Your Italian-American Gardening Tips – Growing Basil and Making Pesto alla Genovese

Pesto alla Genovese with gnocchi in a bowl lined with prosciutto slices, held by blogger Kathryn Occhipinti, from Conversationalitalian.french Instagram post 2021.
Kathryn for
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel

This summer I have had the usual bumper crop of fresh basil leaves from the basil plants in large pots that I keep in a sunny position in my garden and provide with an abundance of water.  The plants started to go to seed — make the green and white column of flowers at the end of each stalk — by mid June. So, I dutifully cut back my basil: at first just the flowers, then the stalks with the flowers, and then in mid July did a hard cut-back, taking both stalks and leaves, leaving about 50% of each plant. This will enable the basil plants in the pots to keep growing new stalks with new basil leaves, hopefully into August.

I’ve posted about growing basil before, of course, since basil  is such a wonderful Italian herb to have in the home garden, and is easily grown in pots and harvested throughout the summer. For a post on how to grow basil, visit Planting a lettuce patch and starting tomato and basil from seeds.  For tips on how to grow basil and an authentic Caprese Salad method, visit Your Italian-American Gardening Tips with Recipes: Basil (Basilico).

I have also blogged about making pesto before, which I love to do at least 2-3 times each summer when I have an abundance of fresh basil leaves.

There is truly nothing like the fresh aroma of newly crushed basil over a warm bowl of pasta. And best of all, my children love it!

If you are really curious about what pesto is and how it is made, read the reprinted blog below to learn “everything you always wanted to know” about making pesto from my blog Learn Italian!, where I post tips on how to learn advanced Italian and also share authentic Italian recipes. In this blog Pesto alla Genovese with Gnocchi: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Making Pesto! ,  I give a short history about my experiences trying to make basil,  the best  basil plant to use and the theory behind the method. I have included a video in the original blog about  how to use a marble mortar and wooden pestle — essential equipment — no food processors, please!

Finally, at the end of this blog I have reprinted the recipe with the proportion of basil, garlic and cheeses that I like. Try my method and modify the ratio of ingredients for your family! 

If you would like to see me making pesto live, watch this 1 minute video from my Instagram post on Conversationalitalian.french:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Kathryn Occhipinti (@conversationalitalian.french)


Pesto alla Genovese with Gnocchi: Everything You Always Wanted to Know!

Pesto alla Genovese is the famous bright green “pasta sauce” from the northern Italian region of Liguria, whose capital is the city of Genoa. My introduction to pesto, which was not a part of my southern Italian upbringing, was from one of those little glass jars I found in a grocery store in Peoria, Illinois. The jar had been labeled “pesto” by an Italian company. Back then, I was trying to learn to cook true Italian “regional” cooking and specifically to expand my sauce-making techniques beyond the ubiquitous and well-loved southern Italian red tomato sauce.  Read the full post here: Pasta alla Genovese.




Italian Recipe: Kathryn’s Pesto alla Genovese
con Gnocchi

Ingredients and tools needed for making Pesto alla Genovese: Mortar and pestle as it is being used, olive oil, cheese, basil leaves
Pesto alla Genovese: Ingredients needed are shown as they are slowly ground together in a marble mortar with a wooden pestle.

Ingredients for Italian Recipe
Kathryn’s Pesto alla Genovese
(Serves 4)

Small leaves from 1 small sweet basil plant (Genovese basil is best!)
(about 3 cups of lightly packed leaves, rinsed, patted dry, stems removed)
1 to 2 small garlic cloves, peeled, halved lengthwise
(and bitter green center removed if present)
2 tablespoons Italian pine nuts
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cups of extra virgin olive oil, from Liguria, if possible

If desired: Prosciutto to line the bowl of gnocchi and pesto dressing for serving.

Method for the Pesto 

Note: Before starting, set a large pot of well-salted water on the stove to boil, and cook your pasta  or gnocchi to “al dente” tenderness (“to the tooth). Time the pasta so it finishes cooking just before the pesto is complete. Keep in mind that fresh pasta and gnocchi will take far less time to cook than dried pasta.

  1. Put the garlic cloves into the mortar with a few grains of salt and begin to crush. Add the pine nuts and continue to crush into a smooth paste.
  2. Remove the garlic/pine nut mixture from the mortar to a small bowl.
  3. Put a few of the basil leaves and a few grains of salt into the mortar and begin to crush, using the method shown in the link to the video in this blog post.
  4. As the basil leaves become crushed and release their essential oils, add a few more. Continue to crush the leaves, adding a few at a time, until all are crushed fairly uniformly.
  5. Add whatever salt is left to the crushed basil leaves, the garlic/pine nut mixture, and then drizzle in a bit of olive oil. Combine.
  6. Add the cheeses and a bit more olive oil. Combine.
  7. Drizzle in the rest of the olive oil while continuously stirring the garlic/pine nut/ crushed basil/cheese mixture until a creamy dressing has formed.
  8. Reserve 1 to 2 tablespoons of pasta water and mix into the pesto to warm.
  9. Quickly drain the pasta and put the warm pasta into a large serving bowl.
  10. Dress with your pesto, mix to coat, and serve immediately!


  • If desired, as in the Instagram video above, line a large bowl with prosciutto and carefully added your pesto dressed gnocchi. Allow gnocchi to warm the prosciutto a bit, and then serve. This idea from John Coletta’, chef of Quartino Restaurant in Chicago, in his cook book titled: “250 True Italian Pasta Dishes.”


A large bowl lined with prosciutto slices and filled with gnocchi that have been tossed to coat with pesto dressing.
A large bowl lined with prosciutto slices and filled with gnocchi that have been tossed to coat with pesto dressing. This presentation is courtesy of John Coletta, chef of Quartino Restaurant in Chicago.


  • If you would like to preserve your pesto rather than use it right away, it can be frozen in small plastic containers. Top off with a small amount of olive oil. Leave a small amount of room in the container for the liquid to expand and then cover.


Visit for more of my Italian and Italian-American recipes, cultural notes and  advanced Italian language blog posts updated monthly. Click on the link “our blog” in the upper right hand corner to reach blog.Learn Travel

An Italian-American Turkey Recipe for Thanksgiving 2020

Kathryn holding a platter with a turkey roll that has been cut in half and the swirl of sausage and mushroom ragù filling visible.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Since we in America are all celebrating Thanksgiving a bit differently this year, I thought I would post a turkey recipe I’ve made before for small gatherings.

My Italian-American turkey recipe uses a full, boneless turkey breast, which is flattened, spread with a ragù of Italian sausage and cremini mushrooms, and then rolled up to form a log.  When the log is cut into slices it makes an elegant presentation and a satisfying main course for 6 -8  people. I plan to use half the log for Thanksgiving and freeze the other half for an easy dinner later in the year.

I based my Italian sausage and mushroom ragù filling on the Bolognese ragù that my children have requested as their birthday dinner for years. Actually, the Bolognese ragù I make is by far my most requested dish all around (I have to admit, even though I am Sicilian and make a variety of southern Italian sauces). If you are interested in a true ragù recipe, here is the link to my blog: Italian Sauce Recipe: Bolognese Meat Ragù.

Check out my Instagram Conversationalitalian.french to watch the video when I cook my version of sausage and mushroom ragù filling and make the roasted turkey breast for my family to enjoy this Thanksgiving.  Then read on for the recipe below.


If you’d like,  leave a comment about your Thanksgiving celebration this year, and the traditions that are celebrated where you live.
I’d love to hear from you!

And by all means stay safe and have a wonderful Festa del Ringraziamento, however you celebrate this year.



Italian -American Thanksgiving Turkey Roll 

Kathryn Occhipinti holding an oval platter with the Turkey Roll ready to serve
Kathryn Occhipinti with Turkey Roll ready to serve

(Serves 4 -8)

1 (4 lb.) whole turkey breast, deboned

For the Ragù Filling: Sausage 

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter
1 small shallot (or 1/2 onion) chopped finely
1/2 carrot, chopped finely
1/2 celery stalk, chopped finely
1/4c  finely diced pancetta
Italian sausage meat from 2 links, casing removed
3/4c whole milk

For the Ragù Filling: Mushrooms

4 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, small dice


For the Ragù Filling: Sausage 

Use a medium size frying pan. Add the olive oil and butter and heat over medium high heat.

Add the finely chopped shallot or onion, celery, and carrot, and cook with a pinch of salt until vegetables have softened.

Add the chopped pancetta and cook to render out the fat. 

Add the Italian sausage meat, and stir with a wooden spoon to break up meat as it browns.

Set aside while you cook the mushrooms.

For the Ragù Filling: Mushrooms

Use a medium size frying pan. Add the olive oil and butter and heat over medium high heat.

Remove garlic before it gets brown.

Add the diced mushrooms and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms soften.  At first, they will appear to absorb all the liquid in the pan. As they finish cooking, they will release juices back into the pan. 

When mushrooms have softened and there is liquid in the pan, add them to the sausage in the larger pan.

For the Ragù Filling: Finishing the Filling

Warm the sausage and mushrooms in the large frying pan over low heat.

Sprinkle 2 Tbsp. flour over the sausage and mushrooms and cook, stirring for about 2 minutes.

Warm the milk in the microwave (but do not boil, about 20 sec) and then drizzle slowly into the sausage/mushroom mixture while mixing over low heat. Bring to a very gentle simmer and then turn off heat. Continue stirring.  The mixture should thicken.


Make the Turkey Log:

Rinse the turkey breast and pat dry.  Trim any extra fat.

Remove the skin of the turkey breast carefully. Use the blunt edge of a carving knife. Try not to get any tears in the skin, as it will be used to cover the Turkey roll later. Set aside.

turkey breast with removal of skin
Preparing the turkey breast – Step 1

Set the turkey breast flat on the cutting board, skin side down. You will need to make the turkey breast as flat and as rectangular as possible. Start by trimming the tenders (the small, oblong pieces of meat along each underside) from the lower portion of the breast. Trim along the midline and then fold them outward to make “flaps” close to the main breast. The upper edges of the breast will be too thick; slice through them and remove or create an additional flap outward. Trim away any additional excess turkey to level off the breast.

Preparing the turkey breast - Step 2 - creating flaps with the tender of the breast
Preparing the turkey breast – Step 2

Cover the turkey breast with a sheet of wax paper. Then pound the turkey breast lightly with the flat side of a meat mallet to further flatten. Pound from the inner part of the breast to the outer edges on all sides.

Preparing the turkey breast - Step 3 flattening with a meat mallet
Preparing the turkey breast – Step 3

Spread the filling on the turkey breast and even out with a large spoon or spatula. You may have a bit too much filling; just discard what is left. Press the filling into the turkey breast with a wide spoon.

Roll the breast the long way from one side to to the other and make a tight, long log. The seam should be on the bottom of the roll.

Rolling the turkey breast with fillilng into a log
Rolling the turkey breast with sausage and mushroom filling into a log

Cover the log with the turkey skin and flatten around the roll with your hands so the skin is closely adhered to the turkey log.

Use cooking twine to tie the roast so it stays together while roasting. Three or four crosswise ties should cover most of the roll. No need to tie the roll lengthwise.

Brush olive oil on the skin surface and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. If your turkey breast came with a pop-up thermometer, make a small cut in the skin and insert it into the turkey log. Make sure it goes in as deeply as it would if it were in a regular breast.

Gently transfer the turkey log to a roasting pan, keeping the seam side down.

Turkey log prepared for roasting
Turkey log tied with thermometer re-inserted and prepared for roasting

Roast in the lower 1/3 of the oven 400° for 30 minutes. Then lower heat to 325° and cook for approximately 30 -40 minutes more. 

The roast is finished cooking when the interior reaches 170°, and a thermometer should be used to test for doneness. If your turkey breast comes with a meat thermometer, reinsert this and use it as a guide.

When the roast has finished cooking, remove the twine and thermometer and present on a large oval plate.  It looks lovely by itself or surrounded by roasted potatoes or a vegetable of choice.

Let rest 15 minutes, slice and serve.

Roasted turkey roll ready to slice and serve
Roasted turkey roll ready to slice and serve

Buon appetito e Buon Giorno del Tacchino!

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