How To Make Pesto alla Genovese (Italian Basil Pesto)


June 24, 2023

A simple guide to making the best authentic Italian Genovese Pesto aka Pesto alla Genovese using traditional ingredients and techniques.

fresh basil for pesto alla genovese on a wood table

Growing up in an Italian household fresh pesto was a traditional part of summer. Each summer, my parents would grow as much basil as we could so that we could make fresh pesto alla genovese to enjoy and freeze all summer long.

While it would seem like a lot of work in the summertime, we would always be thankful when we would have fresh pesto in the winter. A little taste of summer that would help get us through some of those long winter months.

What Is Pesto alla Genovese?

Pesto Genovese is a traditional Italian sauce made by grinding ingredients together finely to create a vibrant and flavorful sauce. While the word pesto in Italian will often be heard referring to a variety of different dishes, most commonly around the world it is used to describe pesto alla genovese, or basil pesto.

Ingredients For Pesto alla Genovese

To make pesto alla genovese you really only need a few simple ingredients: olive oil, pine nuts (walnuts work too), basil, garlic, sea salt, parmesan. Ultimately the success of any amazing pesto really comes down to patience, and the freshness of the ingredients you choose.

  • Olive Oil: This traditional Italian oil packs a lot of flavor depending on the brand you choose. I personally opt for a high quality olive oil especially for something like pesto alla genovese. This Sicilian olive oil is one of my favorites and adds a lot of depth to the pesto alla genovese recipe.
  • Pine Nuts: Pine nuts are traditionally used in an authentic pesto alla genovese recipe, however I also have liked making variations with pistachios and walnuts if you don’t have any pine nuts.
  • Sea Salt: You won’t need a lot of sea salt, but it does improve the depth of flavor of your pesto alla genovese recipe.
  • Parmesan: Parmesan is the ideal aged cheese of choice for a traditional pesto alla genovese recipe but you can also use pecorino romano is you are looking for a less expensive option.

Ingredients To Buy Fresh/Local

  • Basil: The only option when making a really delicious pesto alla genovese is to use fresh genovese basil. Ideally try to make your genovese pesto when basil is in season and then freeze for later use. The flavor of your pesta alla genovese really comes down to the quality of your basil.
  • Garlic: Garlic is the other ingredient in this genovese pesto recipe that is really important to try and buy high quality and in season. The difference between garlic grown locally and in-season and garlic grown half way around the world or across the country is staggering. If you want a truly authentic and flavorful pesto alla genovese then opt of locally grown fresh garlic.
Pesto alla Genovese: The Best Authentic Italian Basil Pesto

How To Make Pesto alla Genovese The Traditional Way

The word pesto actually comes from the Italian word ‘pestare’ which means ‘to pound, crush, or pestle’. This is why to really achieve a traditional Italian basil pesto you need to use old fashioned techniques of finely chopping and then grinding the pesto ingredients together using a mortar and pestle.

While the process absolutely takes more time that using a food processor, it really is the only way to get a truly authentic Italian pesto sauce. While I love how easy it is to make big batches of pesto using my food processor, I often prefer to take the extra time to make it the traditional Italian way as it really does result in a much better pesto.

Step One

Wash and dry your basil well and remove all stems.

Step Two

Finely chop up your basil, nuts, and garlic until very small pieces remains.

Step Three

Using a mortal and pestle, slowly start to grind your chopped ingredients together, working in small quantities.

Step Four

At this point you can begin to add the salt, parmesan cheese and olive oil slowly to the mortar and pestle. Grinding the ingredients together until eventually a runny sauce begins to form.

Step Five

You will know that your pesto is complete when all ingredients have been combined, yet you can still see tiny individual pieces of basil, nuts, and parmesan and oil. The pesto sauce should be slightly thick and able to easily run off a spoon.

Pesto alla Genovese: The Best Authentic Italian Basil Pesto

How To Make The Best Basil Pesto With A Food Processor

  • If you do choose to use a food processor I would begin by quickly pulsing your basil, garlic, and nuts until small pieces form.
  • Next, remove the pulsed ingredients from the food processor and place in a large bowl or mortar and pestle.
  • Add the parmesan, salt, and olive oil slowly to the bowl and using a large spoon or a mortal and pestle begin to grind the pesto ingredients together, adding more oil and parmesan slowly until the ingredients form a runny basil pesto sauce.
  • Making the basil pesto sauce this way will help ensure that all of the ingredients do not turn into a homogenized paste, which is what would happen if you added all the ingredients at once to a food processor. While a pesto paste is still delicious and is what you most likely are used to when buying pesto at the store, it is not true to the consistency of a traditional Italian basil pesto.
Pesto alla genovese (Italian basil pesto) with basil pesto ingredients on a table

Tips For Making The Best Authentic Italian Basil Pesto (Pesto alla Genovese)

While basil pesto really is easy to make there are a few common mistakes that people may make that I want to help you avoid.

  1. Chop Your Ingredients Finely: Making pesto the traditional Italian way will require about 20-30 minutes of finely chopping ingredients. After chopping, you will then need to grind then together with a mortar and pestle until a beautiful sauce forms. This process takes times and if you try to cut corners you will end up with a lumpy pesto sauce.
  2. Do Not Over Process: If you choose to use a food processor to make your basil pesto do not over process your pesto. It will turn from more of a sauce or dip into a paste. While it still would taste great the consistency won’t be as appealing so make sure you don’t over process.
  3. Make Sure Your Basil Is Clean And Dry: Make sure that your basil leaves are dry. This will improve the texture and storing potential of the basil pesto.
  4. De-Stem Your Basil Leaves: No one wants stems in their pesto, make sure you remove the stems of your basil before making your pesto.
  5. Add Oil To The Top Of Your Pesto Jars: If you want your pesto to avoid freezer burn and maintain its color/taste I always like to add a layer of olive oil to the top of each jar. Then when you go to heat up the pesto it will just melt into the sauce and will ensure that your pesto tastes just as good months later.

Pesto alla genovese is a really simple sauce that almost anyone can make, and I promise that once you start making it yourself you most likely wont be able to go back to the store bought kind. 

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Pesto alla Genovese: The Best Authentic Italian Basil Pesto

The Best Authentic Italian Basil Pesto (Pesto alla Genovese)

  • Author: Megan Faletra
  • Prep Time: 30 min
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 4 servings 1x


Want to learn how to make an authentic Italian Genovese Pesto or Pesto alla Genovese? Using traditional Italian methods this basil pesto is the real deal.


Units Scale
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts (I often prefer to use walnuts, but choose pine nuts for a traditional recipe)
  • 2 cups of fresh basil or 1 large bunch
  • 1/31/2 cup parmesan cheese freshly grated
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt


  • Finely chop basil, garlic, and nuts into tiny pieces.
  • Add chopping ingredients to a large mortar and pestle (or a large bowl) and begin to slowly add the olive oil, salt, and parmesan cheese, while grinding the ingredients together using the mortar and pestle or a large spoon.
  • Continue until all ingredients are well combines and a vibrant pesto sauce has formed.
  • Taste as you go and add more olive oil, salt, garlic, or parmesan to meet your personal preferences.
  • Spoon pesto into glass jars and top with a layer of olive oil.
  • Store in the refrigerator for ~1 week, or in the freezer for homemade fresh pesto all year long
  • Note: See instructions above for tips on making pesto using a food processor.


This pesto will keep in a refrigerator for up to a week and will keep in the freezer for about a year if you place it in an airtight container. My recommendation is to make a big batch during the summer when pesto ingredients are fresh and in season to enjoy all year round.

Megan Faletra, MS, MPH, RDN

Megan Faletra, MS, MPH, RDN

Megan is a maternal-child health dietitian and mom of two. With nearly a decade of experience working in maternal-child nutrition both domestically and abroad, Megan is passionate about supporting mothers and their little ones through pregnancy, postpartum, and beyond.

Megan especially loves helping to nourish families with simple, delicious recipes that both children and adults will enjoy. All of the recipes at MADRE are gluten free, and focused on celebrating food culture, seasonality, and supporting the nutritional needs of growing children, mothers, and families.

Megan holds a MS in Nutrition and MPH in Global Health from Tufts University, and received her dietetic license (RDN) from Brigham and Women's Hospital. She has advanced training in pediatric nutrition and baby led weaning, and is currently working towards becoming a certified lactation consultant.

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Mom of two girls under two, and registered dietitian specializing in prenatal, postpartum, and infant wellness. My passion for supporting moms and babies began more than a decade ago, but nothing made me more committed to helping moms and babies thrive than going through my own pregnancy and postpartum journey.

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