Spaghetti al pesto is a classic Italian pasta dish made with spaghetti noodles coated in a vibrant green homemade pesto featuring genovese basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese, and olive oil. Enjoy this pasta al pesto as a weeknight dinner or for a family gathering. It's easy to make and packs so much flavor.Jump to Recipe
We have enjoyed a lot of pesto lately because I decided to plant a basil plant I found at the grocery store. Before I knew it, I had way more basil than we could use. I also decided to plant some cherry tomatoes because they're easy and can be used in so many ways so throwing them into this spaghetti al pesto was a no brainer. This recipe is a great way to use up fresh veggies and herbs from the garden.
What is Spaghetti Al Pesto?
Spaghetti al pesto is a classic Italian pasta dish made with al dente spaghetti noodles served with a flavorful homemade pesto. The pesto sauce is typically made from fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil. These ingredients are blended or processed together to create a smooth, vibrant green sauce with a distinctively aromatic and herbaceous flavor.
The sauce is then tossed with the cooked spaghetti, coating the pasta in a delicious, savory, and slightly nutty pesto flavor. Cherry or grape tomatoes may be added for additional flavor and color. It's a beloved Italian dish known for its simplicity and delicious flavor.
Why You'll Love This Recipe
Simplicity: Spaghetti al pesto is a quick meal the whole family will enjoy. Did I mention how easy it is? Making homemade pesto with a food processor is a breeze. All ingredients are incorporated into one pot making it perfect for busy weeknights or lazy weekends.
Vegetarian-Friendly: If you're looking for a filling meal without meat, this is a great vegetarian option. Looking to make this more hearty and complete? You can add a protein of your choice. Think grilled chicken.
Comfort Food: Anything with spaghetti is extremely comforting and familiar. The pasta is rich, creamy, and cheesy.
Family Friendly: Everyone of all ages will enjoy this dinner. This recipe serves 6 so it's perfect for big families, family gatherings, or if you enjoy leftovers.
Quick Cleanup: Fewer ingredients and minimal cooking steps mean less cleanup, making it a practical choice for busy weeknights.
Ingredient Notes and Substitutions
Spaghetti - This is the main ingredient of the recipe. While spaghetti is traditionally used, you can use other types of pasta. Try bucatini, linguine, or angel hair. You can also try penne pasta, trofie pasta, or fusili which are also shaped to hold the pesto onto the pasta nicely. You can also use a gluten-free pasta if you have dietary restrictions.
For The Pesto
Fresh basil leaves - Be sure not to use the stems in this recipe. The leaves hold all the flavor. Genovese basil is best for this pesto recipe. It's also used most common.
Extra virgin olive oil - Choose a high quality olive oil for the best results. This is an important part of the pesto so having good flavor is essential. I wouldn't substitute with canola or vegetable oil. I do recommend substituting for a flavored olive oil if you have one on hand to add some extra flavor.
Garlic cloves - Fresh garlic is a must for this recipe. The pesto will taste off without this.
Sunflower seeds - I love using sunflower seeds because they're small and have a delicious mild nutty flavor. You can substitute with other types of nuts if desired. Try this with pine nuts, or walnuts to make a walnut pesto.
For The Sauce
Parmesan - Freshly grated parmesan cheese is best. I don't recommend using a pre-grated cheese because you won't get the same sharp flavor that parmesan has. While parmesan is traditional, you can substitute pecorino.
Salt and pepper - To enhance the other ingredients in this recipe
Lemon - To add brightness to the sauce. Freshly squeezed lemon juice is best. If you love lemon feel free to add a little lemon zest to the pesto pasta recipe either incorporated into the pesto or as a garnish over top.
Reserved pasta water - To keep the pasta and pesto from drying out. The starchiness of the pasta water helps to bind and thicken the sauce. I don't recommend using regular cold water because it won't have the same effect as the pasta cooking water.
Cherry tomatoes - For color and added flavor. Try multi-colored tomatoes.
How to Make Spaghetti Al Pesto
Step 1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil then cook the spaghetti according to the package instructions until al dente (usually about 8-10 minutes).Reserve a half cup of pasta cooking water before draining.
Step 2. Make the homemade basil pesto. In a food processor, combine the fresh basil, grated Parmesan cheese, sunflower seeds, and garlic cloves. Pulse the ingredients until finely chopped.
Step 3. With the food processor running, slowly drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Season pesto with salt and black pepper to taste.
Step 4. After the pasta is cooked and drained place the pasta back in the pot or in a large bowl. Add the homemade pesto sauce, lemon juice, starchy pasta water, and cherry tomatoes. Stir the warm pasta with the remaining ingredients until well combined. Serve immediately with extra parmesan cheese if desired.
Must Try Variations
Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto: Add a handful of sun-dried tomatoes instead of cherry tomatoes for a slightly sweet and tangy variation. I suggest using tomatoes soaked in oil for rich flavor.
Spinach and Walnut Pesto: Enhance the nutritionaly value in the pesto by either replacing some or all of the basil with fresh spinach. This will give a milder flavor to the pesto. Add toasted walnuts instead of sunflower seeds for a slightly different texture and flavor.
Avocado Pesto: For a creamy twist to this spaghetti recipe, blend ripe avocado into your pesto. This variation adds a rich and smooth texture to the sauce, making it even more luscious. I recommend eating it all the same day or you risk avocado turning color. If you love a creamy, nutritious sauce, this will do it.
Roasted Red Pepper Pesto: Roast red bell peppers and blend them into the traditional pesto for a sweet, smoky flavor. This variation adds a beautiful reddish hue to the sauce. You can slice some of the bell peppers and place over top of the pasta instead of tomatoes.
Spicy Pesto: If you enjoy a bit of heat, add a pinch of red pepper flakes or a small amount of fresh chili to the pesto genovese for a spicy variation.
Pesto Pasta Salad: Chill the cooked Spaghetti al Pesto and turn it into a refreshing pasta salad. Add cucumber slices and mozzarella balls. Serve chilled.
Pesto Stuffed Peppers: Roast bell peppers and stuff them with a mixture of Spaghetti al Pesto and ricotta cheese. Bake until the peppers are tender.
Pesto Crostini: Spread Spaghetti al Pesto on toasted baguette slices to create Pesto Crostini. Top with cherry tomatoes, a drizzle of balsamic glaze, and a sprinkle of pine nuts for added crunch.
Pesto Bruschetta Chicken: Grill chicken then serve sliced on top of spaghetti al pesto. Top with tomatoes, fresh basil, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze for a vibrant and flavorful dish.
Leftover spaghetti al pesto can be stored in an airtight container and kept in the fridge for 3-4 days. Before storing the pasta be sure to bring to room temperature to avoid any excess condensation build up. I don't recommend freezing because the pesto will lose its vibrant taste and color. The pasta may also change in texture once thawed and reheated.
To reheat I suggest adding a little olive oil or water to loosen up the pasta. Place in a microwave safe bowl and cover with a damp paper towel to prevent from drying out. Microwave for 30 second increments, stirring in between, unti lthe pasta is completely heated through.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does pesto spaghetti taste like?
The primary components of the dish are the basil-based pesto sauce. If you've had pesto before, this will taste very much the same. Since we're making the pesto from scratch, you can expect the spaghetti to be a lot more flavorful then pre-made pesto.
The dominant flavor in pesto spaghetti is the fresh and aromatic basil. It is a slightly sweet, peppery, and herbaceous taste that is both distinctive and refreshing. Garlic adds a savory and pungent kick to the dish whilethe parmesan cheese brings a salty and umami element to the pesto. The squeeze of lemon adds a slightly bright and tangy twist to the sauce while the tomatoes make it light and sweet.
What does al pesto mean?
"Al pesto" is an Italian phrase that translates to "with pesto" in English. In the context of this recipe, it indicates that spaghetti is prepared with pesto sauce.
Is genovese pesto different from regular pesto?
Genovese pesto is a specific type of pesto that originates from the city of Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy. While it shares similarities with the more general concept of "regular" pesto, there are some key characteristics that make Genovese pesto distinct. Genovese pesto is traditionally made with a specific type of basil called "Genovese basil" or "sweet basil". This basil variety is known for its intense aroma and sweet, slightly peppery flavor. Besides the type of basil used, the remaining ingredients are pretty much the same including, nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil.
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Easy Spaghetti Al Pesto Genovese
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves no stems
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 lemon squeezed
- 1/2 cup reserved pasta water
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes sliced into thirds
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil then cook the spaghetti according to the package instructions until al dente (usually about 8-10 minutes).Reserve a half cup of pasta cooking water before draining.
- Make the homemade basil pesto. In a food processor, combine the fresh basil, grated Parmesan cheese, sunflower seeds, and garlic cloves. Pulse the ingredients until finely chopped.
- With the food processor running, slowly drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Season pesto with salt and black pepper to taste.
- After the pasta is cooked and drained place the pasta back in the pot or in a large bowl. Add the homemade pesto sauce, lemon juice, starchy pasta water, and cherry tomatoes. Stir the warm pasta with the remaining ingredients until well combined. Serve immediately with extra parmesan cheese if desired.