Sicilian busiate with pesto alla Trapanese
Trapanese pesto is a fresh and flavourful sauce from the Western Sicilian city of Trapani. It’s easy to make and perfect on pasta, bruschetta or as a dip. In Sicily, they most often serve pesto alla Trapanese with busiate pasta, but you can use other types of pasta instead.
During a recent holiday in Sicily we got to try quite a number of delicious Sicilian pasta dishes including this tasty busiate with Trapanese pesto. This traditional dish is mostly eaten in the province of Trapani in the Western corner of Sicily.
There are a number of different pesto recipes from Sicily. I particularly like pistachio pesto, which is, of course, made with pistachios. Sicily is famous for its pistachios, particularly those from Bronte in Catania province. There is also another delicious Sicilian pesto made with tomatoes, ricotta salata or fresh ricotta and pine nuts, which is usually referred to as pesto alla Siciliana (see link below).
A little Trapanese pesto history.
This delicate and refreshing pesto gets its name from the town of Trapani in Western Sicily, where it originated. Trapanese pesto, ‘agghiata trapanisa’ in the local dialect, is a traditional centuries-old recipe said to have been invented in Trapani harbour.
Food historians believe that Genovese merchant ships coming from the East used to stop in Trapani to trade or to replenish supplies. Apparently, the Ligurian mariners introduced the Sicilians to their own traditional basil pesto Genovese.
The Sicilians modified the original recipe by adding ingredients typical of the island. Trapanese pesto contains almonds and tomatoes and has a more delicate flavour than pesto Genovese. According to tradition, all the ingredients should be ground in a mortar. But, of course, it is possible to blend the ingredients using a food processor.
Using a food processor vs a pestle and mortar.
The Trapanese say that the texture and colour of the finished pesto are affected by the metal blades of a processor. Apparently, the basil oxidizes when it comes in contact with metal, which often results in a darker, brownish coloured pesto. I use a processor for my Trapanese pesto. But, I pulse in short bursts, which helps preserve the basil. Of course, if you want to use a mortar and pestle, it’s still quite quick and easy to make. Plus, you’ll be able to boast that your pesto really is ‘handmade’!
Variations of Trapanese pesto recipes
There are a few variations to this recipe. Some cooks in Sicily add grated bottarga (tuna roe) or tinned tuna to the sauce, others use mint leaves instead of basil and chili pepper (peperoncino) is a popular addition. Also, grated cheese isn’t always included in the sauce. As in this recipe, Trapanese pesto is often served with toasted breadcrumbs instead of extra grated cheese but you can substitute cheese if you prefer.
How to serve Trapanese pesto
You can use this pesto in both warm pasta dishes and pasta salads. In Trapani, the traditional pasta for this pesto is almost always busiate. This is a long or short corkscrew-shaped pasta. It’s traditionally made by wrapping pieces of semolina flour and water dough around a metal rod to give it its distinct shape. I always think busiate looks like the old landline telephone cords.
I have served this Trapanese pesto with dried busiate which I bought in Sicily and fresh short busiate which I can buy locally. However, if you can’t get or make busiate, long or short fusilli are a good substitute. Plus, you can also use linguine or spaghetti.
I loved the freshness of this pesto recipe. It’s perfect for light and fast meals and can be made vegan by not including any cheese or using a vegan cheese. I often serve my pasta with Trapanese pesto with some extra chopped tomatoes and a side salad.
If you try this Sicilian pesto pasta recipe, do please let me know what you think by commenting here on the blog or on The Pasta Project Facebook page. Your feedback is much appreciated!
(I originally posted this recipe in October 2017, but I have now updated it with new photos and text!)
Other pesto recipes to try.
- Pesto alla Siciliana
- Pasta with pesto Calabrese
- Italian basil pesto lasagna
- Linguine with mint pesto and ricotta cream
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Busiate pasta with Trapanese pesto
- 400 g long or short busiate pasta (14oz) or fusilli, spaghetti, linguine etc
- 500 g fresh ripe tomatoes (1.1lbs) I used piccadilly tomatoes.
- 1 small handful of basil leaves
- 80 g blanched almonds (3oz)
- 100 g pecorino cheese (3.5oz) grated
- 2 peeled garlic cloves (preferrably red garlic)
- extra virgin olive oil (as required)
- salt to taste and for pasta
- black pepper to taste
- 80 g breadcrumbs (3oz) for serving
- Start by preparing tomatoes. Cut an 'x' into the top of each tomato. Put them in a bowl of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain the water, let the tomatoes cool enough to handle and then peel them. Cut them in half or quarters and remove the seeds. (this will help prevent the sauce from being too liquidy)
- Dry fry the almonds on a low heat to toast them. Be careful not to let them burn.
- Put toasted almonds, a pinch of salt and the peeled garlic cloves into a blender or food processor with a little olive oil and pulse a few times until the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs.
- Add the basil leaves and more oil if necessary. Pulse in short bursts to prevent basil from spoiling. Add the tomato halves and half the grated pecorino cheese and pulse a few times more until you have a rough creamy consistency.
- Add pepper to taste and a little more olive oil if the sauce seems dry or more cheese if it seems too liquidy.
- Leave the pesto to stand for 30 minutes before using to allow the flavour to develop (or keep it in the fridge covered with cling film until ready to use)
- In the meantime, boil a pan of water for the pasta. Add salt once it starts to boil and when it comes to a boil again cook the pasta al dente according to the instructions on the packet.
- While the pasta is cooking dry fry the breadcrumbs to toast them. Be careful not to burn them.
- When the pasta is ready, save a cup of the cooking water and drain.
- Return the pasta to the pan, add the pesto and mix everything together well over a low heat for a minute. If the sauce seems dry add some of the pasta cooking water. (I mixed everything together in a bowl instead of the pan)
- Serve immediately sprinkled with breadcrumbs or if you prefer, more grated pecorino
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