Pesto alla Trapanese is a Sicilian sauce made with almonds and raw tomato. It’s fresh, bright and so easy to make. Whip some up for a quick and simple pasta meal, perfect for summer.
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When you think of pesto, you probably think of basil pesto – pesto alla Genovese – which is arguably the best known. But it’s not the only form of pesto that exists, and I don’t just mean modern twists.
You’ll find many other traditional versions using different herbs/greens (like arugula pesto and a marjoram pesto from Liguria region) or different nuts. Sicily is particular is home to a number of variations, including this tasty one made with fresh tomatoes and almonds.
What is a pesto?
Despite what you might think “pesto” doesn’t mean sauce but instead comes from “pestare” which means to pound or crush. This is because traditionally these sauces were made with a pestle and mortar. The ingredients were crushed together to make the sauce.
The different variations you find in different parts of Italy tend to reflect the local produce from the area. This variation is named after Trapini, a port city in Western Sicily. It was apparently made by sailors coming to the area from the mainland and adapting the traditional Genoan sauce to use the local ingredients.
Sicily’s agricultural traditions
I have long loved Sicilian cuisine and food is one of my main memories from visiting (and a big part of what makes me want to go back!). It’s influenced by the island’s history and location between Africa and Europe.
Many Sicilian dishes would be described as peasant food, since wealth has not traditionally been well distributed. But thankfully, the island has some great produce, as well as the seafood-rich Mediterranean all around.
While the island is hot and dry, thanks to the period of Arab occupation, it is well-irrigated. Much of the island is used for agriculture and very few fruits and vegetables are imported. Some of the bigger crops include citrus fruits, olives, grapes and almonds, as well as Durum wheat used for pasta. You’ll also find eggplant, tomatoes and pine nuts, all of which feature in many local dishes.
Dishes you may know include cannoli, pasta alla Norma, caponata (an eggplant dish with tomato and olives) and granita. One of my favorites is a Sicilian-style stuffed squid using fennel, raisins and pine nuts.
A fresh pesto perfect for summer
To me, the fresh tomato in this really makes it quite a different sauce from other pestos. It includes some herbs but they are not the predominant flavor. You also only use a little olive oil since the tomatoes make it relatively fluid already.
You have a couple of initial steps for this which you could skip, but I’d recommend that you don’t. First, you toast the almonds. This is a common step for most pestos as it really helps to bring out the flavors in the nuts. You can toast them in the oven if you like, but I find it easiest in a dry skillet/frying pan. You can do this ahead of time as suits.
The second do-ahead is you blanch the tomatoes to peel them. This makes a better texture, as skin ‘bits’ aren’t necessarily that great in there. True, if you have a good food processor this is less likely, but it also saves over-processing everything else.
As with all pestos, since you use so few ingredients, the key is to make sure what you use are really good. Use very ripe, good quality tomatoes, some good almonds and a flavorful extra virgin olive oil. After all, you’re going to taste them!
Some recipes suggest removing the tomato seeds which you can certainly do if you like. This would make the sauce a little thicker, closer to a more typical pesto. I think it maybe depends what pasta you are using – if you have pockets to fill, a little more liquid is good. If you use eg bucatini/spaghetti, maybe not. Do as you prefer.
Pesto alla Trapanese is a lovely light but flavorful pasta sauce that’s easy to make with just a few ingredients. It’s a nice change from a classic pesto and perfect when summer tomatoes are in season. So add it to your pasta night list!
Try these other tasty traditional pasta dishes:
- Sardinian fregola with clams
- Pasta puttanesca
- Walnut sauce for pasta and gnocchi
- Plus get more Italian recipes in the archives.
Pesto alla Trapanese
- 1/4 cup blanched almonds 40g
- 8 oz tomatoes 225g, 2 large
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 oz basil 12g, leaves removed from stems
- 5 mint leaves (optional)
- 1 oz pecorino 30g, or parmesan if you don't have pecorino
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Place the blanched almonds in a dry skillet/frying pan over a medium heat and toast until lightly brown on both sides. Place them in a food processor and pulse until relatively fine crumbs.
- Meanwhile, lightly prick the skin of the tomatoes in a few places. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over boiling water and leave for a minute or two until the skin starts to peel away where you have pricked the skin.
- Take the tomatoes out of the hot water and remove all of the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half, remove the core and roughly dice.
- Peel the garlic and roughly chop. Add the tomatoes, garlic, basil, pecorino cheese and oil to the ground almonds and pulse to bring the mixture together.
- Stir through pasta of your choice, cooked al dente, and top with a little additional pecorino.
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