How Is Pesto Represented In Popular Culture?

Giulia eating trenette al pesto in Luca

There are so many iconic food moments in the history of cinema. From Cool Hand Luke eating fifty eggs in an hour, to the pie-driven pukefest of Stand by Me to the, err, inventive use of butter in Last Tango in Paris.

Pasta in particular has featured prominently in Hollywood, from the slapstick genius of Jack Lemmon sieving linguine through a wooden tennis racket in The Apartment to one of cinema's most iconic scenes ever when Lady and the Tramp meet on the lips as they share spaghetti.

Pesto on the big screen
As for pesto, well, it hasn't been quite so fortunate. There was an "Anti Pesto" van in Wallace & Gromit, although it clearly had nothing to do with pesto. There was a bad-tempered pigeon called Pesto in Animaniacs, though quite why he was called that is anyone's guess.

Pesto's finest film cameo yet is in Pixar's Luca, where the characters are introduced to Trenette al Pesto.

An honorary mention should also go to the film When Harry Met Sally, where the character Jess informs Marie that he wrote the phrase "pesto is the quiche of the 80s" in New York Magazine.

Pesto even made an appearance in what is arguably the most popular TV show of all time, Friends. Sadly, "pesto is the besto" is all the scriptwriters could come up with.

Pesto on the small screen
Jimmy Pesto was a popular character in Bob's Burgers, although that story didn't end well. Jay Johnston, who voiced the character, was fired as soon as the producers found out that he took part in the 2021 US Capital Riots. In November 2023, it was announced that the Canadian voice-over actor Eric Bauza would be his replacement.

In July 2022, as part of the "James May, Our Man In..." series, an episode called Hey Pesto aired on Amazon Prime. It saw him attempting to teach a robot how to make pesto. Suffice to say it didn't go well.

Pesto online
Away from film, undoubtedly the biggest [free] PR campaign that pesto has ever enjoyed is when the cool kids of Instagram realised that pesto and eggs make for rather fine bedfellows. Some videos clocked up over 100 million views, and for a short period of time, it felt like it was the coolest thing on the planet.

Another social media sensation was a hamster called Pesto, owned by celebrity chef and YouTube personality, Nick DiGiovanni. Video clips featuring Pesto clocked up millions of views, and many of his fans were gutted when he died in late 2022.

In 2023 Gordon Ramsey hailed Susi Vidal the Pesto Queen after the influencer attracted millions of views for her video showing people how to make pesto.

Pesto and celebrities
Frank Sinatra's love of pesto is legendary. In the 1960s he became friends with Luciano Belloni Zeffirino, the founder of Genoa's celebrated restaurant, Zeffirino. He loved their pesto with silk handkerchiefs dish so much that he regularly had it flown to his various residences in Malibu, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas.

When Luciano's son, Gian Paolo, took over the business, he continued to wow the great and the good with what was now firmly established as the best pesto in town. Mohammad Ali, Sophia Loren, and Luciano Pavarotti were among the frequent A-list visitors. As if that wasn't enough, the restaurant’s pesto became the favourite of the Vatican, leading to the nickname “the Pope’s Pesto Maker.”

In a 2021 interview with Zane Lowe, Blur’s Damon Albarn revealed that he sliced off part of his finger while making pesto in a blender. It wasn't a great situation for a pianist to find himself in, but he was stitched back up, and music fans are better off as a result. What is the moral of the story? Kids, don’t do drugs. Sorry, no, we mean, kids, always use a pestle and mortar when making pesto.

Drew Barrymore has been a vocal fan of pesto, as has a legion of famous chefs,including Jamie Oliver, Gennaro Contaldo, and Massimo Bottura, who ruffled a few feathers with his breadcrumb pesto recipe.

Ex-boxer and current weirdo Chris Eubank garnered attention when he was given what some viewers of BBC Celebrity Masterchef regarded as unfair help from the judges while making his basil and parsley pesto. When asked whether he had tasted the sauce, he said, "No, I can see the taste with my eyes." What a spanner.

Pesto in the media
Unfortunately, most of pesto's media appearances have been rather negative. Virtually every major UK grocer had to recall a large range of their pesto products in 2020 and again in 2022 due to a salmonella risk.

At the start of Putin's Ukraine invasion, pesto made the headlines again as the sunflower oil shortage put up prices for all kinds of cooking oil. That clearly wasn’t good news for a sauce whose biggest ingredient is… oil.

In 2017, The Guardian, The Independent, and the BBC were on the receiving end of considerable wrath from The Confraternity of Pesto following headlines that "pesto contains more salt than McDonald's burgers." The Brotherhood President, Pietro Attilio Uslengo, rather articulately replied, "It's a hoax. I am 87 years old and have done nothing but eat pesto all my life. Do I look to you in bad health?"

In 2018, a rather unflattering Which? investigation highlighted cheap ingredients used to bulk out many supermarket pestos. It made for slightly uncomfortable reading when they identified potato flakes, sugar, and even water in some.

By far the worst piece of publicity was in 2013, when dozens of Italians were hospitalised with botulism from pesto. Thankfully, everyone survived, but it caused long-term repetitional damage to the country's flagship sauce.

There's been one pesto-related story, though, which warmed our hearts. In 2017, Genoa Airport launched their “Il Pesto è Buono” scheme, which excluded pesto from the usual 100g hand luggage limit on liquids. In return for a small donation to the charity Flying Angels, passengers were allowed to take up to 500g of pesto on board with them. The caveat was that it had to be authentic Genovese pesto.

Pesto in the foodie world
The loudest proponent of pesto has got to be Roberto Panizza, the self-styled bon vivant and charismatic founder of the World Pesto Competition. His life’s mission is to bang pesto's drum for whoever will listen.

This event takes place every two years and is a celebration of the world's most beloved sauce. It gets plenty of attention in the foodie world, where people wait to see who will be awarded the coveted Golden Pestle.

Pesto in music
Buio Pesto is a band from Bogliasco, near Genoa, that celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2022. Their 1998 album, Cosmolandia, was launched on the Discovery Space Shuttle in 1999, making it the first Italian album to make it into space.

In 2018, the Italian singer-songwriter, going by the name Calcutta, released the song, Pesto. Surely this would be a gushingly flattering calling cry for Italy’s most famous export. Well, no. Pesto is only mentioned once in the song, and not exactly in a great light:

Outside, it is night. I eat the dark with pesto.
I don't like it, but I swallow it anyway.

Drake's 2022 hit song, Middle of the Ocean, also contains a pesto reference:

Long way from sentimental.
Meet Thomazzo and Ernesto.
Short rigatoni with the pesto.
These verses are my manifesto.

Pesto in literature
In 1992, pesto inspired the Walt Disney character Paperin Pestello, who appeared in seven cartoons written and drawn by Giulio Chierchini to celebrate the charm of Ligurian pesto.

We have no idea how many cookbooks there are out there featuring pesto recipes, but it's got to be in the tens of thousands. In terms of creative literature, however, Susan M. Baganz's 2015 book, Pesto and Potholes, follows the trials and tribulations of a Milwaukee woman meeting a handsome chef. Suffice to say pesto has yet to get its big break in high literature!