This pesto pasta with tomatoes is a delicious and fragrant dish made with fresh summer ingredients. The sauce is quick and easy to prepare making it a great weeknight dinner or casual weekend meal. It’s a simple yet flavorful pasta recipe that is fresh, light and above all vibrant and bursting with the natural flavors of basil, garlic and ripe tomatoes.

tomato and pesto pasta portofino with pine nuts and basil leaves in a plate with sunflowers with decoration

What is Pasta Portofino

This pasta Portofino recipe originates from the coastal town of Portofino in the northern Italian region of Liguria near Genova. It is said that the Portofino sauce was accidentally invented by a chef who didn’t have enough pesto to serve his clients and so decided to blend two different sauces into one. He combined fresh tomato sauce with pesto Genovese, the basil pesto sauce that originates from the town of Genova, and thus, pasta alla Portofino was born.

close up tomato and pesto pasta portofino with pine nuts and basil leaves in a plate with sunflowers

Portofino pasta or pesto pasta with cherry tomatoes captures the essence of Italian cooking. This recipe makes use of simple yet fresh and high quality ingredients, which is key in Italian recipes, to make a flavorful, delicious meal for everyone to enjoy.

Pasta Portofino ingredients

ingredients to make portofino sauce laid out on a table with ingredient names
  • Pasta: I use spaghetti in this pasta Portofino recipe but use any type of pasta you love. This sauce works great with both long (spaghetti, linguini, etc) and short (penne, fusilli, etc) pasta.
  • Pasta water: This is the water in which the pasta is cooked and has a high starch content. Adding this cooking water to sauces helps to thicken the sauce as well as to bind the sauce better to the pasta. Reserve some of the water when draining or when the pasta is nearly cooked.
  • Cherry tomatoes: Both cherry or grape tomatoes are great for this recipe.
  • Basil pesto sauce: I prefer to use homemade pesto sauce combining pine nuts, parmesan, basil and garlic (see recipe below). Using store-bought basil pesto sauce is absolutely fine, just choose a good quality basil pesto.
  • Garlic: Use more or less to taste. I use 1 clove as the pesto sauce also already contains garlic.
  • Olive oil: Use extra virgin olive oil for roasting the tomatoes.
  • Basil: Use fresh basil leaves for the best flavor, don’t substitute with dried basil.
  • Seasoning: Kosher salt and cracked black pepper for seasoning
  • Pine nuts: Sprinkle a handful of pine nuts as topping to elevate the flavor of the dish and to give it some extra texture.

How to make pesto sauce

Note: All the exact quantities of the ingredients can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.

There is nothing easier than making a great Italian pesto sauce. For this recipe, we will make a basil pesto sauce from the region of Genova, or pesto Genovese. Pesto can be made the traditional way, by hand with pestle and mortar. But I’m taking a shortcut and using a blender, which is also totally fine.

ingredients to make basil pesto sauce laid out on a table with ingredient names

These are the ingredients you’ll need for a traditional pesto alla Genovese:

  • Basil: You’ll need a good amount of fresh basil leaves, which have a sweet and aromatic flavor.
  • Pine nuts: The traditional recipe uses pine nuts, but feel free to substitute for cashews, walnuts or pecans.
  • Cheese: Use either parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) or a combination of parmesan and Pecorino cheese. I have just used parmesan for this pesto recipe.
  • Garlic: Depending on your personal preference, use 1 or 2 fresh garlic cloves or more if you’re a garlic lover. For this recipe you’ll need fresh garlic as garlic powder won’t provide the same punch and taste.
  • Olive oil: Use a good quality olive oil, preferably extra virgin, or whatever olive oil you like or have at home.
  • Salt: Don’t add too much salt as the cheese is already quite salty. So first make the pesto then season to taste.

To make the basil pesto sauce, add the fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, salt and parmesan cheese in a blender or food processor. Give it a few pulses or blend briefly until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Add extra oil for a thinner pesto sauce.

top view of tomato and pesto pasta portofino with pine nuts and basil leaves in a plate with sunflowers with golden fork and spoon

How to make pesto pasta with tomatoes

  • Cook the pasta: Fill a large pot with water then add a generous amount of salt and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta al dente according to the instructions on the package. When cooked, drain the pasta but reserve some of the pasta cooking water for the sauce.
  • Gather the ingredients: Peel and finely slice the garlic. Use the cherry tomatoes either whole or cut in half. Prepare the pesto sauce or use pre-made or store-bought pesto.
  • Roast the tomatoes: Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and the garlic slices and roast for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes start to burst and release their juices. You can press with a fork or wooden spatula on the tomatoes to help release their juices. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water and gently stir to create the sauce. Keep the heat on medium so the liquid doesn’t evaporate.
cooking cherry tomatoes with garlic in a skillet
  • Make the Portofino sauce: When the tomatoes are soft and a sauce has formed, gently stir in the pesto. Add more pesto according to taste.
adding pesto to tomato sauce in skillet
  • Add seasoning: Season with fresh basil leaves, salt and pepper to taste.
making portofino sauce in a skillet tomato and pesto
  • Make the Portofino pasta: Mix the al dente cooked pasta with the sauce in the same pan and serve immediately.
mixing spaghetti in portofino sauce

How to serve

This pasta Portofino is best served immediately after cooking for maximum flavor. Serve on individual plates or in a large serving bowl garnished with toasted pine nuts, fresh basil leaves or optionally grated parmesan cheese.

More pasta dishes to enjoy

close up of tomato and pesto pasta portofino with pine nuts and basil leaves in a plate with sunflowers
close up of tomato and pesto pasta portofino with pine nuts and basil leaves in a plate with sunflowers
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5 from 1 vote

Pesto Pasta with Tomatoes – Pasta Portofino

This pesto pasta with tomatoes is a delicious and fragrant dish made with fresh summer ingredients. The sauce is quick and easy to prepare making it a great weeknight dinner or casual weekend meal. It's a simple yet flavorful pasta recipe that is fresh, light and above all vibrant and bursting with the natural flavors of basil, garlic and ripe tomatoes.
Prep Time5 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time20 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 4
Author: Sabine

Ingredients

For the Pesto

  • 2 cups (60 grams) basil leaves tightly packed
  • ¼ cup (35 grams) pine nuts
  • 1-2 cloves garlic peeled
  • ½ cup (50 grams) parmesan cheese grated
  • cup (80 ml) olive oil extra virgin
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

For the Pasta Portofino

  • 14 ounces (400 grams) spaghetti or favorite pasta uncooked
  • 1 cup reserved pasta water you may not need all of it
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups (500 grams) cherry tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic peel and finely sliced
  • 5 basil leaves
  • kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Toppings

  • basil leaves
  • pine nuts

Instructions

For the pesto sauce

  • Add the basil leaves, pine nuts, parmezan cheese, olive oil, salt and garlic in a blender or food processor and blend until finely chopped.

For the pasta Portofino

  • Cook the pasta al dente in generously salted water according to the package instructions. Drain but reserve some of the pasta water for the sauce.
  • Heat olive oil in a skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and sliced garlic and cook for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes start to burst. Press with a fork or spatula to release their juices.
  • Add a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and gently stir to make a sauce. Then add the pesto and mix in the sauce with a wooden spatula until combined.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste and add a few basil leaves.
  • Add the drained pasta to the sauce and mix well.
  • Serve immediately and garnish with fresh basil leaves and pine nuts.
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