Pesto, that wonderful raw sauce with bright, fresh flavors, is a gift to operators. Italian for pounded, pesto is an uncooked sauce with tremendous versatility. It takes up no room on the line (all that is needed is a recipe and a blender), but can be incorporated into so many different dishes, from pizzas and pastas to salads and sandwiches.
Traditionally, pesto is a blend of fresh basil, fresh garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Pesto is familiar to diners now, so creative interpretations and signature twists ensure that diners can take a safe culinary adventure while operators offer menu distinction. Indeed, operators across the country are switching out pine nuts for walnuts or adding roasted red pepper, olives or sun-dried tomato for a different flavor profile. But the through line remains the same: pesto offers a crushed sauce with pleasing texture and vibrant flavor.
At 900 Degrees Neopolitan Woodfi red Pizzeria in Manchester, New Hampshire, housemade pestos are featured on two signature pizzas and a panini. “People love our pesto,” says co-owner Erik Selander. “We use a simple recipe, and there’s no cooking, so there’s no strain on your kitchen.”
His basil pesto breaks from tradition by combining fresh basil, pine nuts and extravirgin olive oil with organic walnuts, fresh lemon juice and roasted garlic. Instead of Parmesan, a house blend of cheeses that includes pecorino and mozzarella is used. Butter adds depth to the pesto.
“Our goal was to balance multiple layers of fl avor in this pesto, and you need that depth of fl avor to stand up to the toppings,” says Selander. To build the Florentine Pesto Pizza, he slathers the basil pesto over hand-stretched dough, then adds tomato, arugula and fresh mozzarella. A sprinkling of the house blend of cheeses fi nishes the pizza. He charges $13.75 for a 14-inch pie and runs a food cost of $2.50.
For 900 Degrees’ Red Pepper Pesto, Selander starts with a pesto made with fi re-roasted red peppers, pine nuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, fresh basil, fresh oregano, red-pepper fl akes, salt and pepper and the house cheese blend. “You get a really nice balance of smoky and sweet with this pesto,” he says.
He spreads the pesto over the dough, then adds roasted chicken breast, arugula, cheese blend, mozzarella and goat cheese. He charges $13.95 for a 14-inch pie and runs a food cost of $2.95.
Selander warns that when cooked in extremely hot pizza ovens, pesto does tend to split. “But it doesn’t change the fl avor, and just adds character to the pizza.”
For the Veggie Panini, he uses the basil pesto instead of mayonnaise, slathering it on crusty Italian bread. He adds artichokes, organic red onion, roasted zucchini, arugula, roasted pepper and fontina cheese.
A menu of pesto sauces at Poppy’s Pizza & Grill, Estes Park, Colorado, aims at giving diners with food sensitivities some tasty options. “We didn’t put nuts in our d Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto or in our Confetti Pesto, so those with nut allergies could enjoy it, and we left garlic out of the Confetti Pesto, so those with sensitivity to garlic could still order a pesto on our menu,” says owner Rob Pieper.
For the Basil Pesto, he combines fresh basil, fresh garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan with walnuts, which he says adds body to the sauce. “You need a sauce with a lot of fl avor and body to stand up to the toppings,” says Pieper.
The Confetti Pesto is featured on the popular Mardi Gras Pizza, and it combines black and green olives, roasted red pepper, crushed red pepper, extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan. Mozzarella, Asiago, provolone, feta and Parmesan complete the pie.
The most popular pizza on the menu is the Mediterranean Pizza, which features the Sun-dried Tomato Pesto. “It’s hugely popular, especially with women,” says Pieper. The pesto blends sun-dried tomato, fresh garlic, Parmesan and extravirgin olive oil, and the pizza is topped with fresh spinach, feta and mozzarella.
“All of these pestos take very little effort to make,” he says. “We do them in large batches, then freeze them in quart containers.” Each quart is thawed in the fridge and used within three days.
The pesto used at three North Beach Pizza units in the San Francisco Bay area is sourced from an outside supplier. Owner Regina Lappos says she’s relied on their frozen pesto for years. “We’re really happy with the product, and when we decide not to do something in-house, we look for the best quality out there,” she says.
Her Golden Gate Special starts with a housemade dough slathered with pesto and topped with chicken, garlic, onion and mushroom. On the Verdi Special, pesto is spread over the dough, then topped with fresh spinach, onion and feta cheese. “This one’s a really good option for vegetarians, who might get tired of the traditional veggie pizza,” says Lappos.
She also features the pesto as a sauce for a meat or cheese ravioli, cutting it slightly with some cream for added richness. “Folks can order a side of pesto, too,” she says. “They like dipping their pizza into it — just can’t get enough of the pesto.” ?
Pappardelle with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto
Yield: 4 servings
Large red bell pepper, halved and trimmed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
¾ cup walnuts, chopped
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained
½ cup fresh basil, plus
4 leaves for garnish
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (or Pecorino)
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1-pound box pappardelle noodles
Place red-pepper halves skin-side down on an oven rack in 400 F oven. Roast 15-20 minutes, or until the skin shrivels. Set aside to cool. In a medium saucepan, cover garlic cloves with cold water; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer for 5 minutes until softened. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon; set aside. Reserve water in the pan. Toast walnuts in a warmed frying pan (without oil), stirring constantly, over medium-high heat just until they start to turn golden. Remove from heat; place on paper towels. Place sun-dried tomatoes in the saucepan with reserved water, adding more water to cover as necessary. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon; set aside and blot to dry. Reserve the water in the pan. In a food processor, blend roasted red pepper, garlic, walnuts and sun-dried tomato with fresh basil, Parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the olive oil slowly until the mixture is smooth. Set the pesto aside. (You can freeze or refrigerate for later use.) Prepare pasta according to directions; drain, reserving ¼-cup pasta water. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl; add pasta, mixing in pasta water until a creamy consistency is achieved. Garnish with basil leaves and serve with additional grated cheese.
Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.