Pesto Trapanese

[My friend Dara Bratt–an award-winning filmmaker and unabashed bon vivant–positively pounced when I mentioned “Sauce Week” and here’s her delightful contribution. Take it away, Dara!]

Recently, I had a girls’ night at a fairly new restaurant in Brooklyn called “Rucola”. The conversation was great, and the food equally impressive, the standout dish being the pasta, which my friend ordered; “Garganelli – Tomatoes – almond pesto, cherry tomatoes, zucchini.”

It was so light that the impact of flavor was shockingly impressive. A pesto with almonds at the core instead of pine nuts?! Cheaper? Healthier? Sold!

My friend wanted to know more: How could she make this at home? And the lovely waitress graciously shared what seemed like a too simple recipe, calling it a “Trapanese” pesto, and whispering that the secret is roasting the tomatoes before they’re pureed.


The thing was, it wasn’t a very tomato driven sauce. Personally, I am drawn more to the olive oil, wine based sauces, that gently coat the pasta yet deliver full on taste. That’s why I was so impressed. We left vowing to try this at home.

This is my home the night the challenge began.


But before that happened, I went to Franny’s with another girlfriend and was delighted to see “Mafalde with pesto trapanese and pecorino romano” on the menu. Bingo! I ordered it without hesitation and had a pizza for dessert. (I can’t not have the pizza)

And while the highlight was the homemade wide noodle, the sauce was definitely more tomato focused. So now I was intrigued. Two fantastic restaurants; two very different Trapanese pestos.

More research yielded many many variations. I won’t lie: this is my second attempt. My first attempt, a week or so ago, was quite successful, although the sauce was somewhat a middle ground between the two I had tasted, yielding a rose color. Kieran was happy since he prefers a heavier sauce while I declared another future attempt.

Fast forward to Sauce Week, providing the perfect opportunity to do so.

This is an easy recipe. Like, super easy. That’s easy in a “few ingredients way, and not a long time to prep” way.


With so many recipes to choose from, I used the Nigella Trapanese pesto as a base, improvising as I went along.

In my first attempt, I followed her instructions to puree all the ingredients together at once, which not only caused my Cuisinart to explode, but turned my tomatoes to water while leaving the nuts still too chunky. (Although Kieran thought it offered good “crunch.”)

This time around, I pulsed the ¼ cup of almonds separately and the resulting consistency was perfect.


I roasted cherry tomatoes (1 cup) for approximately 30 minutes, sharing the oven with my side of roasted broccoli (Olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, chili flakes, fresh dill, S&P).


Halfway through, I started to boil the water.


I was cruising along. In the Cuisinart, I pureed ¼ cup olive oil, 2 garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons capers, 6 anchovies (my secret ingredient to everything), a few basil leaves, and some currants (currants or raisins were listed in a few recipes but not frequently so I used them sparingly)



I added the mixture to the almonds.


As the pasta was almost ready, I took out the tomatoes and pureed them.


Then I added some pasta water. Mistake. Instead of using 2 tablespoons, I used a soup ladle. Silly me. Suddenly, my almost perfect sauce seemed too watery. The timer went off—the pasta was done, my sauce in disrepair. I made the quick decision to mash more almonds, and puree a few more cherry tomatoes with basil, to soak up the liquid. It worked.

However, the pesto tasted too fishy; my secret ingredient wasn’t so secret. Strange, because the first time around, I used bigger anchovies and didn’t have this problem. Was it because I used an already opened can? Now I went completely off the books, adding lemon juice and more currants to kill the fish taste. The tart and sweet provided the right balance, but I was a little worried that I was losing my way along the Trapanese experiment.


The final result was good. As Kieran affirmed, “Nothing wrong with that.”


But truth be told, I actually think my first rose version was better.

I’m trying to be very honest; the more ingredients I added, the less I enjoyed it. The next time, I’m going back to basics. No anchovies, no currants. (I think)

Perhaps before my next attempt, I’ll revisit Rucola and Franny’s in even more awe.

Turns out, the simplest recipe is the hardest to master. But I’m not giving up.


6 thoughts on “Pesto Trapanese”

  1. I make trapanese all the time! Almonds are roasted, tomatoes are raw. And, I use parmesan, not pecorino in the sauce to tighten it up before adding the pasta water. It’s a very forgiving sauce…add more or less basil, add more or less cheese. It’s perfect for those nights when you don’t want to cook, but want a satisfying meal.

  2. Abbie Bowman Carson

    This sauce sounds amazing and is making me pine for the summer when the tomatoes and basil will be at their peak!

  3. Hi Dara and Adam, loved seeing pesto alla Trapanese being made outside of Italy, or even Sicily. It is not a very well known pasta sauce here in Northern Italy either.
    I thought you might like hearing about how my an authentic ‘mamma trapanese’ makes this dish for her family. My husband and his whole family are from Trapani and my mother in law, who is a fabulous cook by the way, often makes this local recipe. In Trapani it is typical to eat this sauce with busiati, a long handmade pasta that is twirled around a branch called buso, to give it its shape. My MIL makes this with only raw ingredients. The garlic (in Trapani they call this sauce ‘pasta cull’agghia’, which means pasta with garlic because it is the prominent ingredient) almonds, tomatoes and pecorino siciliano are turned into a paste with a mortar and pestle (thus the name pesto, from the verb ‘pestare’, to pound). We sprinkle toasted bread crumbs over it instead of cheese, the traditional way. It creates a great contrast.

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