tendency to go a bit rancid over time.

For this dish, because there are so few elements -- basically just the pasta and the pesto -- it’s essential to use a high-quality dried pasta. I’m a big fan of pasta from Gragnano, a little town on the bay of Naples where the best producers use old-fashioned bronze dies that give the pasta surface a bit of texture, the better to grab the sauce. Though the traditional shape for pesto is trofie, I like to use the corkscrew shape called fusilli.

This time, I tried a one from the Gragnano pasta company Pastificio dei Campi (new to me), sold at the Monsieur Marcel gourmet shop at the original Farmers Market. Expensive but worth it.


Be sure to cook the pasta al dente, standing right by the pot and testing by cutting into one of the pieces. You want to catch the point where the pasta just loses its chalkiness at the center. Sauce judiciously and pass a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano to grate over each portion at the table.

I really think pesto needs a white wine, and for me, that’s Vermentino from northern Italy. An aromatic grape, at its best, it produces a crisp, minerally white. Pigato from Liguria is Vermentino, actually. Funny enough, pesto is a dish from Liguria, so that may be why the two work so well together, the bracing acidity of the wine softened by the rich herbal flavor of the pesto. I like the Pigato from La Ginestraia, but Tablas Creek on the Central Coast also makes an excellent one.


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