This tasty pesto calabrese is a deliciously spicy, savory sauce! This type of pesto is made with roasted red peppers and spicy pepper flakes, perfect for your next pasta night!

Pesto Calabrese
Save This Recipe Form

Want to save this recipe?

Share your email below & we'll send it to you! Plus, you'll get new recipes from us every week!

What is Pesto Calabrese?

Pesto Calabrese is a variation of traditional Italian pesto from southern Italy. Rather than a base of basil and pine nuts, this pesto is made with roasted red peppers, spicy red pepper flakes, onion, and tomato for a flavorful and unique sauce. I love how this sauce is savory, salty, and a little bit spicy. The ricotta cheese gives it a subtle creaminess and the red pepper flakes add a balanced heat.

This red pepper pesto is delicious with pasta, but you could also enjoy it on roasted vegetables or as a spread on your favorite sandwich or wrap. It’s surprisingly easy to make your own pesto using natural ingredients, and I think this tastes much better than ready-made sauce.

Ingredients & Substitutions

  • Red Bell Peppers: Roasted red bell peppers create the base of the sauce, providing a sweet and slightly tangy flavor.
  • Olive Oil: Extra virgin olive oil helps sauté the peppers and enhances the overall richness of the sauce.
  • Yellow Onion: Chopped yellow onion adds a savory and slightly sweet flavor to the pesto.
  • Roma Tomato: A little tomato helps add a savory, slightly fruity flavor to the pesto. You can substitute with 1/2 cup of cherry or grape tomatoes.
  • Garlic: Minced garlic provides a pungent and aromatic kick to the pesto, enhancing its overall depth of flavor. You can use one teaspoon of minced garlic if you don’t have fresh garlic.
  • Red Pepper Flakes or Calabrian Chili Paste: Red pepper flakes or Calabrian chili paste adds characteristic heat to the dish. Feel free to adjust based on how spicy you want the final sauce to taste.
  • Fresh Basil– A little fresh basil adds a savory undertone to the sauce. You can also sprinkle additional basil on top for color.
  • Whole-Milk Ricotta Cheese: Fresh ricotta cheese contributes a creamy and slightly tangy texture to the pesto. It helps smooth out the sauce and adds richness.
  • Parmesan Cheese: Grated Parmesan cheese adds a salty and nutty flavor, intensifying the overall savory profile of the pesto. You could substitute Parmesan for pecorino cheese or pecorino romano cheese.
  • White Wine Vinegar: White wine vinegar provides acidity, balancing the richness of the cheeses and adding a subtle tang to the sauce. You can substitute with red wine vinegar or lemon juice. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is this sauce spicy? Yes, the red pepper flakes add a spicy flavor to this pesto. If you don’t want to make the sauce spicy, you might want to try making Romesco sauce instead. This sauce is made with roasted red peppers but doesn’t have the heat of a typical pesto calabrese.

Does this taste like basil pesto? No, traditional pesto is made with basil and pine nuts. This has a spicy flavor and a slightly creamy texture thanks to the ricotta.

What are calabrian chilis? These chili peppers are hot and spicy. I buy Calabrian chili paste from Whole Foods, but you can also get these hot peppers on Amazon. It adds the perfect amount of heat to pasta and soups!

How to Store Leftover Sauce

To store leftover pasta sauce effectively, allow it to cool to room temperature before transferring it into airtight containers and promptly refrigerate within two hours. You can keep the sauce in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days. Reheat either on the stovetop or in the microwave, then toss it with your favorite pasta. I don’t recommend freezing this sauce since it contains ricotta. Dairy sauces tend to separate when frozen.

clock clock iconcutlery cutlery iconflag flag iconfolder folder iconinstagram instagram iconpinterest pinterest iconfacebook facebook iconprint print iconsquares squares iconheart heart iconheart solid heart solid icon
Pesto Calabrese

Pesto Calabrese

5 Stars 4 Stars 3 Stars 2 Stars 1 Star No reviews
  • Author: Liz Thomson
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: 6 cups 1x
  • Category: Dinner
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Italian Inspired
  • Diet: Vegetarian


This tasty pesto calabrese is a deliciously spicy, savory sauce! This type of pesto is made with roasted red peppers and spicy pepper flakes, perfect for your next pasta night!


Units Scale
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and thinly sliced
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or 1/2 teaspoon Calabrian chili paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, plus more for garnish
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
  • 1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 8oz short pasta such as ziti, penne, or fusilli


  1. Add the olive oil and bell peppers to a large skillet, cover, and cook over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the peppers have softened.
  2. Add the chopped onion, tomato, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt and cook for 4-5 minutes.
  3. ​Allow the pepper mixture to cool slightly, then transfer it to a food processor or blender.
  4. Blend the pepper mixture with the ricotta, basil, Parmesan cheese, and vinegar until smooth.
  5. ​Add additional salt to taste, if needed.
  6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water.
  7. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce in a large bowl until combined. Add additional pasta water to thin the sauce, if needed.
  8. Top with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired.