Trenette pasta hails from the Italian region of Liguria. It is similar is size and shape to linguine and fettuccine. In the Liguria region of Italy, trenette is quite popular. It is most often served together with pesto sauce, potatoes, and green beans. This hearty, comforting preparation is called trenette al pesto in Italian. In English, it’s “pasta trenette with pesto sauce.”
History of Trenette al Pesto
Most neighborhood trattorias in Liguria, Italy serve at least one version of pasta with pesto sauce. Trenette al pesto is the most common preparation. The dish, made with thin strands of trenette pasta, is cooked with potatoes and green beans, then tossed in a fresh basil pesto sauce. You may recognize this carb-forward dish from the Disney Pixar film, Luca. Trenette al pesto is exceedingly popular in Genoa, Liguria’s capital. Pasta has been part of the Ligurian diet since at least the 13th century, while pesto is related to a sauce called agliata, which dates back to Ancient Roman times.
I first tasted trenette al pesto on a culinary trip to Italy in 2009, in a small Italian village called Taormina.
Perched on a mountainside about 45 minutes from the Mt. Etna volcano, Taormina is a place of jaw-dropping beauty. From the ancient Greco-Roman theater to the Saracen castle, time seems to stand still in this little village, so removed from the world.
Many Taormina stores offer colorful local pottery and crafts. The pottery, maiolica, has been a mainstay of Italian table decor since the Renaissance. The white-glazed backgrounds really make the colors and patterns vibrant.
Bakeries tempt you with colorful window displays of cookies and candies, most of them made with almonds. Sweet shops offer gelato in a rainbow of colors. Taormina is a feast for the eyes.
Of course, Taormina is also a feast for the stomach. I found that out when we started exploring off the beaten path. Down a long narrow alleyway, the smell of home-cooked Italian food tempted us towards a tiny trattoria. An older woman was serving a bowl of pasta to the only customer sitting inside. We walked in, hungry for lunch.
The woman greeted us in Italian, and soon it became clear that she didn’t speak any English. Unfortunately I only knew a couple of words in Italian (spaghetti, gnocchi… la bella luna!). She went to grab an English menu, but I didn’t need one. I pointed to the bowl of pasta she’d just served. She smiled and nodded. Food is an international language!
To this day, I dream about that bowl of pasta. I wrote down the name in my little travel notebook. Trenette al pesto.
When I got back home, I made it my mission to find out how to make authentic trenette al pesto. It’s really very simple, and perfect for a weeknight meatless meal. The Italians make this dish with trenette pasta, which can be difficult to locate outside of Italy. I have found linguini to be the closest substitute.
With basil at its seasonal peak, it’s worthwhile to make a batch of homemade fresh pesto as well. I suggest making a dairy-free pesto sauce, then tossing in the parmesan or pecorino just before serving. This provides the best texture and flavor in the finished dish. In addition, you can easily make a vegan version (see notes below). Add extra sea salt or top with a good quality vegan parmesan substitute, to make the flavors pop.
Trenette al Pesto
- 1 pound new potatoes, peeled
- 1 pound green beans, trimmed and halved
- 1 pound trenette or linguini pasta (you may also substitute fettuccine or tagliatelle)
- 1/2 cup dairy-free basil pesto (or 1 full cup of pesto with cheese – please see notes below)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese, or to taste – please see notes below
- I prefer to make this dish with dairy-free pesto sauce, because tossing in grated parmesan separately yields the best texture. If you're planning to use a pesto sauce that already contains cheese, use 1 full cup of pesto in the recipe and skip the additional cheese, except for garnish.Place a large pot of water to boil on stovetop. You may salt the water if you wish; I prefer to salt the dish to taste at the end of cooking. Trim and halve your green beans.
- Peel your new potatoes and cut them into large chunks.
- Put the potatoes and the green beans into the pot of boiling water. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the potato pieces are tender. If your green beans are small and thin, they may cook faster than the potatoes. If this happens, remove them from the pot and let the potatoes continue cooking.
- Remove vegetables from the pot with slotted spoon when tender.
- Return water to a boil. Cook the pasta in the boiling water according to package directions to desired tenderness.
- Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta. Return pasta to empty pot along with the cooked vegetables.
- In a medium mixing bowl, combine basil pesto with a ½ cup of the reserved pasta water and 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Add additional water to create a thinner sauce, if desired.
- Pour the liquefied sauce over the pasta and vegetables, toss to coat. If you've used my pesto sauce (or another dairy free sauce), add 1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino and toss with the pasta and sauce. If your pesto already has cheese, no need to add any additional cheese, but you may wish to add some to taste if desired. Serve immediately.