When Bob Rosebrock of Rosebrock's Vegetable Garden Center in Malibu held his first pesto cookoff last year, little did he guess how far the results would travel. It never occurred to him that an Italian journalist, here for the Olympics, would take a copy of Barbara Hansen's story on the event in The Times' Food Section home to share with his local tourist office.
But that's exactly what happened. As a result, this year the Italian Government Travel Office, the Regional Tourist Board of Liguria and Alitalia Airlines sent one of Genoa's top chefs, Giannini Malagoli, to judge Rosebrock's second annual "battle of the basil" held recently at the garden center in Malibu.
Now it may seem a bit bizarre to anyone not totally devoted to this wonderful green herb that anyone would travel thousands of miles just to see how someone else uses it. But basil is not just another herb to Italians from the coastal region of Liguria, which encompasses the Italian Riviera. The late Waverley Root in his book, "The Food of Italy," contended that aromatic herbs are the most salient feature of Ligurian cooking. "Liguria makes almost a cult of one of them, sweet basil," he said. The Genoese, in particular, he claims, "have a special cult for basil. Those who have no plot of land in the suburbs to raise it for themselves place old tomato cans in sunny spots on their windowsills, filled with carefully selected soil rich with humus, in which they grow their own private supply of basil."
Obviously Genoese do not take basil lightly.
Nor does Rosebrock who sells 10 different varieties of the herb to home gardeners. The Second Annual Basil Festival and Pesto Invitational drew entries from chefs at 21 restaurants in Southern California and San Francisco. Competition was spirited as the visiting Italian group offered a grand prize of a trip for two to Genoa for the chef whose pesto was judged the best.
Winner of the grand prize and the trip was Celestino Drago, executive chef at Chianti restaurant on Melrose. Runner-up was chef Meliano Plasencia of Beverly Hills' DDL Food Show. Second and third runner-ups were Will Howard of the Pasta Place in La Jolla and Tom Wagstaff of Casa Monica in Santa Monica.
Judges for the contest besides Malagoli of Antica Osteria del Bai in Genoa were Wilhelmina Sprague, president of the Herb Society of America; Gustavo Gamalero, minister of tourism in Liguria, and myself.
Only a true basil lover would have survived the afternoon's marathon tasting session. A number of the competitors made the mistake of overpowering the rich, sweet flavor of basil by adding too much garlic to their pesto. And some of the others used a food processor indiscriminately, allowing it to turn their pesto into a creamy, homogenized sauce that had lost all texture.
Malagoli, speaking through an interpreter, said that a true pesto should be somewhat gritty in texture. Ideally, it should be made with a mortar and pestle. He also disapproved of toasting the pine nuts used in this aromatic herb sauce.
In Genoa Malagoli would use only the tiny, tender leaves of the piccolo variety of basil, however he found that the piccolo grown in this country is milder and less aromatic than that he is accustomed to using. He decided the small, somewhat ridged leaves of the ordinary sweet basil grown here was a better choice for pesto. Among other tips he offered for pesto makers: use a good, extra virgin olive oil and use only a small amount of garlic. (He admitted, however, that it is only in recent years that Genoese have reduced the amount of garlic used in their pestos. "Changing times," he shrugged, smiling.)
Malagoli was pleased that the taste buds of the Americans judging found Drago's winning pesto as appealing as he and his fellow Italians did. His own pesto sauce, which he brought from Italy to serve at a dinner several days after the contest, was similar in both flavor and texture. At the dinner he made a pesto lasagna with his sauce that was immensely popular with those who sampled it. We adapted his recipe in The Times' Test Kitchen, using commercially made lasagna rather than the homemade noodles he used, and were equally impressed. It's a light dish that packs a good flavor wallop.
Recipes for the four top pestos and Malagoli's Pesto Lasagna follow. Any of the winning pestos could be used to make lasagna.
3/4 teaspoon rock salt
1 ounce pine nuts
1 ounce garlic
3 ounces small basil leaves
3/4 ounce grated Pecorino cheese
1 1/4 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Using marble mortar and wooden pestal, mash together rock salt, pine nuts and garlic. Blend in basil to make coarse paste. Gradually add cheeses and oil. Makes 1 cup.
DDL FOOD SHOW PESTO
6 ounces basil leaves
1/4 cup packed parsley leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 ounces pine nuts
1 ounce garlic, chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 medium boiled potato