The ultimate Italian pasta salad recipe is an easy dinner idea to bring to summer picnics and potlucks.  This classic salad is made with tricolor pasta and is loaded with veggies, salami, and cheese.  The homemade Italian dressing takes this pasta salad to new levels of deliciousness.

Prep Time: 1 hour
person holding a bowl of Italian pasta salad
Salad

The Ultimate Italian Pasta Salad Recipe

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Have you been looking for the ultimate Italian pasta salad recipe?  Our pasta salad recipe is veggie packed and kid-approved.  Pour on our easy homemade Italian dressing and your summer picnic will be bursting with the yummiest pasta salad this side of the Mississippi.

bowl of Italian pasta salad with two forks

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What is Italian pasta salad?

Italian pasta salad is popular to serve during the warm months of the year at backyard BBQ and covered dish events in the U.S.  Chopped up vegetables, meats and cheese are added to a base of cold pasta.  The salad is tossed together with a vinegar and oil based Italian style dressing and is served chilled.

What are the main parts of Italian pasta salad?

The whole idea behind an awesome Italian pasta salad, is to get the texture, color and flavor balanced just right. 

  • Pasta: a shape that will hold the dressing well like rotini or fusilli
  • Salty: capers, olives, pepperoncini, anchovies, pickled vegetables
  • Fatty or Creamy: mozza balls or cubed, shaved Gouda, avocado, Provolone, Parmesan
  • Crunchy or Fresh: arugula, bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion
  • Hearty: chickpeas, toasted nuts, chick peas, salami, or pepperoni
  • Brightly flavored herbs: fresh dill, fresh basil, lemon zest, or freshly squeezed lemon juice

What ingredients should be in the homemade dressing for Italian pasta salad?

Your goal is to have a tangy dressing, so don’t skimp on the vinegar.

  • Oil: a good Italian extra virgin olive oil
  • Vinegar: red wine, apple cider vinegar, white balsamic, rice wine vinegar
  • Flavorings: minced garlic, minced shallots, fresh herbs and dried spices
  • Sweeteners: honey, agave, maple syrup, or white sugar

person holding a bowl of Italian pasta salad

What is the formula for an amazing Italian pasta salad?

For every 7 to 8 ounces of dried pasta, add 1 pound of savory ingredients and 3/4 cup of dressing.  Make sure to have extra dressing on hand, as the pasta will absorb it and more will be needed just before serving.

Can I add different vegetables to Italian pasta salad?

Yes, you can swap out different vegetables to meet your needs.  If you need to use up some fresh vegetables in your fridge, cut them up small and add them to the salad.

What kind of pasta can I use for Italian pasta salad?

The most popular pasta to use for Italian pasta salad is rotini.  We used garden rotini for the extra color in this salad.  Garden rotini has three colors: green (spinach), cream, and orange (tomato and carrot), makes the salad more colorful.  Some other pastas that have a solid texture and a great shape to absorb the dressing are:

  • Fusilli
  • Penne
  • Shells
  • Tortellini
  • Rotini

closeup of Italian pasta salad

Can I use gluten free pasta for Italian pasta salad?

Yes, you certainly can use gluten free pasta, but since it breaks down much faster than regular pasta, plan to eat the all salad within a few hours of assembling it.

Does pasta salad need to be refrigerated?

Yes, it’s best to chill it before eating because the flavors meld during this time.  If you’re taking this to a covered dish event, it’s best to refrigerate or put the salad in a cooler after 2 hours to keep the meat and cheese from spoiling.

How many carbs are in one cup of Italian pasta salad?

There are 24.3g of carbs in one cup of Italian pasta salad.  For more nutrition information, scroll down to the recipe card.

How can I reduce the carbs in pasta salad?

The best way to reduce the carbs in pasta salad is to change the pasta to vegetable ratio.  Either decrease the pasta, or increase the vegetables and other add ins like meat and cheese.

top view of a bowl of Italian pasta salad with two forks

Can you make Italian pasta salad ahead of time?

  • Yes, you can make it up to one day in advance.
  • Don’t add the tomatoes or cheese until just before serving, as they can get soggy.
  • Cover and refrigerate the salad until ready to serve.
  • Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.  You’ll need to add more salad dressing or red wine vinegar, as the pasta absorbs the dressing as it sits.

How long does Italian pasta salad last in the fridge?

Italian pasta salad is best if it is consumed within 24 hours of making it.  If you want it to last up to 3 days, add the tomatoes and cheese just before serving so they stay firm.

What goes with Italian pasta salad?

Pasta salad tastes great with typical American summer foods like:

  • Grilled meat
  • Fried chicken
  • Hamburgers
  • Pulled pork sandwiches

How to Make Italian Pasta Salad

Gather the ingredients for the dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, sugar, fine sea salt, and black pepper.  Mince the garlic, remove the thyme leaves from the sprig, chiffonade the fresh basil, and grate the lemon zest on a Microplane.

salad dressing ingredients for Italian pasta salad

Whisk the salad ingredients together in a medium sized bowl, then slowly pour in the olive oil.

pouring olive oil into a bowl

Continue to whisk until the Italian dressing is well combined.

whisking Italian dressing for pasta salad

Add the chopped red onion to the salad dressing.  This will give the red onion time to deflame.  Let it sit for at least 10 minutes.

adding chopped onion to bowl of Italian dressing

Gather the ingredients for the pasta salad.  I know it’s a lot, but trust me, it tastes so good.  Chop, dice, slice, grate and cut into strips all these delicious veggies, cheeses, and salami.

ingredients for Italian pasta salad

To cook the pasta, boil the water and add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt.  Stir until dissolved.

adding salt to pot of boiling water

Add the tri-colored rotini to the boiling water and cook according to the package instructions.  Check for doneness after the first 5 minutes.  You’ll want it al dente, which means “to the tooth” in Italian.  To check, take out one piece of pasta and bite it in the middle.  It should still have some ‘tooth’ to it, meaning it should be firm and not soggy.

stirring pasta in a pot with a wooden spoon

Drain the pasta in a colander and immediately submerge the colander into an ice bath of 50% water and 50% ice cubes.

chilling pasta in a colander with ice water

Let the pasta sit in the colander for 5 minutes to continue cooling, then drain completely.

drained pasta in a colander

Transfer the cooled pasta to a large bowl.  Add the savory salad ingredients: tomatoes, yellow pepper, carrots, salami, pepperonici, cucumbers, and kalamata olives.  If you are making this the night before, add the tomatoes closer to serving time.

veggies, olives, and meat in a bowl

Whisk the Italian salad dressing again and pour 3/4 cup to 1 cup of dressing onto the pasta salad.

pouring dressing onto Italian pasta salad

Mix together with salad tongs or with your hands until all the pieces are well coated with dressing.  If you’re making this the night before, you’ll want to cover the salad and let it chill in the fridge at this point.  If you’re making this the day of, cover and chill for 30 minutes to 2 hours.  I recommend the full 2 hours.

Just before serving, add the chopped parsley, the grated Parmesan, and the strips of Provolone and toss to combine.  Taste and pour on 1/4 cup Italian dressing as the pasta will absorb a lot of the first coating of dressing.  Toss, taste, and adjust seasonings, until it’s to your liking.  I sprinkled on a bit more salt, basil, oregano, sugar and black pepper.

ingredients for Italian pasta salad in a bowl

Garnish with fresh basil ribbons, grated Parmesan, and freshly chopped parsley.

tossing Italian pasta salad with two wooden spoons

Enjoy by the spoonful at your next outdoor summer gathering.  It guaranteed to please.

person holding a spoonful of Italian pasta salad

Pro Tips for Making Italian Pasta Salad

  • Quick pickle the red onion in the dressing to mellow its bite.
  • Cut all the vegetables the same size.  It makes it easier to eat, and it tastes better if you have more variety in each mouthful.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt when cooking the pasta.
  • Cook the pasta al dente.  Start testing the pasta 4 to 5 minutes after adding it to the pot.
  • Need this vegan?  Omit the meat and cheese.  Swap with another fatty and salty ingredient like avocado and capers.
  • Need this gluten free?  Use gluten free pasta or quinoa.
  • Need greens? Add fresh arugula or spinach just before serving.
  • Need other add ins?  Try sun dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, capers, green onion, and chopped zucchini.
  • Want this as a main course?  Add more salami, chick peas or pepperoni.
  • Put the dressing on cold pasta.  Warm pasta soaks up all the dressing and becomes dry and gummy.
  • Toss, taste, and season before serving.  Storing pasta salad in the fridge dulls our sense of taste.  Plus, the pasta absorbs a lot of the dressing.
  • Short on time?  Use less add ins and your favorite store bought Italian dressing.

Our ultimate Italian pasta salad will be your go to pasta salad recipe all this summer.  Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

colander, bowls, whisks, pot

Our Go-To Kitchen Tools for Italian Pasta Salad

These other Mediterranean salads will be crowd favorites for sure.

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  • Caprese Pasta Salad: an easy, make ahead side dish full of mozza balls and cherry tomatoes.
  • Olive Salad: this colorful medley of pickled veggies is perfect for making muffaletta sandwiches.
  • Greek Salad: this amazing salad is made with authentic ingredients.  Serve with crusty bread to make a meal!

The pleasure of a 5-star review for this Italian pasta salad would be greatly appreciated.

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person holding a bowl of Italian pasta salad

The Ultimate Italian Pasta Salad Recipe


  • Author: Brooke
  • Prep Time: 1 hour
  • Cook Time: 7 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour 7 minutes
  • Yield: 10 cups 1x

Description

The ultimate Italian pasta salad recipe is an easy dinner idea to bring to summer picnics and potlucks.  This classic salad is made with tricolor pasta and is loaded with veggies, salami, and cheese.  The homemade Italian dressing takes this pasta salad to new levels of deliciousness.


Scale

Ingredients

For the Italian Dressing

  • 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar (236 ml)
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest, from 1 large lemon
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 6 basil leaves, chopped or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • 6 small fresh basil leaves

For the Salad

  • 1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced then chopped
  • 7 ounces garden rotini
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup kalamata olives, sliced (140g)
  • 3/4 cup yellow pepper, chopped (100g)
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved (300g)
  • 1/2 cup English cucumber, sliced and quartered (225g)
  • 4 ounces Provolone, cut in strips (113g)
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 6 ounces salami, cut in strips (170g)
  • 1/2 cup baby carrots, coined (70g)
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (20g)
  • 1/4 cup pepperoncini

For the Garnish

  • 6 basil leaves, cut into ribbons then cut into smaller pieces
  • 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated

Instructions

Making the Italian Dressing

  1. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl.  The recipe makes 1 2/3 cups of Italian dressing.
  2. Soak the thinly sliced red onion in the dressing to take out the bite for at least 10 minutes.

Making the Salad

  1. Cooking the pasta. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil.  Stir in 2 tablespoons of kosher salt until dissolved.  Pour in the dried pasta and cook until al dente.  Read the instructions on the pasta box and start checking the pasta after 5 minutes of cooking.  Remember that pasta plumps up as it cooks.
  2. Making the ice bath. While the pasta is cooking, get your ice bath ready.  Find a large bowl and fill it 1/2 way with cold water and add 2 cups of ice.  Once the pasta is done cooking, drain in a colander.  Rinse with cold water then shock the pasta in an ice bath of 50% water and 50% ice cubes by submerging the colander.  This will stop the pasta from cooking and will cool it quicker.  Let the pasta drain and cool for at least 5 minutes.
  3. Assembling the salad. Pour the cooled pasta into a large bowl and gently stir in the next 10 ingredients for the salad.  Omit the tomatoes if making more than 2 hours in advance.  Pour 3/4 to 1 cup of the dressing on to the salad and toss until well combined.  If you would like, remove all the soaking onions from the dressing by using a strainer.  Put all the onions in the salad.  Pour the remaining Italian dressing into a mason jar, cover and refrigerate until needed.
  4. Chilling the salad. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes to 2 hours.  It’s best at 2 hours.
  5. Adjusting the seasonings. Before serving, toss the salad.  A lot of the dressing will have been absorbed by the pasta and some of it will have settled in the bottom of the bowl.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.  Shake the dressing, if in a mason jar or whisk it if it’s in a bowl.  Pour 1/4 cup of Italian dressing on to the salad, sprinkle on salt, black pepper, sugar, basil and oregano.  Toss.  Taste.  Any remaining dressing can be stored covered in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
  6. Adding the garnishes. Add any garnishes like basil leaves and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and enjoy!

Notes

  • The pleasure of a 5-star review for this Italian pasta salad would be greatly appreciated.
  • 👩🏻‍🍳 Want to see our latest recipes?  Subscribe to our email newsletter to get our latest recipes, fun food facts, food puns, and behind the scenes news about our blog.
  • Category: Salad
  • Method: Chopped
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: classic pasta salad, italian pasta salad

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