By Connie Denney

You don’t have to be Italian to enjoy Italian food. Think specifically about the basil and olive oil mixture we like to sop with crusty bread while waiting for a meal. You don’t have to speak Italian to enjoy pesto; but, homemade by an Italian friend, it makes me want to say “mama mia”!

This premier pesto producer is neighbor Dee. With her permission, I’m sharing a bit about her life and, joyously, her pesto recipe!

Dee Donzella Riddle began life in Tarrytown, New York, (think Legend of Sleepy Hollow), and has lived in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as Tennessee. Her grandparents came to this country from Italy and Sicily around the turn of the century. Her Mother’s Father was a head gardener for the Nelson Rockefeller family.

Dee remembers as a small child seeing her Grandpa’s peach trees, tomatoes and lots of basil. “Growing up, all our family gatherings were spent around my Mother’s extra large dining room table. She had lots of Grandma’s recipes and from an early age, probably around seven or eight, I learned how to make pasta.” Dee and her Mom spent Saturday mornings making pasta and sauce.

“We always had basil in the backyard. I was tasked with picking just the right leaves for the sauce. My Father to this day, at 94 years old, will pick a leaf and sit on my front porch contently smelling its intoxicating fragrance.”

During the latter part of her Mother’s life when fear and confusion were so disconcerting, Dee recalls how turning back the pages of time and a cookbook or two were a positive distraction.  The strong bond of tradition and food includes the catering business her Mom started in the 90s.  Dee and husband James, also from an Italian family, helped.

They have enjoyed cooking together since they were dating. Calling theirs a “match made in heaven,” Dee says they gave themselves a six-quart KitchenAid stand mixer as an anniversary gift! They carry on traditions with their family, including four grandkids, ages 5-7, who also can make pasta.

Dee’s 27-year career in senior management at a Miami Beach resort hotel exposed her to “many fine dining experiences,” as well as opportunities to learn from chefs flown in from Italy. She speaks of learning to make “the perfect pesto” and “how the finest ingredients could make a dish sing!”

I sure like the flavor notes her pesto adds to bread or pasta, tomato sandwiches, pizza, salad, baked potato….  Need I go on?                    

PESTO

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil first cold pressed (very important for the right flavor)

1/3 cup pine nuts (may use chopped walnuts as a substitute but pine nuts are the best)

2 garlic cloves

Salt to taste

1/4 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese

Put all ingredients except the cheese in a food processor and process until smooth. Pour the sauce into a small bowl and stir in the cheese. Makes one cup of pesto. Keep refrigerated. Freezes well.

Note: Pesto should always be served at either room temperature or chilled. If adding to pasta, remove the pasta from the heat first. This will preserve the taste and color of the pesto.