Sicilian-style Tomato-and-almond Pesto (Pesto Alla Trapanese)

Gnoccoli pasta with pesto alla trapanese sauce, almonds and fried eggplant
Gnoccoli pasta with pesto alla trapanese sauce, almonds and fried eggplant. L. Alfonse/Getty Images
  • 20 mins
  • Prep: 10 mins,
  • Cook: 10 mins
  • Yield: About 4 servings
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This Sicilian version of pesto, pesto alla trapanese, originates from the town of Trapani, in western Sicily, where allegedly sailors from Liguria (the home of the most well-known pesto, the basil-and-pine-nut pesto alla genovese) inspired locals to make their version, using ingredients abundant in the region such as tomatoes and almonds.

What You'll Need

  • 1/4 cup raw almonds, blanched or skin-on (and toasted or untoasted, as desired)
  • 1-2 small cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • 1 cup (about 14 grams) fresh basil leaves, plus a few more leaves for garnish
  • About 20 cherry tomatoes (270 grams), plus a few more for serving
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or a 50/50 mixture of both, i.e., 1/4 cup of each) (a Microplane grater is great [no pun intended] for this step)
  • 1/3 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • Optional garnishes: fried mozzarella cubes, minced fresh mint leaves, toasted chopped almonds, a few cherry tomatoes, halved, a few small sprigs of fresh basil leaves

How to Make It

  1. Set a large, covered pot of water to boil over high heat for the pasta. (When water reaches a rolling boil, add some coarse sea salt -- about 1 TB per quart of water -- and the pasta and cook to al dente consistency.)
  2. If blanching the almonds and peeling the tomatoes: then also set a medium pot of water to boil over high heat. When the water reaches a rolling boil, cut an "X" shape in the bottom of each tomato, place the tomatoes and almonds together in a fine-mesh metal sieve, and lower the sieve into the water for 1 minute.
  1. After 1 minute, remove the sieve, and drain the almonds and tomatoes thoroughly. When cool enough to handle, pop the peels off of the tomatoes by gently squeezing them. Place the blanched almonds on a few layers of paper towel to drain and cool. When cool enough to handle, squeeze them to pop off the skins.
  2. Pat the peeled almonds dry thoroughly with another paper towel. If you are going to toast the almonds, do that at this point, by shaking them over low heat in a skillet for a few minutes, just until lightly and evenly toasted. 
  3. In a blender or food processor or with a mortar and pestle, crush the almonds together with the garlic and salt to a coarse meal. Add the basil leaves and puree or crush together. Add the tomatoes and puree/crush again. Next, add the cheese. Finally, blend or whisk in the olive oil to create a creamy emulsion.
  4. When pasta is al dente, drain it, reserving about 1/3 cup of the cooking water, and return it to the empty pot. (This recipe makes enough pesto to sauce about 1 pound of pasta or 4-6 servings, but you can always make the whole recipe of pesto for less pasta and store any leftover pesto in the fridge or freezer.)
  5. Add the pesto and a little bit of the pasta cooking water (add about 1 tablespoon at a time, rather than all at once) as needed, to thin the sauce, help the cheese melt, and help the pesto adhere evenly to the pasta. Toss to coat evenly and serve hot or at room temperature, with any of the optional garnishes suggested above or by itself, with an additional sprinkling of grated cheese.

    Additional Information

    The traditional way to make it (as with Genovese basil pesto) is by hand, in a mortar and pestle, but you can also use a blender or food processor; it will give a much smoother and less chunky texture. 

    It can be used on any pasta but works particularly well on long, thin strands such as spaghetti, linguinetagliatellefettuccine or trenette, or on short, twisted shapes such as busiate or gnoccoli (typical short pasta of Trapani). 

    Pasta tossed in this sauce can be served hot or cold, so this makes a good pasta salad sauce as well, for picnics or potlucks. 

    In Trapani it is often served with fried eggplant or zucchini; that's an optional addition that makes this light and delicate dish a bit heartier.

    There are many different ways to make this dish; some blanch and peel the almonds and tomatoes, others use them as-is, with the skins on. Some toast the almonds lightly before crushing them. It's up to you, though the quickest way is of course to just blend everything together as-is, without any blanching or toasting. Or you can buy blanched, skinless raw almonds and use those, however note that almonds tend to lose their flavor quickly after the skins are removed, so it's better to buy skin-on almonds and blanch them yourself, which you can do at the same time as the tomatoes, as described in the recipe below.

    Whatever you choose, be sure to use ripe, flavorful tomatoes that are not too watery. When buying tomatoes, I always give them a "sniff test." They should smell earthy and a bit grassy.

    If they have no smell, it's likely that they won't have any flavor, either.