What Is Pesto Portofino?

Homemade tomato sauce

Short answer
This highly unusual sauce, which was born out of necessity by a chef running dangerously low on basil pesto, is essentially traditional pesto mixed with a cooked pomodoro tomato sauce.

Long answer
One of the biggest crimes in the world of Italian cuisine is to heat your pesto. Traditional basil pesto relies on the absolute freshness of the herbs, and applying heat loses the raw quality that producers take great pains to preserve.

This is what makes Portofino pesto so intriguing. Fresh tomatoes have long made their way into lots of different pestos (Trapenese, Pantesco, Linosa, and Calabrese to name a few), but Portofino pesto is the only one that features cooked tomatoes.

The story goes that a chef in the beautiful harbour village of Portofino in the north of Italy was so overrun by customers ordering his pesto dish that he realised he was in danger of running out of sauce. Panicked, he made the radical decision to bulk out his remaining pesto with some of the tomato sauce that he had prepared for one of his other dishes. To his delight, the diners loved it, and a brand-new pesto was born.

Despite our best detective work, we haven’t been able to determine what kind of tomato sauce was used on that game-changing evening, as the Italians have so many. Was it an anchovy-packed puttanesca, a chilli-laced arrabbiata, or a guanciale-based amatriciana? We'll never know for sure, but our hunch is that because pesto already has so many big, bold flavours, nothing more than a super-simple pomodoro tomato sauce is needed.

Pro tip
Combine shop-bought pesto and tomato sauce for ultimate convenience, or follow our recipes for homemade basil pesto and tomato sauce (below) if you want to really push the boat out.

Ingredients for four servings

Basil pesto 150g
Tomato pasta sauce 75g

Combine the sauces and heat in a saucepan on the lowest possible flame until just warmed through but not piping hot.

Use it in place of pesto or tomato sauce in your favourite Italian dishes.

A simple tomato pomodoro sauce recipe
Every Italian has their own take on the classic pomodoro recipe. Some start with the classic base of carrots, celery, and onion, while others use herbs, garlic, and chilli flakes. We tweak our recipe depending on our mood and what we're serving it with, but in the case of Portofino pesto, which already has tons of flavour from the basil, garlic, cheese, and pine nuts, we think a crazy-simple tomato sauce is all it needs.

Simple pomodoro tomato sauce recipe ingredients

Ingredients for 300g of pomodoro sauce

Tomatoes* 1 tin
Olive oil as needed
Onion 1/2
Seasoning to taste
Sugar pinch

* Ideally, use San Marzano tomatoes, the world's best.

Dice the onion and sweat it in olive oil over the lowest possible flame until softened but not browned.

Add the tomatoes, season with a little salt, pepper, and sugar, and simmer very gently for at least 30 minutes until the sauce becomes thick and jammy.

Allow it to cool before mixing it with your pesto.