We have this expression in Italian, “Essere come il prezzemolo," (to be like parsley), which can be loosely translated as “to have a finger in every pie” and is used to describe someone who seems to always turn up everywhere. That should be enough to give you an idea of how ubiquitous parsley is in Italian cooking, probably because, when used in small amounts, it gives foods a boost without adding a distinctive flavor – all year long and in all kinds of dishes, from soups to sauces, from seafood to meat.
Basil, on the other hand, the other star herb of Italian cooking, has personality to spare: it packs a distinctive flavor punch with all the freshness and fragrance of a Mediterranean summer, which it generously celebrates in all the recipes that it enriches. While there are over 60 varieties of the herb (some say over 100) cultivated all over the world, with a prevalence in Asia, there is no question that the most famous here is sweet basil, the classic Italian variety, delicious in tomato sauces or in a simple Caprese salad.
But sweet basil is not all the same: Italian consumers swear that nothing beats the kind from the ancient seaport of Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus on the west coast of Italy. While basil had been popular in the whole Mediterranean area since it was introduced by the Romans, it reached a new level of excellence in the 19th century, when its cultivation spread to this area. Here, a magical combination of favorable climatic conditions and traditional agricultural production techniques resulted in leaves so sweet and fragrant that it earned the coveted DOP designation (Protected Origin Denomination), a European Union-based secular “hechsher” that separates the product from similar ones of inferior quality.
Genovese residents are so proud of their basil, and of their basil-based pesto sauce, that when in 2001 the G8 Summit was held in their city and then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi asked the chef for a modification on the classic Genovese pesto recipe, he caused a pretty serious diplomatic incident.
While I don’t mean to compete with the heights of the DOP variety, I’ve successfully grown sweet basil for years on my New York City windowsill in the summer. It’s almost as pretty as peonies, and much handier when a Caprese craving strikes!
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