SEATTLE — A certain segment of the Seattle populace is very upset about the missing pesto pasta salad.
This mainstay at local chain Pagliacci Pizza since its inception in 1979 was a seemingly simple, deeply satisfying combination of penne, pesto, a maybe-mysterious creamy element (more on that in a moment), artichoke hearts and peas, served lightly chilled – perfect for a quick lunch or supper, particularly in hot weather.
If you grew up in Seattle, you might have misspent some of your youth on The Ave, frequenting Pagliacci's original U District location (RIP, as of 2018), where whether to spend your meager funds on the pesto pasta salad or a slice or two represented an agonizing decision. When a schoolmate of mine recently discovered that the pesto pasta salad had been discontinued, the Facebook outcry was vociferous (with some anguished souls devolving into name-calling). "This is a travesty!" said one representative person (whom I used to babysit). "Say it ain't so!"
I got in touch with Pagliacci co-owner Michelle Galvin, who said it was indeed so. "It is great to see love for our pesto pasta salad," she graciously replied to the variety of comments. But whyyyyyy no more? The company has a mission to reduce food waste, she said, and the pesto pasta salad "was not a strong seller" and also was labor-intensive. Could we have the recipe? No. They preferred to keep that under wraps to perhaps bring it back as a special.
Wait – what, exactly, does "not a strong seller" mean? "When we took it off the menu, we were selling less than four salads per location." Four per location per day?! "That is correct."
Clearly, we old-school pesto-pasta-salad fans had been remiss in putting our money where our mouths were. Still, it was so good – one of those things that once you thought about it, you'd be haunted until you ate some.
With apologies to Pagliacci and on behalf of humanity, I set out to reverse-engineer the recipe. This did not appear to be rocket science. After a previous inquiry (my interest here is, as noted, long-standing), Galvin had indicated that the creamy element was heavy cream. I tried that, and it failed to match my recollection – cream gave a thinner texture and an odd dairy taste, and lacked a certain richness.
Then, in an exciting development, a source with close ties to the company contacted me. Their intel: They'd been told that the creamy element was, in fact, Miracle Whip. While this seemed outright impossible, as the Pagliacci pesto pasta salad never had a horrifying sweet-sour note to it, I allowed Miracle Whip into my domicile for a test.
The first bite hit the palate much more edibly than expected, almost tasting correct, but continued chewing revealed that the Miracle Whip had decimated nearly all the pesto flavor, landing with a disturbing back-of-the-throat tang that progressed into a lingering chemical-burn aftertaste. Into the compost, this half-batch of pesto pasta salad went (with apologies to the compost). "I hate M.W. too," the source messaged me. Had Miracle Whip been named as a recipe red herring? In any case, onward.
Then, importantly, this selfsame source claimed to, for sure, know the provenance of the pesto – that it came frozen, with notably simple, appropriate ingredients, and that it was called Armanino Basil Pesto. This selfsame pesto proved available locally at US Foods Chef'Store (formerly Cash & Carry, with whoever did this terrible rebranding cackling all the way to the bank) – and at $13.49 for 30 ounces, it will have you happily ladling pesto on everything.
True, it lacks the super-fresh basil taste of homemade and subs canola for olive oil, but food maven Samin Nosrat told me that actual Italian people frequently use pesto from a jar and that it's completely fine to do so, and Armanino, tasted side-by-side against jarred, is as good or better. It also gives, if I'm not very mistaken, the precise taste of the original Pagliacci pesto pasta salad (as well as many a not-trying-too-hard-restaurant's pesto pasta).
Free yourself! Or, sure, make your own – it's so good! – I have a recipe for that, too.
Finally, yet another source – one indicating that they'd actually worked for the company – advised that a Pagliacci's cook had told them that the creamy element was just our old friend mayonnaise, which was what I'd suspected all along. A panel of tasters familiar with the original Pagliacci pesto pasta salad agreed that the combo of mayo and Armanino pesto, along with the ingredients in the proportions following, worked the exact old-school magic. My work here was done.
B.J.C's Pagliacci-style Pesto Pasta Salad
Serves 6 for lunch or a light supper, more as a side
OK, this is so good, and it's quick and relatively painless to make, even when it's hot out. The steps here are so numerous because you can do other prep while, say, the pasta water boils (read through the whole recipe first). For closest-to-Pagliacci-style taste, use frozen Armanino Basil Pesto – or use jarred, or homemade (here's my recipe), whatever. The nuance of Parmigiano-Reggiano is overkill here – just a grocery-store hunk of Parmesan will do (Trader Joe's is a good one). Now we can eat this whenever we want, forever!
16-ounce box (1 pound) penne pasta (or any favorite dressing-trapping pasta shape)
1 cup pesto
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or substitute several grinds of black pepper)
13.75-ounce can artichoke hearts (or jarred with roughly equivalent 8.5-ounce dry weight) (already quartered is nice)
1 cup frozen peas, preferably petite and/or organic
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1. Salt a large pot of water liberally (i.e., a tablespoon-plus), and while it comes to a boil for the penne ...
2. Mix pesto, mayonnaise, salt and pepper together in a large bowl and set aside.
3. Cook penne according to directions on the package – get it a couple minutes past al dente for Pagliacci-style, or cook to your pasta-salad preference. While the pasta is cooking ...
4. Drain artichoke hearts, and cut into small-bite-size pieces.
5. When pasta is done, drain it, then rinse briefly with cold water, tossing with a wooden spoon in the colander, then drain well.
6. Add pasta to pesto mixture, and mix to coat.
7. Bring an inch or two of water to a boil over high heat – you can reuse your pasta pot without washing here – then add the peas, stir and cook just until the water begins to bubble again (your peas should be a nice bright green). Drain peas in colander (no need to wash it after pasta), rinse with cold water and drain well again.
8. Add artichoke hearts, peas and Parmesan to penne-pesto mixture, and stir gently to incorporate.
9. Cool your pesto pasta salad in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before serving (or, obviously, longer). Before dishing it up, stir gently, taste, and add more salt and pepper as you like. Sprinkle with a little more grated Parmesan cheese before serving, if you're feeling it. Enjoy!