Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes) – Basil (Basilico) and Parsley (Prezzemolo)

Basilico, Italian sweet basil from Italy
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Summer to the Italian-Americans I know means a garden of herbs and vegetables —of  fragrant basil, parsley and pungent tomatoes allowed to ripen in the sun—at the very least!

This summer, I’ve had to start a new garden from scratch now that I have moved to the Chicago suburbs from Peoria. So I thought I would take a few photos and share some of what I’ve come to know about gardening with this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.” 

For as long as I can remember, both sides of my Italian family have established summer vegetable gardens here in America.  My grandfather was a master gardener, and used knowledge he brought over from Sicily to create his perfect garden in a very small patch of land in Brooklyn, New York.  As a small child, I knew that my fondest memories of summer would begin as I opened the large, decorative, black iron gate to enter what to me was a miraculous place – my grandparent’s a two story attached brick building that had my grandfather’s grape vines growing happily along the only free side.  Out back, there was a small cement landing where the family gathered amid large decorative clay pots of herbs, with a pergola for the ripened grapes to hang from and provide shade, of course!

The rest of my grandfather’s yard was dedicated to all kinds of  vegetables, perfectly staked  in neat rows so that no space was lost on his small plot of land.  I loved picking the fragrant basil, perfectly red, vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh, soft  purple figs to take home. Yes, my grandfather even managed to keep fig trees alive during the cold NYC winters by bundling the branches up a pail and covering them with blankets, just so we could enjoy baskets of fresh figs for the summer.  And enjoy them we did!

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing Basil and Parsley.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about growing or using these herbs!  

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on and Learn Travel if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip to Italy! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel


Italian Herb Basil – Basilico

Basilico Basil
Ornamental basil with leaves of different sizes and colors

Basil is an annual plant whose leaves are valued for their use in flavoring Italian tomato sauces and in appetizers with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella.

Two of the most famous Italian appetizers are Capresi Salad, from the island of Capri (tomato, mozzarella, basil) and Panzanella Salad (bread, tomato, basil). Fresh basil from the region of Liguria (nearby Genoa) is ground slowly with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese with a marble mortar and pestle to make the famous Pesto Genovese.  To read more about this basil sauce, click on my blog Pesto Genovese Meets American Aquaponic Farming in Chicago

There are many types of basil that can be found growing in Italy and other countries. Italian flat leaf “sweet” basil is most often used in Italian cooking, and the basil from Liguria is said to be the most aromatic and have the most complex flavor.

Basil must be grown from seed each year. Do not sow outdoors, as basil plants are very sensitive to frost. Sow indoors and plant outdoors only when the last threat of frost is over for your region. Basil grows well in containers, but will need bright sunshine, at least in the morning, and almost daily watering; if exposed to sunlight all day, the leaves may wilt, but additional water the plant will quickly recover.

Basilico, Italian sweet basil from Italy
Italian “sweet” basil with a broad leaf for cooking

When small, white flowers appears in mid to late summer, pinch back the stem, removing all the flowers and the leaves in the branch below, and harvest of the leaves can continue. Otherwise, the plant will go to seed and die.

If a basil stem with a few leaves is cut from the plant and placed in a glass of water on a sunny windowsill, roots will soon develop. In my house, a glass of water with basil on the windowsill means that summer has arrived! Later in the season, it will be necessary to cut back the plant hard, leaving only about 50% of the plant. I usually do this at least twice each summer, but the number of times basil can be cut back hard will depend on how early in the season you have planted your basil and how long the growing season is in your area. Be sure when you cut back you stay above the woody stem that forms gradually from the base of the plant. More and more of the main stem of the plant will become woody as the plant slowly dies off for fall. Cut back only enough to leave the green portion of the stem, and another shoot will develop and produce more basil leaves.

To harvest basil, pinch off several leaves or, even better pinch off the stem from the top of the plant. Wash the leaves, pat dry, and shred by hand to add to tomato sauces or salads. Southern Italians love the cool flavor of fresh basil, and will top a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce with freshly torn basil as summertime treat.

To dry basil, harvest the entire plant, rinse, pat dry, and either hand upside down from the stem or place in a paper bag. When the leaves have dried, they can be removed. Store leaves whole for best flavor, or crumble. Place in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place.

Caprese Salad

Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see the method for the easy-to-make and delicious Caprese salad, which is said to originate from the island of Capri. The ingredients are the key to this “salad”:  fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes,  soft buffalo mozzarella (from the water buffalo raised in the countryside near Capri, in the Campagna region) and fresh basil leaves.  A touch of sea-salt to bring the juices out of the tomatoes that provide the acid for the “vinaigrette” and a drizzle of your favorite extra-virgin olive oil makes an exquisite summertime treat!


Italian Herb Parsley – Prezzemolo

Prezzemolo Italian parsley
Italian flat leaf parsley growing in an Italian clay pot

Parsley is a biennial plant whose leaves are valued for their use in flavoring sauces, stews, and salads. Finely chopped parsley is also used in combination with basil and lemon zest in the south of Italy, and is called “gremolata,” which is used in sauces and to top meat dishes. Italian flat leaf parsley is used for cooing; curly leaf parsley is used as a garnish.

Parsley is a hardy plant that will survive into the winter months. If planted in the spring, the plant will grow through the summer and even into the fall and winter, when the temperature falls. Since parsley is a biennial, it will bloom again the next spring, but the second year it will go to seed and die at the end of the season. Replant the third year and the cycle starts again! Parsley needs frequent watering. Pinch off flowers if the plant starts to go to seed too early in the summer.

To harvest parsley, cut the stem with kitchen scissors. Save the fresh stems to bundle with kitchen twine and put in sauces and stews for flavoring. The stems can be saved in the refrigerator for a week, frozen, or dried.

Prezzemolo Italian flat leaf parsley
Italian flat leaf parsley

Remove the leaves from the stem by running the side of a large knife along the stem. Then lay the leaves out on a chopping board and chop coarsely with a large kitchen knife. Or, for finer chopped parsley bundle together before chopping.

To dry parsley, harvest the entire plant, bundle the stems together, and hand upside down. Or place in a paper bag. When the leaves have dried, they can be removed, crumbled, and stored in an air-tight container.

Summer Squash with Parsley

Check out my Instagram post if you’d like to see the method for this easy-to-make side dish that combines fresh parsley with zucchini and yellow summer squash.  A quick saute in a bit of olive oil and the addition of  finely chopped fresh parsley and garlic at the end (called a persillade in French cooking) makes a colorful and delectable side dish for any summertime meal.

Catnip and gray cat
My cat Gracie protecting her favorite herb!

Discovering Pesto alla Genovese

Metropolitan Farms grows Genovese basil.
Kathryn for
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel

Last May, I attended an event organized by Catherine Lambrecht, director of the Chicago Foodways Roundtable . The event was called Metropolitan Farm Tour: Explore an Urban Ag Destination. Metropolitan Farms uses a relatively new technique called aquaponics to create a closed-loop greenhouse system that can produce hydroponically grown herbs and lettuce and fish for local sale year round.

As part of their crop, Metropolitan Farms grows high-quality Genovese basil from seed, year round, as is done in the region of its origin, Liguria, in Italy. Most of their basil is sold wholesale. They also make their own pesto (several varieties) for local sale.

Walking through the Metropolitan Farms greenhouse, I could almost smell the fragrant pesto that would come from this ingenious system.

Visit the recent Learn Italian! blog post from October 11, 2017, to read all about my experiences trying to create an authentic pesto for my family. Learn (probably) more than you’ve ever wanted to know about pesto history, making pesto, and growing basil! Below is an excerpt:


Pesto alla Genovese Meets American Aquaponic Farming in Chicago

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 labeled “pesto” by an Italian company that I found in a grocery store in Peoria, Illinois. Back then, I was trying to learn true Italian “regional” cooking and specifically trying to expand my sauce-making techniques beyond the ubiquitous and well-loved southern Italian red tomato sauce.

Diary of my first experiences making pesto…

So, on the day of my first foray into northern Italian sauces, I put a pot of salted water on the stove to boil, added some spaghetti, and dusted off my jar of Italian-labeled pesto that had probably been sitting on the grocery shelf for many, many months before I had purchased it. I opened the jar and saw that olive oil was floating on top, separate from the basil that makes up the major component of the sauce. I mixed the basil and olive oil together, not knowing if this was the correct thing to do. (It was. The olive oil layer on top helps to preserve the pesto.)

When the spaghetti was ready, I drained it and poured some of the thick, dull green pesto from the jar over my hot spaghetti and mixed it to coat. Was I supposed to use the entire jar? I wasn’t sure. I tasted it. It wasn’t too bad, but really, it wasn’t very good either, and I wasn’t really sure why. After all, pesto is a famous dressing for pasta. Millions of people love it!

Not one to give up easily, a few weeks later, I tried to make a pesto sauce for my pasta again. The second time, I emptied the contents of my jar of pesto into a small pan to warm the sauce. Even worse! Now, I know that pesto is a “cold emulsion” type of “dressing” for pasta and should never be cooked! But, as I said, back when I was first introduced to pesto, I really had no experience about how it should be prepared or how it should taste.

Pesto success at last?

Finally, one year when I had an overabundance of fresh basil in my garden one late summer, I remembered pesto alla Genovese. Perhaps fresh basil was the secret. I turned to my favorite Italian cookbook, Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni. I had purchased this cookbook in 1992 while in training in San Francisco and credit it with sparking my interest in discovering true Italian cuisine for the home cook. Each region is beautifully introduced with photographs of beautiful platters of food set in the Italian countryside. Translated from the Italian, and beautifully compiled with all regional specialties included, detailed notes on each specialty, and clear directions, Italian Regional Cooking is my “bible” of Italian cooking, even today. Unfortunately, when it comes to the recipe for making pesto alla Genovese, the directions are a bit vague. Read more…

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