Pesto from Sicily? Here's how the southern island puts a spin on the classic northern dish.
In the pantheon of Italian sauces, pesto alla Genovese sits up at the top with instantly recognizable favorites like Bolognese, marinara, and cacio e pepe. The smooth sauce made from fragrant basil, creamy pine nuts, and parmigiano-reggiano cheese that was invented in Genoa in the 16th century is so famous, it’s generally just called pesto—no specifics required.
But the word pesto itself just means to pound or crush, and it refers to the method by which the sauce is traditionally made. By that token, any combination of ingredients that are crushed together in a mortar and pestle to make a sauce can be called a pesto, and as you tour Italy, you might come across dozens of local varieties of pesto that bear no more than a passing similarity to the bright-green Genovese.
About as far from the northern port city of Genoa as you can get while still being in Italy, the island of Sicily has a unique pesto connection. Pesto alla Genovese was introduced there by merchant sailors traveling from Genoa who would stop in the island’s western port city of Trapani before continuing across the Mediterranean to Asia and Africa. Local cooks quickly adapted the flexible formula to showcase the local ingredients they had in abundance, including nuts like almonds and pistachios, flavorful tomatoes and chiles, and salty capers.
It's a rare treat to enjoy Sicily’s signature pesto variations off the island, and we were thrilled when we found a local company that specializes in capturing all of them. Here are our four favorites:
The purest taste of the island on our list, this vibrant blend is just Sicilian pistachios, salt, and olive oil. Sicilian pistachios are renowned across Italy for their depth of flavor—they’re ultra-sweet and aromatic, with a brilliant green hue and intense creaminess. This simple pesto is stunningly savory and decadent, with just the right balance of sweet and salt to pair beautifully with fish and roasted veggies. Pistachio lovers will love this one!
On the tiny island of Pantelleria off Sicily’s southern coast, capers reign supreme. Caper bushes are one of the few native plants that thrive in the island’s dry, rocky terrain and intense heat, and Pantelleria capers are known to be the most flavorful and largest in Italy. This pesto hews closer to the Genovese formula with fresh basil and olive oil, but makes it Sicilian with almonds and those famous capers. The result is a punchy sauce that’s herbaceous, fragrant, and packed with umami goodness.
The port city of Trapani is where sailors from Genoa first introduced pesto to Sicily, and it was the first to come up with its own local version. This sauce blends sweet ripe tomatoes, garlic, and local almonds with basil and olive oil for a condiment that’s clearly inspired by the original while still tasting totally Sicilian.
Surprisingly, this variation from Pantelleria doesn’t include the island’s famous capers! Instead, it’s packed with other sun-loving crops like chiles, tomatoes, and hardy oregano and mint. It smells like a summer walk through Sicily’s seaside, and makes an incredible pasta sauce on its own.