My Secret Pesto Sauce / by Anthony Michael Contrino


Years ago when I was interning in Southern France, I was lucky enough to have a few days off.  I decided to trek to Italy.  While I could have flown there, I would have lost a whole day traveling just to get there, so I opted to take the train.  The rail system in Europe is pretty extensive and it's easy to get around, even from smaller cities.  I decided to visit the city of San Remo, which is right over the border, on the Italian Riviera.  

The train ride to San Remo was bearable, thanks to an overnight stay in Nice and a quick layover in Monte Carlo.  Upon arrival to San Remo, I dropped off my bags and headed straight to the market.  I was greeted by the most flavorful sun-dried tomatoes, fragrant olive oils and life-changing focaccia.  I sat in my room, looking out my window over-looking the Mediterranean Sea, and ate as much as I could without getting sick.

The next day I explored the city by foot, venturing into any butcher shop, gelateria, bakery or cheese shop that caught my eye.  I checked the menu of every restaurant that I passed, looking for the perfect dinner spot.  Nothing was catching my eye.  I'm not sure what sort of epiphany I was expecting, but it sure wasn't happening.  

I was about to give up and just grab some cheese and mortadella to bring back to my room when I spotted groups of people appearing from behind a bunch of trees.  I walked over and discovered a hidden stone entrance which lead to a small piazza.  There were a handful of restaurants, and nothing else.  I walked over to one and I felt drawn to eat there. 

I ordered a quattro stagioni pizza, a bowl of pasta with pesto and, for dessert, tiramisù.  The pizza was really good, but not much better than anything in NYC.  I was mildly disappointed.  Once again, I'm such a snob that my expectations can easily ruin a good thing.  

After a few minutes, the waiter returned and placed the plate of pasta in front of me.  It was the most vibrant, creamy pesto I'd ever seen.  I'm used to pesto looking more rustic - often oily with big flecks of basil.  

It was so good.  I went into an eating trance.  All I remember is running my finger around the bowl, grabbing any remaining remnants of sauce and licking my finger clean.  It was by far the best pesto I'd ever had.  But I couldn't figure out how they achieved that texture.  I asked the waiter, but he was no help.  There was definitely no cream or creamy cheese whipped in - the color was too green and the sauce was so fresh and light.

As I ate my tiramisù (which was also delicious) I vowed to recreate the sauce when I returned home.  It took a few tries and some crazy experimentation, but I was able to recreate it.  I'm not sure if I figured out their trick or if I was lucky enough to replicate the sauce with my own variation.

That being said, after years of making my secret pesto sauce, I've decided to share the recipe.  In no way is this recipe traditional, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.  

So what is this secret ingredient?  Artichoke hearts.  Nothing fancy, just the canned version in water.  I use this to create a creamy paste, which is the base for the sauce.  Also, I do not believe pine nuts belong in a pesto.  They are far too expensive to be pulverized, and, in my opinion, not flavorful enough to add any excitement to the sauce.  I prefer to toast some up and sprinkle them over the sauced pasta.  Finally, I use pecorino instead of parmesan.  I like how the flavor of the salty pecorino melds with the garlic and basil.  It also seasons the sauce enough that additional salt is not necessary.

My Secret Pesto Sauce // Makes approximately 1 cup

3 artichoke hearts, canned, in water, see note 

2 medium cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup, plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon grated pecorino cheese

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces fresh basil leaves, cleaned and allowed to dry completely, about 2 cups, packed

  1. Place the artichoke hearts, garlic, 1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, cheese and pepper into the work bowl of a mini food processor.  
  2. Purée until all ingredients are smooth.  Use a small rubber spatula to scrape down the sides, as necessary.
  3. Add the basil, pressing it into the paste and purée, scraping down the sides, until creamy.  There should be mostly small specks of basil remaining.  The sauce will be creamy and vibrant.
  4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and pulse to incorporate.
  5. Transfer the sauce to a container and place a sheet of plastic wrap onto the top of the pesto sauce.
  6. Cover with a lid and refrigerate until ready to use.

NOTES:  Remove any small leaves that are left on the artichokes.  They should peel off easily, leaving the heart intact.  Use them in a salad, or discard.  

The sauce will hold for 2 days in the refrigerator.  The sauce can be frozen for 3 months.  Defrost in the refrigerator a day before using.