Pesto is one of those sauces that brings back vivid memories for me. The first time I had pesto was on my first trip to Italy in 1978. As a foreign exchange student in Switzerland (German part), I ended up almost by accident in Vernazza near the end of my year, and the memories of pesto and focaccia stayed with me all my life. Many of my US friends had pesto for the very first time at my dining table (I do make a mean pesto if I say so myself). When I realized that I was to live in a location that is quite literally at the border of Emilia-Romagna (a foodie haven), Tuscany and Liguria, it was almost heaven. If we get on a train and head west, a large tunnel separates us from Tuscany, and in a short 15 minutes we are in the picturesque town of Pontremoli. Pontremoli is the keeper of many great Lunigiana treasures (the ancient land that encompasses this tri-region area of Emilia-Romagna, Liguria and Tuscany). This weekend they are having a festival called “Testarolo Pride”, and well, we couldn’t stay away.
Testarolo alla Lunigiana is a local “pasta” unlike any pasta you have had before. For Americans, the term pasta seems like a mistake, and I’m sure there are Tuscans who might also object to that designation, but it seems to be found in Italian cookbooks under “pasta”, so there we have it. We would think of it more as a pancake. That gets grilled. And then boiled. And then smothered in sauce. Call it whatever you like. Just make it!
Testarolo starts out as a pancake or crepe. Thinner than most American pancakes, and thicker than most French crepes. It is cooked in a large flat cast iron pan called a “Testo”.
Once the crepe is made, it is cut into squares, diamonds or strips, dunked briefly in boiling salted water, and then quickly coated with your sauce of choice, which up here is of course Pesto alla Genovese! Here’s the lovely Testarolo we had today.
This is one of those unbelievably simple dishes that is hard to even imagine until you try it. Here are quick recipes for both the testarolo and the pesto.
Ingredients for the Pesto alla Genovese
- 3 fistfuls fresh basil leaves
- 2 or more (MORE!) garlic cloves
- 25g (1 oz) pine nuts
- 4 tbsp freshly grated Pecorino Sardo cheese
- 4 tbsp freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- About 125ml (4 fl oz) olive oil
Make your pesto first. It needs to be ready to go when the testaroli come out of the hot water!
I know some Ligurian Nonna is crying right now, but I’ve made pesto with a mortar and pestle and with a blender, and this American can’t really taste the difference. It’s fantastic either way, and almost impossible to mess up! So unless you’re just a purist, throw all of the ingredients except the oil and salt into the blender, and start it up gently. Slowly pour the oil into the mixture as it blends until the pesto is “almost” pourable. Test for salt (the cheese will probably have added all the salt you need). Set aside in a bowl, and clean out your blender jar for the testaroli below!
Ingredients for the Testarolo alla Lunigiana
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2-1/2 cups water
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (optional)
- vegetable oil to grease the pan
- boiling water
Heat a large cast iron skillet in a very hot oven (500F/260C) and put a large pan of salted water on the stove to boil.
Mix the flour, salt and water together in the blender until bubbly. Baking powder is not traditional, but if you are worried about not getting bubbles in your pancakes, you can add ¼ teaspoon baking powder as well.
When the pan is hot, carefully (a silicone insulated oven mitt is recommended) transfer it to the stove and turn the burner on high. Lightly grease the pan and swirl a small amount of batter in the bottom of the pan to form a thin coat (again, thicker than a crepe, but thinner than an American pancake). Cook for about 3-4 minutes until brown, and bubbles form and pop on the top. There really is no need to flip over, unless you feel like the top is “sticky” after the bottom cooks.
Place the testaroli on a kitchen towel to dry. Do not stack. Grease the pan and start again.
Once all of the testaroli are cooked, cut them into 2” strips, and then cut the strips diagonally into 2” diamond shapes. Drop the pieces into the boiling water, and as soon as they are all submerged, immediately remove them with a strainer and place on a large serving platter. Top with the pesto sauce and serve immediately!
Good luck and enjoy!