Italian Dressing Pasta Salad

This is the BEST pasta salad thanks to the BEST Italian dressing that readers call: “Out of this world!” “Beyond amazing,” “The very best Italian Dressing I’ve ever had!!!” and “Gourmet bright fresh and complexly wow yummy!”  Additionally, key ingredients like tangy, zippy pepperoncini, Genoa salami, and mozzarella pearls elevate this recipe and will have everyone coming back for more!  The recipe can be made 24 hours ahead for stress-free entertaining while remaining amazingly bright and fresh, thanks to my expert tips! 

top view of pasta salad recipe in a bowl with salami, tomatoes, bell peppers, olives, pepperoncini, Parmesan and parsley


 

Why You’ll Love This Italian Pasta Salad Recipe

  • BEST HOMEMADE ITALIAN DRESSING: Most pasta salads have similar ingredients-so what makes a recipe the best? The best Italian dressing! A salad is only as good as its dressing and this one is an irresistible tangy, testy blend with plenty of dried herbs and spices and the best part–Parmesan cheese! 
  • VIBRANT INGREDIENTS:  Pepperoncini bring this pasta salad to life!  They are slightly sweet but mostly tangy with a slight zip of heat that is explosively delicious. Additionally, using two types of meat (salami and pepperoni) add a rich, meaty, spicy Italian deli flair.
  • CUSTOMIZABLE: Make the dressing as tangy as you like, add your favorite veggies, proteins, cheese, etc. to make it YOUR favorite pasta salad (lots of variations included!)
  • MAKE AHEAD FRIENDLY:  See my tips for making this Italian pasta salad ahead of time for stress-free entertaining!
garnishing italian pasta salad in a white bowl with parsley and Parmesan
ingredient icon

Italian Dressing Pasta Salad Ingredients

This Italian Pasta Salad recipe is made with easy-to-find ingredients. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need (full recipe in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post):

  • Rotini: This twisty pasta holds onto the dressing and captures the ingredients’ flavors.
  • Salami: Look for Genoa Salami. Genoa salami is seasoned with garlic, salt, black and white pepper, and red or white wine. It can be purchased at the deli counter or is often pre-packaged with specialty deli meats. If you can’t find Genoa Salami, use your favorite alternative.
  • Pepperoni: Pepperoni adds a flavor different from the salami, with a savory, spicy saltiness and a hint of smokiness.   It’s seasoned with paprika, chili flakes, garlic, fennel seed, and salt. The best brands of pre-sliced pepperoni include Ezzo’s, Boar’s Head, and Battistoni. You can also purchase pepperoni in one piece, as a “stick” (ask for a quarter or half stick) from the deli counter.  This will be the very freshest, tastiest option because the pre-sliced pepperoni is already starting to oxidize.
  • Tomatoes: The use of ripe cherry tomatoes is crucial as they are flavorful and juicy yet firm, ensuring they release less water into the salad and maintain the dressing’s flavor.
  • Bell peppers: Use one green bell pepper for its earthiness and one yellow or orange bell pepper for its sweetness.
  • Onion:  ½ red onion adds a rich, zippy sweetness.
  • Black olives: Add a briny, slightly salty taste that balances the flavors. Purchase whole olives and cut them in half because pre-sliced olives can fall apart and get lost.
  • Pepperoncini: This ingredient is a must-have! It’s a type of mild, yellow-green chili pepper that provides a tangy, mildly spicy kick, enhancing the overall flavor of the salad. Pepperoncini typically comes in a glass jar shelved next to the sandwich condiments.
  • Mozzarella pearls:  Look for these with specialty cheeses. They come in a small plastic carton and are the perfect size for salads.  They are soft and buttery and melt-in-your-mouth YUM. If you can’t locate them, chop fresh mozzarella into chunks.
  • Garnish: Fresh Parmesan adds a nutty, salty finish, while parsley brings a fresh, herbal note for the final touch.
showing ingredients for pasta salad recipe: rigatoni, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella pearls, pepperoni, salami, black olives, red onions, orange bell pepper, green bell pepper

 For The Dressing:

  • Olive oil: Use quality extra virgin olive oil for superior flavor.
  • Red wine vinegar:  A favorite for its fruity tanginess.
  • Lemon juice:  Adds a fresh, vibrant citrus pop without tasting “lemony.”
  • Parmesan cheese:  Use freshly grated Parmesan grated on the smallest hole of your grater so it becomes powdery.
  • Sugar: Balances the vinegar and lemon juice.
  • Seasonings:  Dried parsley, dried basil, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika salt and pepper create a dynamic blend with just a few shakes.

How to Make Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing

Let’s take a closer look at how to make this Italian Pasta Salad recipe with with step-by-step photos (full recipe in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post):

  • Step 1: Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions. Drain and add to a large serving bowl.
  • Step 2: Pour half of the dressing over the warm pasta and toss to combine. 
showing how to make pasta salad by tossing the pasta with some Italian dressing
  • Step 3: Add the rest of the pasta salad ingredients.
top view of adding the Italian pasta salad ingredients to the bowl with pasta
  • Step 4: Toss to combine.
showing how to make pasta salad by tossing the ingredients together with tongs
  • Step 5: For best results, chill the salad for at least 30 minutes before serving.  Chill the remaining dressing separately.  When ready to serve, toss with the remaining dressing and garnish with fresh parsley and Parmesan.
showing how to make Italian pasta salad by chilling before serving

How to Make Italian Pasta Salad Dressing

  • Add the ingredients to a mason jar or mixing bowl and shake or whisk to combine.
  • Taste the dressing and tailor it to suit your personal preferences. For less acidity, add more sugar; for less tang, add more olive oil; and for more tang, add additional vinegar.
shaking Showing how to make Homemade Italian Dressing by shaking vinegar, oil, garlic, lemon juice, basil, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper in a mason jar

Classic Zesty Italian Pasta Salad TIPS

  • Customize Ingredients: The pasta salad measurements are simply suggestions.  Add/swap any ingredients for your favorite veggies. See variation ideas below.
  • Cook Pasta Al Dente: No one wants a mushy pasta salad! Cook the pasta just until al dente (i.e., is soft with a bit of a bite to it).
  • Immediately Toss with Vinaigrette: After the pasta is drained, immediately toss it with some of the vinaigrette. If you skip this step, it can dry together and tear when tossed. This also allows the warm pasta to soak up more flavor from the dressing.
  • Reserve Some Dressing: If you toss the pasta salad with all of the dressing before chilling, it can taste dry and bland. Tossing it with the remaining dressing just before serving will create optimal flavor and texture.
  • Chill Before Serving: Allow the pasta salad to chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving to let the flavors meld together.
  • Garnish Before Serving: Add the parsley and Parmesan garnish just before serving for maximum freshness and visual appeal.
top view tossing italian pasta salad recipe ingredients together

Italian Pasta Salad Recipe Variations

  • Swap Protein: Use turkey pepperoni, ham, grilled chicken, crumbled or sliced cooked sausage, canned tuna, or cooked shrimp instead of the salami and/or pepperoni.
  • Make it Vegetarian: Swap out the pepperoni and salami for marinated artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes or add chickpeas or marinated, pan-fried or grilled tofu.
  • Alternate Veggies: Add anything your heart desires such as chopped asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, cucumber, green beans, peas, etc. 
  • Roasted Veggie Mix: Add roasted zucchini, eggplant, and cherry tomatoes for a warm, earthy twist.
  • Add-ins: Try sun-dried tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, artichokes, capers, etc.
  • Spicy Kick: Incorporate diced jalapeños or a dash of red pepper flakes for those who enjoy a bit of heat.
  • Gluten-Free Option: Use gluten-free pasta (Tinkyada is great brand), sweet potato noodles, or zoodles etc.
  • Greek-Inspired: Use Kalamata olives instead of black olives, cucumbers instead of green bell peppers and add feta cheese for a Mediterranean twist.
  • Caprese Style: Substitute the salami and pepperoni with extra mozzarella pearls and add fresh basil leaves for a classic Caprese flavor.
  • Antipasto Mix: Include marinated mushrooms, artichokes, and roasted red peppers for an antipasto-inspired salad.
  • Creamy Italian: Stir in a few tablespoons of mayo and sour cream for a richer, creamier mouthfeel.

What to Serve With This Zesty Italian Pasta Salad

This Italian Pasta Salad recipe is a show stopping side dish perfect for any summer gathering or a light lunch or dinner any time of year! Here are some dishes it pairs well with:

Pasta Salad Recipe FAQs

Does pasta need to cool before making pasta salad?

Pasta should be cool for making creamy pasta salads with a mayonnaise or sour cream based dressing, otherwise the dressing will break and become runny. However, when using a vinaigrette dressing, like in this recipe, it’s best to toss the pasta with the dressing when slightly warm so it soaks up more flavor from the dressing.

Why does my pasta salad taste bland?

A pasta salad is only as good as the dressing – so make sure it is seasoned well! Do not add all the dressing to the pasta salad before chilling because the pasta will soak up all of the dressing and the salad will taste bland. Instead, reserve some of the dressing/vinaigrette to toss with the salad just before serving.

Is pasta salad better warm or cold?

Pasta salad is traditionally served cold or at room temperature. Serving it cold allows the flavors to meld together as it chills, enhancing the overall taste and texture. Additionally, the crispness of the vegetables and the freshness of the herbs are better preserved when the salad is cold. However, if the salad contains warm proteins (like Cowboy Pasta Salad) or roasted vegetables, some people might enjoy it better at room temperature.

Should I salt the water for pasta salad?


Yes, you should always salt your pasta water, whether pasta salad or a warmed pasta dish. Salting the water is the one chance you have to penetrate the pasta and enhance the subtle pasta flavor – you can taste the difference.  Use 1 tablespoon salt for 6 quarts of water when cooking one pound of pasta.

How do you keep pasta from sticking together for pasta salad?

First, use enough pasta water when cooking the pasta. Fill a large pot with a very generous amount of water, typically 6 quarts of water for 1 pound of pasta; this is typically three-quarters full.  Pasta needs enough water to cook evenly and to move around so it doesn’t clump.

Second, toss the cooked, drained pasta in some of the vinaigrette immediately after draining. If the pasta salad has a creamy dressing, toss it with a drizzle of olive oil instead.

Can you freeze pasta salad?

Freezing pasta salad is generally not recommended due to the negative impact it can have on the texture and flavor of the dish:

1. The pasta tends to become mushy and lose its firm, al dente quality, while the dressing may separate, resulting in an unappealing consistency.
2. Fresh vegetables, particularly those with high water content like tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers, can become watery and lose their crispness when frozen and thawed.
3. Dairy ingredients such as cheese or creamy dressings may separate and turn grainy or watery after freezing.
4. The freezing process can also dull the vibrant flavors of fresh herbs and spices, making the salad taste bland once thawed.

For the best results, it’s preferable to prepare pasta salad fresh or refrigerate it for a short period rather than freezing it.

up close of serving pasta salad with italian dressing

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top view of pasta salad recipe in a bowl with salami, tomatoes, bell peppers, olives, pepperoncini, Parmesan and parsley

Zesty Italian Pasta Salad

This is the BEST pasta salad thanks to the BEST Italian dressing that readers call: “Out of this world!” “Beyond amazing,” “The very best Italian Dressing I’ve ever had!!!” and “Gourmet bright fresh and complexly wow yummy!”  Additionally, key ingredients like tangy, zippy pepperoncini, Genoa salami, and mozzarella pearls elevate this recipe and will have everyone coming back for more!  The recipe can be made 24 hours ahead for stress-free entertaining while remaining amazingly bright and fresh, thanks to my expert tips! 
Servings: 12 servings
Total Time: 42 minutes
Prep Time: 35 minutes
Cook Time: 7 minutes

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Ingredients

  • 1 recipe homemade Italian Dressing <click for the recipe
  • 1 lb. rotini pasta
  • 3.5-4 oz. pepperoni, quartered (about ¾ cup)
  • 4 oz. sliced salami, quartered (about ¾ cup)
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 cup black olives, drained and halved
  • 1 orange bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup finely diced red onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped pepperoncini
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella pearls
  • Parmesan and parsley for garnish

Instructions

  • Prepare the Italian Dressing according to the directions (click here for the recipe). Refrigerate until ready to use, then shake to recombine before using.
  • Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions. Drain and add to a large serving bowl.
  • Pour HALF of the Dressing over the warm pasta and toss to combine. Add the rest of the pasta salad ingredients and toss to combine.
  • For best results, chill for at least 30 minutes before serving (up to 24 hours). Chill the remaining Dressing separately.
  • When ready to serve, toss with the remaining Dressing and garnish with fresh parsley and Parmesan.

Notes

Storage:  Cover leftover pasta salad with plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. Keep in mind that the salad may become drier over time as the pasta absorbs the dressing. You can add more dressing to your portion to freshen it up.

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2 Comments

  1. Kathryn says

    I want to save one of the recipes to my Facebook page but do not see how to save it. How can I do this?

    • Jen says

      Hi Kathyrn, there isn’t a direct way to do this from the site, but you can copy and paste the link into a new post on FB and it will show up that way. Hope this helps!