Exquisitely flavourful and satisfying, this Italian Pasta Salad is loaded with cheese, veggies, salami and an easy-to-make homemade Italian dressing. Perfect for summer picnics, backyard cookouts, and potlucks!
I have the most sublime pasta salad for you today. One you would feel proud to bring to a potluck or to serve at your next summer soirée. Booming with colour, texture and flavour from briny olives, tomatoes, pepperoncini, bell peppers, salami, onions, two kinds of cheese, fresh basil, and a fresh and zingy dressing, it has everything you’ve ever wanted in a pasta salad.
- How To Make An Epic Pasta Salad
- How To Make Italian Pasta Salad
- Make Ahead Tips
- Storage Tips
- Serving Suggestions
- More Summer Salads To Try
Like all pasta salads, this one benefits from being made a few hours ahead, so the pasta can absorb all the flavours from the tartly pungent dressing. Speaking of dressings, don’t sleep on this one. It’s made with this pasta salad in mind but it’s also fabulous drizzled over salad greens, grilled veggies, grilled chicken or grain bowls. I’m obsessed.
How To Make An Epic Pasta Salad
I am a huge fan of pasta salads, especially this time of year when they are perfect to bring along for a beach day or picnic. But a truly excellent pasta salad requires some attention to detail. Here are some rules to follow so you don’t end up with a sad starchy, clumpy one that is quickly abandoned by everyone.
1. Use the right shape of pasta.
Long pasta noodles are delicious but they don’t work well for pasta salads. When you are adding other chopped ingredients to pasta, it is ideal if the pasta is bite-sized so you can catch a bit of everything in each forkful. In addition, try and pick shapes that have ridges, nooks, and crannies which trap and hold the dressing and chopped bits of food. I like fusilli, farfalle, small penne, or my new favourite casarecce.
Lastly, and probably goes without saying, don’t use fresh pasta which does not hold up well in a pasta salad.
2. Don’t overcook the pasta, but more importantly, don’t undercook it.
Until I read this fascinating article which explains the retrogradation phenomenon, my pasta salads were good, but not as good as they could be. In short, it turns out that pasta hardens when cooled or chilled so for a more pleasantly chewy pasta salad, it should be cooked just a few minutes past al dente.
Many excellent pasta salads later, I’m sold. My foolproof method for most pasta shapes, is to cook the pasta 2 minutes past what the package instructs. That said, make sure you start testing a few minutes early so it doesn’t accidentally go to the overly-mushy side. If this happens, drain the pasta and shock it in a bowl of ice water and you should be good.
3. Allow the pasta to cool before dressing it.
Again, I used to be doing it wrong. When making potato salad, we’re told to dress it while it’s still hot so it soaks up the flavours. But pasta is a different starch and becomes gummy and dry when dressed while it is still warm. This is why we always hold back some pasta water when making a sauce for hot pasta—it helps re-hydrate the pasta and loosen the sauce.
My foolproof method: Drain the pasta (do not rinse!); transfer to a large mixing bowl and immediately drizzle with olive oil and season with salt. Stir until all the pasta is well coated in oil. This will prevent it from clumping. Allow the pasta to cool for about 15 to 20 minutes, giving it a few occasional stirs while it sits.
4. Puree the dressing.
For dressing my pasta salads, I like a vinaigrette that is a little thick so it really coats and clings to the pasta. I also like the dressing to be well emulsified so you don’t end up with areas that are unpleasantly oily.
If you don’t have a blender or food processor to blend the vinaigrette, drizzle the olive oil in slowly while constantly whisking.
5. Season generously.
If you love to cook pasta, you already know you need to generously season the pasta water so the pasta doesn’t taste bland. Once chilled, the seasoning and flavours in the pasta salad are more muted so make sure you taste and add more salt if necessary.
Pasta salads are endlessly adaptable and I love throwing one together with whatever I have in the fridge. However, if you want your pasta salad with these delicious Italian flavours, try it as written without changing up the ingredients too much. It’s truly outstanding.
For the pasta salad:
- Pasta – For a tastier pasta salad, use a short pasta with some texture so it catches and holds on to as mush dressing as possible. Fusilli, farfalle, little shells, orecchiette, gemelli, cavatappi, etc, will all work.
- Raw veggies – Here I used red onion, tomatoes and red bell pepper. The onion adds some punchy flavour and just a bit of crunch. Red pepper add a bit of crunch but do soften slightly when chilled which I like. Cherry tomatoes work really well here but make sure to slice them in half—their juices add great flavour to the salad.
- Marinated veggies – For the essential briny flavours and chewy textures I add in sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, and loads of pepperoncini peppers.
- Parmesan – An Italian pasta salad is delicious with parmesan cheese which adds wonderful salty umaminess.
- Fresh mozzarella – I like to shred fresh mozzarella into the pasta salad for some lovely creaminess. You can use small boconccini balls if you prefer.
- Salami – Completely optional but just a little goes a long way in making the salad heartier and adding some salty bites throughout.
- Fresh basil. The fragrant flavour of fresh basil is lovely in this Italian pasta salad. For maximum flavour, don’t add it in until ready to serve.
For the vinaigrette:
I like a bold, zesty, flavourful dressing for this Italian pasta salad. This one is easy to whip up by hand but a blender will make things even easier.
- Red wine vinegar
- Grainy mustard (or Dijon)
- *Red onion – There is red onion in the salad but I like to add red onion to the dressing as well which makes it super flavourful. But it is best if the dressing doesn’t have chunks of red onion so if you don’t have a blender or small processor, just omit it.
- Dried oregano
- Salt and pepper
- crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
How To Make Italian Pasta Salad
This pasta salad is a celebration of picnic days, bbq’s and potlucks. With a high veggie to pasta ratio, you could almost say it’s good for you!
- Cook pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil; salt generously.Cook pasta 2-3 minutes past package instruction or 2-3 minutes past al dente.
- Cool pasta: Drain the pasta (do not rinse!); transfer to a large mixing bowl and immediately drizzle with olive oil and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat. This will prevent it from clumping or sticking together. Allow the pasta to cool for about 15 to 20 minutes, giving it a few occasional stirs while it sits.
- Prepare pasta salad ingredients: While pasta is cooling chop and prepare the pasta salad ingredients.
- Make the Italian dressing: In a blender or food processor combine vinegar, onion, garlic, oregano, grainy dijon, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Alternatively, omit the onion and whisk everything in a medium bowl until emulsified.
- Assemble salad: Add cooled pasta to a large serving bowl along with cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, red onion, pepperoncini, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, and salami (if using).
- Add dressing: Pour a little more than half of the dressing over the pasta salad and give everything a gentle toss to combine. Add the grated parmesan and chopped fresh basil; stir gently again. Taste and season with a bit more salt and pepper, and drizzle with more dressing, if necessary.
- Chill: Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve.
Make Ahead Tips
This gorgeous Italian pasta salad can be completely assembled a day in advance and chilled until ready to serve.
If you wish to prepare it 2-3 days ahead, follow these steps:
- Cook and cool the pasta according to recipe instructions and chill separately in a bowl.
- Chop and prepare all the other salad ingredients and store separately in the refrigerator.
- Prepare the Italian dressing; refrigerate until ready to use. The olive oil will solidify when chilled so make sure you give it enough time to come to room temperature.
Italian pasta salad keeps well, covered tightly, in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Keep in mind, however, that as a pasta salad sits, it soaks up allMake sure you save some dressing to pour over it each time you’re ready to serve it. If you have no dressing left, a good drizzle of olive oil, a few splashes of vinegar, and a dusting of flaky salt should be enough to freshen it all up.
This satisfying Italian pasta salad is rich with vegetables and fresh herbs, and substantial enough for a warm evening’s meal. But it’s also a fabulous side dish to serve alongside other mains. Here are a few we enjoy it with:
- Poblano Turkey Burger
- Sweet and Sticky Grilled Drumsticks
- Pineapple Salmon Kabobs
- Spinach and Feta Stuffed Chicken
- Grilled Juicy Chicken breast
More Summer Salads To Try
- Cowboy Caviar
- Italian Salad Recipe
- 5 Bean Salad with Citrus-Herb Dressing
- Mexican Street Corn Salad
- Grilled Peach and Burrata Salad
If you give this Italian Pasta Salad recipe a try, please feel free to leave a comment and/or a star rating below. We appreciate and welcome all your feedback. Thank you!
Italian Pasta Salad
For the dressing:
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar plus more to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons juice from pepperoncini jar, optional
- 1 garlic clove finely grated or minced
- 1/4 small red onion, roughly chopped omit if not using a blender to make dressing (*see notes)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon grainy mustard (or use dijon)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
For the pasta:
- 1 pound short-cut pasta such as fusilli, farfalle, rotini, etc.
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes halved
- 1 small red bell pepper diced
- 1/3 cup diced red onion
- 8 pepperoncini, stemmed and sliced thin plus a few whole ones (optional for garnish)
- ¾ cup sliced Kalamata olives
- 1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella torn into bite-sized pieces (or use small bocconcini balls)
- 4 ounces sliced salami cut into 1/4-inch strips (optional)
- 1 cup (2-3 ounces) grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves
- In a blender or food processor combine vinegar, pepperoncini juice (if using), garlic, onion, oregano, grainy dijon, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of black pepper. Blend until smooth. Alternatively, omit the chopped onion and whisk everything in a medium bowl until emulsified (*see notes).
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat; salt generously. Cook pasta 2-3 minutes past package instructions or 2-3 minutes past al dente.
- Drain the pasta (do not rinse!); transfer to a large mixing bowl and immediately drizzle with olive oil and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss to coat. This will prevent it from clumping or sticking together. Allow the pasta to cool for about 15 to 20 minutes, giving it a few occasional stirs while it sits.
- Add cooled pasta to a large serving bowl along with cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, red onion, pepperoncini, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, and salami (if using).
- Pour a little more than half of the dressing over the pasta salad and give everything a gentle toss to combine. Add the grated parmesan and chopped fresh basil; stir gently again. Taste and season with a bit more salt and pepper, and drizzle with more dressing, if necessary.
- Serve immediately or preferably chill for 30 minutes to allow the flavours to meld.