Roberto Panizza – The explorer of taste

Roberto Panizza is a true visionary who has made “Pesto Genovese al mortaio” famous all over the world

by Ornella D’Alessio – photo by Andrea Muscatello

His latest creation is the Basil Dessert, so that even at Christmas you won’t forget the aroma of basil. Roberto Panizza, the talented entrepreneur from Genoa, has built a small empire around this herb and, above all, created a wide range of products that he never tires of improving. This year’s novelty is the steam infusion of Genoese D.O.P. basil leaves, obtained using the same process as orange blossom water. After years of research and working closely with these leaves, he has managed to extract their aromatic molecules without using alcohol. It is a clever idea to spray the cake with a special diffuser just before eating it, in order to fully appreciate the delicate but strong fragrance and taste of this herb, which is also present in the cream filling.

The love between Panizza and basil is great. Panizza, producer of the best Genoese pesto on the market under the Rossi 1947 label, creator of the World Pesto Mortar Championship (pestochampionship.it) since 2007, founder of the Palatifini association, which contributed to the creation of the Pesto Genovese Consortium, and one of the historical promoters of Genoese pesto, host and connoisseur of the history of Genoa, of which he is ambassador in the world at the behest of the Mayor, Marco Bucci. The love of home-made pesto, he says, comes from the enchanting movements the body makes when using a mortar made of Carrara marble. “It’s a bit like smoking a pipe”, explains the king of pesto, “you don’t just do it for the tobacco, but for the ritual preparation of the tool. The gesture itself almost becomes an object of desire; it is not simply limited to the conditioned reflex inherent in smoking cigarettes”.

Fascinated by the process of making pesto with a mortar and pestle, especially when he saw his grandmother doing it, he began to study how to improve and revive this outdated Genoese tradition by focusing on quality. And so, at the age of 23, the young man who was working as a grocer in the Rossi family’s shop in Via Galata in Genoa, selling sugared almonds, used his intuition and passion, as well as his craft, to discover the world of flavours.

Sergio Panizza

Il Genovese, trattoria tipica aperta nel 1922, è stata rilanciata da Roberto, assieme al fratello Sergio, per valorizzare e proporre solo specialità della cucina tipica genovese.

And today, a few decades after he began his career, his own Rossi shop in Via Cesarea is overrun, especially at Christmas time, with customers eager to buy the best delicacies from every part of Liguria and every corner of the world. Almost every wish can be fulfilled, these 30 metres of shop space offer absolutely everything. You just have to ask. Panizza is always ready to make people happy, even if it means going to the ends of the earth in search of quality products, but he is not too willing to ask for help, say his close friends. To him this is a virtue, to others a fault. It all depends on your point of view. “When I first became interested in local products and started selling them, travelling the valleys of Liguria and going from town to town in search of local flavours, I was convinced that authentic flavours were the way to success. I started much earlier than the current trends we see in the food and drink market, following my own convictions. As I listened to what our customers wanted, I realised that they wanted authentic flavours, perhaps in gift boxes, but none of this existed in the 1990s. So I created the first gift boxes to be sold in the shop and distributed through the Palatifini e-commerce site (palatifini.it), the second oldest in Italy among those still in operation”. For over 20 years they have focused on creating a corporate gifting system to reach the whole world at low cost in unbreakable packaging designed and manufactured by them. “We have done away with the wicker basket and opted for a series of elegant custom-made boxes decorated in pure Genoese style, mostly in blue and white or white and green”. The result of all this was the idea of Pesto Rossi 1947.

Quella di pesto è la seconda salsa più usata al mondo, dopo quella al pomodoro e la terza per diffusione dopo ketchup e maionese.

“Pesto Rossi gives us great satisfaction, we produce several quintals a week and distribute it in twenty different countries. We have succeeded in legitimising the concept of pesto in a jar and there has been a great return to the mortar and pestle”, Panizza says. According to the Massa Carrara Chamber of Commerce, sales of marble mortars have been growing at a steady rate of 20% for years. From being impossible to find, they are now readily available in specialist shops and even in miniature as souvenirs of Genoa and Liguria.

“It has been an obstacle course of events, trade fairs, then the Salone del Gusto in Turin and Taste in Florence”, Panizza continues. “By crushing and grinding around the world with my personal 40-kilo mortar and a pestle made of pear wood, or with others when I was too far from home, we were able to make the World Mortar Pesto Championship explode. In 2007, during the first edition, there were 100 participants who helped to raise awareness. It is the second most used sauce in the world after tomato sauce and the third most used condiment after ketchup and mayonnaise. In a world that is so globalised, it is interesting to see the success of this championship, where contestants selected from all over the world gather at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa to compete, performing the same moves that our grandmothers used to do”. Crushing in the mortar is the new rock ‘n’ roll. Pestle and mortar is an archaic gesture that is common to many cultures around the world. During the 2017 International Conference in Genoa, “Pasta, salse e piatti principali nella storia e nei riti della socialità” (Pasta, sauces and main dishes in the history and rituals of social life), Michael Singleton, an anthropologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, said in his talk “The sociological and symbolic significance of food in different African cultures” that mortar has promoted the development of humanity, becoming an element in the evolution of the human species on a par with fire and the wheel.

LE PRIME NOTIZIE SUL PESTO SI RITROVANO NEL 1750 SU UN QUOTIDIANO GENOVESE CHE PARLA DI UN BATTUTO D’AGLIO AROMATIZZATO CON BASILICO, OLIO E SALE.

Coming back to pesto, we cannot really say that there is a specific birthright. The first records date back to an article in a Genoese newspaper in 1750, which mentions a mixture of chopped garlic seasoned with basil, oil and salt. In the Mediterranean, the use of the mortar was a common practice among different cultures, not only in the Genoese community. It was not until the 1800s that cheese and pine nuts were added to the recipe. The cheese was whatever was available and with the Championship we helped to define a recipe based on very high quality raw materials: PDO extra-virgin olive oil, PDO Genoese basil, PDO aged Parmesan cheese, Fiore Sardo cheese, garlic cloves from Vessalico, salt from the Trapani salt marshes and pine nuts, all strictly Italian. In 2010, the restaurant Il Genovese was inaugurated, reviving the typical restaurant that opened in 1922.

NEL MEDITERRANEO L’USO DEL MORTAIO ERA UN GESTO COMUNE A TUTTI I POPOLI, NON ERA IN USO UNICAMENTE
NELLA COMUNITÀ GENOVESE. SOLO NELL’800 SONO STATI AGGIUNTI ALLA RICETTA FORMAGGIO E PINOLI.

Roberto, together with his brother Sergio, has relaunched the genius loci of that place enhancing its original calling: to only propose specialties from traditional Genoese cuisine. It quickly became one of the most desirable dining locations for anyone wanting to experience the traditional flavours of a nearly anthological menu. From the quarantina potato cultivated in the Ligurian Apennines, to cheese made from Cabannina cows, an indigenous Genoese breed of cattle. The flavours of Genoese tradition and Roberto Panizza’s mortar-made Pesto (pesto al mortaio) attracted Stanley Tucci – who tried them out in Genoa and then celebrated them on the show Searching for Italy broadcast on CNN – and Jason Wilson, journalist of the Washington Post, who declared that he learned how to make real pesto with Panizza. And so did the three-starred chef David Kinch, from the restaurant Mentone, Aptos Village, California, who, together with the pesto-king, proposed two evenings where the two chefs worked side by side in the restaurant in Via Galata, offering his personal interpretation of traditional Genoese cuisine and crushing and grinding in the mortar with Roberto for the joy of the customers of Il Genovese.

Few people realise that there is also a pesto that doesn’t exist. This is not a contradiction, but a reality. The pesto that doesn’t exist is the one that Roberto makes himself.  If you want to taste it, you have to order it, hoping to get it after a long wait on the waiting list. He can only do this when he is in Genoa, which is rarely. When he was a child, his dream was to become an explorer, and we must say that he has succeeded. A true explorer of taste.

(Roberto Panizza – The explorer of taste – Barchemagazine.com – December 2023)