Italian Zesty Pasta Salad

This Italian zesty pasta salad is loaded with fresh Mediterranean ingredients like peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and olives. Everything is drizzled with an amazing zesty dressing made with olive oil, vinegar, and lemon. Prego!

Zesty Italian pasta salad on a bowl.

Italian Zesty Pasta Salad is a flavorful and refreshing dish typically made with pasta, fresh vegetables, and a tangy Italian dressing. It is perfect for picnics, potlucks, or as a side dish for barbecues. The salad can be customized with various ingredients to suit personal preferences.

Salads with pasta are the most consumed in the summer season and you can see them often offered in restaurants and as a takeaway lunch every day. 

In Italy, they’re called insalata di pasta fredda and there are a lot of versions with all kinds of vegetables, cold cuts, cheese, and other ingredients, like this tuna pasta fredda.

Zesty pasta salad in a wooden bowl.

Ingredients

  • PASTA: I love fusilli (also known as rotini pasta), they’re small and fun! But other types are also fine, like pennette, macaroni, etc.
  • FRESH TOMATOES: Cherry ones are pretty and very sweet in season, but you can also add diced fresh grape tomatoes.
  • CUCUMBERS: Add a nice fresh kick to the salad. Dice them or cut them into half-moons.
  • RED ONIONS: These are sweeter so this is my first option but you can add also white ones or anything you have in hand, even spring onions!
  • BELL PEPPERS: In summer bell peppers are delicious! Don’t skip them, add any kind you have available. For a colorful plate use tri-color, or just yellow and red.
  • OLIVES: I used Gaeta olives because they are so good and easy to find where I live. Black olives are also a good sub.
  • ARTICHOKES: Used artichokes preserved in oil because they add a nice tangy flavor to this salad. 
  • Ricotta salata: This cheese is a salty version of the traditional ricotta. You can replace it with Feta cheese, mozzarella, or flakes of parmesan cheese if you want.
  • DRESSING: For the zesty Italian dressing you’ll need extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar, freshly squeezed lemon juice, parsley, fresh basil, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. Also a little bit of water to emulsify all ingredients.
A plate with ingredients for the Italian zesty pasta salad.

*Use colorful vegetables and pasta shapes to make the salad more visually appealing. You can also arrange the ingredients in a pattern or mix them together for a more rustic look*.

How To Make Zesty Pasta Salad

In a large pot, boil the pasta to al dente following the package directions. Drain it well in a large colander.

Top Tip: Use plenty of water and use a large pot to give the pasta room to cook evenly and prevent sticking. I recommend using about 4 quarts of water per every pound of pasta.

Cooked rotini pasta in a colander.

Add it to a large mixing bowl and toss it with a bit of olive oil to prevent it from sticking. Allow to cool down completely.

Wash thoroughly the vegetables, and then cut them into small pieces. Add the to the bowl with pasta along with the ricotta cheese.

Onions and bell peppers cut on a cutting board and other vegetables needed for making Italian salad.

Make the zesty dressing by placing olive oil, vinegar, water, salt, pepper, lemon juice, parsley, basil, garlic, and oregano in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Vigorously shake the jar until all ingredients are nicely combined.

A jar with the dressing ready.

Drizzle the pasta and vegetables with the dressing and mix for 2-3 minutes or until everything is nicely coated.

Adjust salt to taste and leave your salad to chill for 15 minutes in the fridge before serving.

Notes and Tips

  • Chill your zesty pasta salad as the flavors are more pronounced and refreshing when cold. If the salad has been refrigerated for a while, give it a good stir before serving, as the dressing may have settled at the bottom.
  • Customize with whatever you have in your fridge or pantry, in Italy we like to call this type of salad svuota frigo, meaning ’empty fridge’ because they are perfect to use vegetables, cheese, and cold cuts that are sitting in your fridge for days.
  • You can make your version of zesty pasta salad using gluten-free pasta.
  • Do not rinse your pasta in an attempt to stop the cooking or to remove the starch. First, starch helps the dressing to absorb better and flavor the pasta, secondly, you can cook your pasta 1 minute less than the package suggests, so it will finish its cooking while cooling down.

Overall, we think you should try this zesty pasta salad recipe because…

  • It is loaded with fresh veggies and tasty ingredients that you can enjoy with every bite.
  • It’s highly customizable, so you can add also other vegetables, cheese, or cold meats like ham, pepperoni, hot dog sausages, salami, etc.
  • Is versatile, you can serve it for a quick lunch, light dinner, or as a side for grilled meats.
  • Is budget-friendly. Since it uses seasonal produce, generally those vegetables are cheaper in summer.
  • It can be carried easily, making it perfect for potlucks or work lunches.
  • It can be made ahead, so if you plan to do a cookout, prepare it the day before and let the flavors blend together, it will taste even better!
Close-up of the Italian zesty pasta salad.

Serving Suggestions

Serving zesty pasta salad is easy and versatile. Here are my favorite ways of serving:

  • Serving bowl: Transfer the salad to a large serving bowl. You can garnish with a little grated Parmesan cheese for added flavor and presentation.
  • Individual portions: For a more formal setting or to control portion sizes, you can serve the zesty pasta salad in individual bowls or on small plates.
  • As a side dish: Zesty pasta salad pairs well with some Italian mains like polpette or roasted veal.
  • Salad bar or buffet: If you’re hosting a larger gathering, you can include the zesty pasta salad as part of a salad bar or buffet along with other Italian salads like Tuscan panzanella or Cannellini beans salad.
  • Mason jar: Layer the pasta salad in a mason jar for a portable and visually appealing option. This is great for picnics, lunches, or outdoor events.

Storage Recommendations

This zesty salad is perfect for bringing to potlucks, picnics, or to the office, so you can even prepare ahead and store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days.

If you prefer the crunch of fresh lettuce, make sure you add it to the salad right before mixing it with the dressing. Chopped lettuce can last stored in a separate container for up to 3 days as well, or you can vacuum seal it in jars for longer.

FAQ

Is Italian dressing the same as zesty Italian?

Zesty Italian dressing has a little more zing than regular Italian dressing, this is because usually, zesty dressings have more garlic and include red pepper flakes.

Why is my pasta salad bland?

Avoid rinsing the salad with cold water, this will also remove the starch which helps flavors to stick to the pasta. And don’t forget to boil pasta using plenty of salted water.

More Italian Salad Recipes

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Italian zesty pasta salad recipe.

Italian Zesty Pasta Salad

6 servings
This Italian zesty pasta salad is loaded with fresh Mediterranean ingredients and drizzled with delicious, tangy dressing made with olive oil, vinegar lemon & fresh herbs. 
prep 15 minutes
cook 12 minutes
total 27 minutes

Equipment

  • 1 large mixing bowl

Ingredients 

For salad

  • 12 ounces fusilli pasta (or penne, macaroni.)
  • 7 ounces cherry tomatoes (quartered)
  • 1 small red bell pepper (cut into thin strips)
  • 1 small yellow bell pepper (cut into thin strips)
  • 1 small red onion (thinly sliced)
  • 1 medium cucumber (cut into half-moons)
  • 1 small Romaine lettuce (chopped)
  • ½ cup Gaeta olives (pitted)
  • 1 cup artichoke packed in oil (drained and cut into wedges)
  • ½ cup ricotta salata or feta cheese (crumbled)

For dressing

  • cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh parsley (finely chopped)
  • 1 Tablespoons fresh basil (chopped)
  • 1 Tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 clove garlic (minced)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Instructions
 

  • Cook the pasta al dente in a large stockpot according to package instructions.
  • Drain and transfer to a bowl, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and mix well. Allow to cool down. 
  • Add all ingredients for the dressing to a jar and close with a tight-fitting lid.
  • Shake the jar vigorously to combine all ingredients.
  • Add the vegetables and cheese to the bowl.
  • Pour over the dressing and mix for a couple of minutes to nicely coat everything.
  • Serve immediately or chill for a couple of hours in the fridge before serving.

Notes

  • You can make your version of pasta salad using gluten-free pasta, just remember that type of pasta doesn’t stay as soft as regular pasta for a long time after being cooked.
  • Do not rinse your pasta in an attempt to stop the cooking or to remove the starch. First, starch helps the dressing to absorb better and flavor the pasta, secondly, you can cook your pasta 1 minute less than the package suggests, so it will finish its cooking while cooling down.
Nutrition Information
Serving: 1 serving | Calories: 431kcal | Carbohydrates: 51g | Protein: 11g | Fat: 20g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 11g | Cholesterol: 11mg | Sodium: 843mg | Potassium: 363mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 5g | Vitamin A: 1504IU | Vitamin C: 57mg | Calcium: 117mg | Iron: 2mg
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Recipe Rating




2 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Hey! I just wanted to comment here to let you know that I trully loved this pasta salad! Never cooked something like this and it’s the most easiest thing I’ve done! Used the regular ricotta (the first one I found) and it worked perfectly, not really anything else to cook besides the pasta so is very simple and refreshing!