This easy Italian pasta salad is loaded with fresh vegetables, mozzarella cheese, salami, and tossed in a tangy herb vinaigrette. Make a big batch that’s perfect for serving as a side dish at your next potluck or barbecue.
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Don’t settle for store-bought Italian pasta salads that are often mushy and drowning in overly tart dressing. Instead, making it from scratch yields gourmet results without skimping on the mix-ins, so you can wow your friends and family. The two main components that need a little extra finesse when preparing are the dried pasta and dressing. My easy recipe techniques will guide you through the process with ease.
Cooking the noodles on your own allows you to control the level of doneness for maximum flavor absorption. This is important because this starchy base ingredient affects the overall taste experience. Furthermore, you could buy bottled Italian dressing for convenience, however, it only takes a few minutes to whisk together a more flavorful and balanced tangy herb vinaigrette.
The type of pasta (link) used impacts how much salad dressing is delivered per bite. Use a short pasta with lots of twists and grooves like rotini, fusilli, or gemelli. This will grab and trap the vinaigrette more effectively. I like smaller-sized pieces of tender pasta in order to balance out the other vegetables and protein mix-ins. It’s also easy to serve and enjoy fork-sized noodles, instead of long strands for the salad.
Why you should cook pasta past al dente
Typically pasta is cooked al dente, or “to the tooth” with a little more chew in the center. For a cold pasta salad, it’s better to boil until the entire pasta is soft throughout, but not mushy. This adds just a few short minutes to the cooking time, but it allows for more of the starches to be released, creating a stickier surface for the dressing to cling to.
Right after draining the hot water, make sure to rinse the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process and firm up the noodles before tossing.
Ingredients for the Italian dressing
The key to a delicious homemade Italian pasta salad recipe is nailing the dressing. I use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, pungent red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, a touch of honey to balance the acidity, and dried Italian seasonings. This combination gives that characteristic bold, tangy, and herbaceous flavor.
Make a proper emulsion
Don’t be tempted to just dump the oil into the dressing all at one time. Instead, slowly drizzle in the oil and consistently whisk. This process helps to break the fat into small droplets that create a uniform oil in water emulsion.
Properly dispersing the oil creates a thicker dressing that will cling to the ingredients, evenly delivering the tangy vinegar and herbs. The worst thing is to have a greasy pasta salad and all of the flavorful vinegar pooling at the bottom of the bowl.
Add in colorful, crunchy, and salty mix-ins
To make each bite more interesting, toss in colorful, Italian-inspired ingredients. I like to use freshly chopped vegetables like red onion, green and red bell pepper for crunchiness. Cherry tomatoes add a nice juicy sweetness while sliced pepperoncini and black olives add pungent, briny flavors.
Just like a good antipasto appetizer, add-in some creamy mozzarella balls and slices of savory salami. I’m a big fan of sprinkling in fresh herbs like basil and parsley for garden aromas. You can also get creative and with marinated artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and kalamata olive for bold flavors.
Making ahead and serving
The noodles, vegetables, cheese, and meat can be prepared and combined 1 day in advance. It’s best to make the dressing the same day to keep it uniform. I also toss the pasta and dressing together right before serving so it nicely coats the surface.
Letting the salad sit too long causes the starchy noodles to soak up too much liquid, and makes the pasta dry. If you do have leftovers, save some extra dressing so you can drizzle more on top later to enhance the taste.
What to serve with this
Keeping the salad dressing emulsified
The oil and vinegar emulsion is only temporary, lasting an hour at best before the layers separate. To prolong the uniform suspension, I add two emulsifying agents, mayonnaise and mustard. They prevent the oil and vinegar from separating when tossed with the pasta, but they should be mixed with the vinegar first to effectively coat the oil droplets when whisked.
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Italian Pasta Salad
Italian Pasta Salad
- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, for boiling the pasta
- 1 pound rotini pasta
- 6 ounces mozzarella cheese balls, cut in half
- 4 ounces sliced salami, cut into ¼-inch thick pieces
- 1 cup baby tomatoes, cut in half
- ½ cup red bell pepper, ½-inch dice
- ½ cup green bell pepper, ½-inch dice
- ½ cup red onion, ¼-inch dice
- ½ cup black olives, sliced
- ⅓ cup sliced pepperoncini
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon sliced basil leaves
Italian Pasta Salad
- In a large pot bring water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil. Cook pasta until slightly softer than al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes.
- Drain pasta, rinse with cold water until cool, about 1 minute. Thoroughly drain excess water and then add noodles to a large bowl.
- Top pasta with mozzarella cheese, salami, tomatoes, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, red onion, black olives, pepperoncini, parsley, and basil. Stir to combine.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together red wine vinegar, honey, mustard, Italian seasoning, mayonnaise, garlic, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
- Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, vigorously whisk until a thickened emulsified dressing forms. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as desired.
- Drizzle 1 cup of the Italian dressing over the pasta and gently toss until combined. Add more as desired or serve the extra dressing on the side.
- Recipe Yield: 12 cups
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Dressing Makes: 1 ½ cups
- White wine vinegar can be substituted for red wine vinegar.
- Maple syrup can be substituted for honey.
- Homemade Italian seasoning: ½ teaspoon dried basil, ½ teaspoon dried oregano, ½ teaspoon dried teaspoon parsley, ¼ teaspoon dried thyme, ¼ teaspoon dried rosemary.
- The pasta can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Add more dressing to enhance the taste.
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