Pizza with Pesto, Ricotta, and Mozzarella Recipe

Dollops of molten pesto, ricotta, and fresh mozzarella dot the surface of this pizza, creating a landscape of contrasting flavors.

Close-up of a finished pizza with pesto, ricotta, and mozzarella.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Why It Works

  • Briefly blanching basil before making the pesto preserves its green color.
  • Reducing the olive oil used to make the pesto keeps the pizza from being too greasy.
  • Using ricotta, fresh mozzarella, and parmesan provides a variety of textures and balances creamy richness with sharp, savory flavors.
  • Dolloping pesto and ricotta on the dough creates pockets of intense flavor and creaminess, respectively.

Back when I was a wee food labber who spent his summers at band camp,* my favorite day of the summer was when the camp's cook, Glen, would make his pesto. We'd have a camp-wide pesto spaghetti eating contest, in which I may have been the only competitor. This simultaneously made me a winner and a complete loser each time.

*Ok, chamber music camp. But really the same sort of hormonal, nerdy crew.

What can I say? I loved my pesto back then as much as I love it now. Today, we're gonna stick it on pizza. But first, a few words to the wise.

When we talk pesto here, we're talking the Genovese variety made with basil, pine nuts, and cheese that we're most familiar with. There are, of course, other varieties of pesto kicking around, but we're not gonna bother with them for now.

The easiest way to make Genovese pesto is in the food processor**; just throw in your ingredients (that's basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil), buzz it up, and you're good to go. But there are ways to improve it.

**You mortar and pestle purists can balk all you want. Meanwhile, I'll be enjoying my pesto while I wait for you to finish yours.

For one thing, pesto made in this way has a tendency to lose its color, turning from a rich, deep green to a drab olive green, especially if you let it sit in the fridge for a night or two. How do you prevent this from happening? Blanch the basil.

See, puréed basil leaves lose their color as air and natural enzymes interact with pigments in the leaves. Blanching the leaves by dunking them in boiling water for just a few moments (about 15 to 30 seconds) will deactivate those pesky enzymes, helping your pesto to stay deep, bright green, even after days of storage and cooking.

A split-frame image of a pizza. The left side is labeled "raw basil," and the right is labeled "blanched basil." The pizza on the blanched side is topped with pesto that looks darker and greener.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

See?

I also like to add some spinach to the mix, to add some more green without overwhelming the other flavors with excess basil.

As for application, you can't just use the exact same pesto you'd use on pasta, throw it on a pizza, and expect it to work. The problem is the oil. In a dish of pasta, the excess olive oil combines with the pasta water to form a sauce. On a pizza, all it does is pool into greasy slicks on the surface of the pizza.

You have two options. If you want to make an all-purpose pesto, you can make it as normal*** and then blot out some of the excess oil before adding the pesto to your pizza. Alternatively, just make it with a bit less oil to begin with. My recipe is made with equal parts (by weight) basil, spinach, parmesan, and pine nuts, with a single garlic clove (also added to the blanching water as the spinach and basil cook, to take away some of its sharpest edges) and 1/3 cup of olive oil.

***For the pesto in this recipe, increase the oil from 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup.

A teaspoon of lemon zest adds some brightness and balances the whole thing out.

Pesto has been spooned onto a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

When it comes to application and other toppings, I like to keep things sparse. Some folks like to spread the pesto around like a tomato sauce. I prefer applying in discrete spots to create some points of interest as you work your way through the pie.

Speaking of cheese, I'm going with a three-part mix. A bottom later of grated parmesan, followed by fresh mozzarella (di bufala if you're wearing your fancy pants), and dollops of ricotta. As the pie bakes, the mozzarella spreads out into a milky blanket, while the dollops of ricotta soften and the pesto spreads, touching and mingling with the ricotta in a way that would be considered inappropriate in some, more restrictive, societies.

If you're feeling extra feisty, you can always add more toppings if you desire. Pesto is a pretty strongly flavored sauce to begin with, and according to the pizza snob's approach to toppings, every topping must be more flavorful than the one that came before it. Thus for topping a pesto pie, you'd need to go with bold flavors like sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, capers, and olives.

At least, that's what I'd do. Feel free to do whatever the heck you'd like. It's your pizza; nobody's stopping you.

April 2013

Recipe Facts

Active: 15 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings
Makes: 3 pizzas

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Ingredients

  • 1 recipe New York-style pizza dough or 36 ounces store-bought pizza dough

  • Kosher salt

  • 3 ounces fresh spinach leaves (about 4 loosely packed cups), tough stems removed

  • 3 ounces fresh basil leaves (about 4 loosely packed cups/2 bunches)

  • 1 minced garlic clove

  • 6 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano, divided

  • 3 ounces toasted pine nuts

  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon zest from 1 lemon

  • 12 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into small chunks

  • 12 ounces fresh ricotta cheese

Directions

  1. At least 2 hours before baking, divide dough into 3 even parts, form into balls, place on a lightly floured surface, cover loosely with plastic wrap, place a towel on top of the plastic wrap to keep the edges pressed down, and allow balls to rise at room temperature.

  2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare an ice bath. Add spinach, basil, and garlic to boiling water and boil until leaves are just wilted, about 30 seconds. Transfer to ice bath and allow to chill completely. Transfer to the center of a clean kitchen towel. Gather up towel edges to form a bundle in the center. Squeeze until you've extracted as much liquid as possible.

  3. Transfer greens to the work bowl of a food processor. Add 3 ounces of parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and lemon zest. Process until a smooth purée is formed. Season to taste with salt.

  4. At least 30 minutes before ready to bake, adjust oven rack to top position and place a baking stone or steel on top. Preheat oven to highest setting (500 to 550°F, or 260°C to 290°C).

  5. Working one pizza at a time, stretch or roll dough out into a 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Transfer to a lightly floured wooden pizza peel. Sprinkle surface evenly with 1 ounce of parmesan cheese. Dollop 4 ounces of mozzarella, 4 ounces of ricotta, and 1/3 of pesto over surface of pizza and sprinkle with salt. Transfer to pre-heated steel or stone and bake until blistered and bubbly, 4 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven, slice into 8 slices and serve. Repeat with remaining 2 pizzas.

    An assembled pizza on a wooden peel, ready to be baked.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Special Equipment

Food processor, baking stone or steel, pizza peel

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
1025 Calories
58g Fat
87g Carbs
40g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 1025
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 58g 74%
Saturated Fat 20g 98%
Cholesterol 98mg 33%
Sodium 1692mg 74%
Total Carbohydrate 87g 32%
Dietary Fiber 4g 15%
Total Sugars 5g
Protein 40g
Vitamin C 5mg 23%
Calcium 711mg 55%
Iron 7mg 38%
Potassium 467mg 10%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)