Kitchn Love Letters

The Jarred Pasta Sauce That Tastes Just Like the Fresh Stuff I Ate in Northern Italy

published Jan 2, 2024
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Last July I landed in Genoa, Italy, with two friends from Wisconsin for a two-night stay as part of our Italian summer adventure. Before our trip, we’d read about Genovese pesto and vowed to order a dish that features it at nearly every restaurant meal. Typically the pesto is served with trofie pasta, a rod-shaped dried pasta. We also bought jars of this famed pesto at a store one night after dinner, where each jar cost close to 10 euros.

Imagine my shock when I found a jar of this pesto at T.J. Maxx back home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin … for $4. That wasn’t even the clearance price. This was full price for this overstock store more known for bed linens and apparel than its selection of gourmet grocery items (much of which is imported from other countries, including Italy).

Credit: Kristine Hansen

What’s So Great About Mariangela Prunotto Organic Basil Pesto?

As a port city in Italy’s Liguria region, what makes Genoa’s pesto — both the options we enjoyed in Italy and what’s sold in the United States as Genovese pesto — so unique is not just the ingredients you’d otherwise use to make pesto (basil, Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil), but the way it’s prepared. In the U.S., I (and likely other home cooks) prepare pesto in a food processor. In Genoa, you use a mortar and pestle. And the result is lighter on the cheese and heavier on the basil, for a dark-green, smooth pesto.

Another difference is the type of basil. Genovese basil DOP is local to Genoa and a protected designation of origin, much like sparkling wine from Champagne, France. (And, yes, we thought about searching for some of these Genovese basil seeds and either growing it at our friend’s house in the Piedmont region or back home in Wisconsin. According to some gardening experts, you can. But I’m pretty sure the soil between the two continents — and even within Italy, known for its many microclimates — is different. Also, we never found those seeds in Genoa.)

Credit: Kristine Hansen

What’s the Best Way to Use Mariangela Prunotto Organic Basil Pesto?

With the pesto bought in Italy, I decided to eat it as “raw” and natural as possible, by spreading on crusty baguettes and crackers until I could lick the jar clean. With the T.J. Maxx jar, I used it as a cooking ingredient instead, stirring it into boiled pasta with the last of our chunky tomato sauce made from tomatoes grown in our backyard, along with sautéed potatoes. It was delicious, with the pesto flavor more in the background. I was also delighted to find that Trader Joe’s recently started carrying trofie pasta. Now whenever I want to be transported back to Italy, I know exactly what to make in my kitchen!

I’m relieved that I no longer have to fly 10 hours across the Atlantic Ocean to score jars of this pesto. Instead, I can add T.J. Maxx to my list of weekend errands and procure it within the hour — provided it’s in stock. One thing about these overstock stores is that the selection changes. But living in a large city as I do, I have a half-dozen T.J. Maxx stores to visit, which is still speedier than flying to Europe.

Find it in stores: Mariangela Prunotto Organic Basil Pesto, $3.99 for 4.5 ounces at T.J. Maxx

What hidden grocery gems are you buying at T.J. Maxx? Tell us about it in the comments below.

This is part of How to Be a Lazier Cook, highlighting the super-easy recipes, cooking tricks, and grocery items you need to start off the year a little lazier and a lot more delicious.