Classic Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing
on Aug 30, 2023
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This easy pasta salad with Italian dressing is a fresh take on a classic. It has plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and olives. And the best part is that it’s a choose your own adventure pasta salad. You can start with the base recipe and make swaps and additions to suit your tastes.
If you’re looking for another Italian pasta salad recipe, try this Tortellini Pasta Salad with pesto vinaigrette.
Table of Contents
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
This pasta salad is vegetarian, but you can make additions or substitutions to customize it. If you need the salad to be vegan, you just leave out the cheese and substitute the honey in the dressing. On the opposite end of dietary preferences, you can add chicken or salami.
You can’t go wrong with Italian dressing for pasta salads. It doesn’t get more classic than a cold pasta salad tossed in a simple vinaigrette with minced garlic, red wine vinegar and dried oregano.
Pasta salads are always a great choice for potlucks, cookouts, holidays and more. You can treat a pasta salad like a side or a main. These Mediterranean flavors go well with countless other dishes. It’s always handy to have a go-to recipe you can serve in multiple ways.
Best Types of Pastas for Salads
Corkscrew shaped rotini pasta and fusilli are wonderful for salads. That’s because they hold onto the dressing. Also, these short pasta shapes are similar in size to other ingredients in this recipe including halved cherry tomatoes, diced peppers and cucumbers. They are all bites that you can easily pick up with your fork.
Ingredients & Substitutions
This is what you need:
- Pasta: Spiral-shaped rotini or fusilli are my first choices for this salad. You can use tri-color rotini for a colorful look, and it won’t change the taste. Other short noodle options for pasta salads include penne, gemelli and farfalle.
- Tomatoes: You can use either cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes sliced in half. If you don’t have ripe tomatoes, substitute with sun-dried tomatoes. You can buy the ones packed in oil. Just drain them and chop them. You will need 1 cup.
- Cucumbers: Both English and Persian cucumbers have thinner, more delicate skin and less seeds than regular cucumbers, so they are my go-tos for salads.
- Peppers: Because of their sweeter flavor, I prefer yellow, orange or red bell peppers instead of green bell peppers, which are more bitter.
- Olives: I like pitted Kalamata olives, but you can use black olives instead.
- Red onions add sharpness to the pasta salad. Make sure to finely dice them, so they mix in well. For more mild onion flavor, thinly slice 3 green onions.
- Cheese: As the recipe is written, it calls for 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese. This is the ingredient where you can make substitutions that really impact the overall flavor of the salad. Try torn fresh mozzarella or mozzarella pearls. To turn it into a Greek pasta salad, stir in crumbled feta cheese.
- Parsley: For fresh herbs, I add chopped parsley. You can include torn fresh basil leaves, but what I like about parsley is that it is more leftover-friendly. Basil will wilt in the refrigerator.
- Italian dressing: The vinaigrette ingredients are a combination of minced fresh garlic, dried oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, honey, whole grain mustard, red wine vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil. To make it vegan, use maple syrup instead of honey. That touch of sweetness is important to balance out the acidity of the dressing.
This is where you can customize the salad:
- Chopped salami or pepperoni really lean into this being a traditional Italian pasta salad. If you are feeding vegetarians and carnivores, you can put the meat into a separate bowl, and people can add it if they want.
- Chicken: Chopped or shredded, roasted or grilled chicken adds protein and makes this salad even more filling as a main dish.
- Chickpeas: Drain and rinse a 15-ounce can of chickpeas and include them for a vegan addition.
- Hard-boiled eggs: You can give each person an entire egg or chop a few and stir them in with the rest of the ingredients.
- Avocados: I love creamy, ripe avocados. You can dice 1 and add it with the tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and everything else.
- Pepperoncini: Thinly sliced, these sweet mild chili peppers give the pasta salad a nice kick.
How To Make This Easy Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing
1. Cook the pasta. Follow the recommended cook time on the package, and simmer the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Be careful not to over cook it. Drain the pasta and rinse it with cold water in a colander.
2. Combine the pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives, onions, Parmesan and parsley.
3. Make the dressing. Whisk the garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, honey, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl.
4. Drizzle the dressing into the salad. Toss everything together until the ingredients are combined.
Again, you can treat this Italian pasta salad recipe like a side dish or a main dish. Serve it with Italian or Mediterranean flavors. During the summer, it pairs well with anything grilled like Tofu Veggie Skewers or Grilled Halloumi and Veggies. I also like it with Baked Zucchini Corn Fritters.
Leftovers, Storage & Make-Ahead Tips
Pasta salad is best the day it is made. The Italian dressing can be made 3 days in advance. Store it in a jar in the fridge. Let it sit out at room temperature before you whisk it into the salad because the oil will need about 15 minutes to turn to liquid again if it has hardened in the cold temperature of the refrigerator.
Wait to cook the pasta until you are planning to make the entire salad. Otherwise the noodles may stick together and become soft.
Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge up to 3 days. Be aware that the longer it sits, the more the pasta will tend to soften. Let it sit out at room temperature for 15 minutes before you’re going to eat it.
Do not overcook the pasta. Pay close attention to the recommended cook time on the package. Usually, you will see a range. Always use the least amount of time, and even taste a noodle 30 seconds before that. You want the pasta to be al dente and have some bite.
Do not make the pasta in advance. As mentioned, for the freshest tasting pasta salad, wait to cook the noodles until you’re ready to assemble everything. You can make the vinaigrette up to 3 days in advance and store it in the fridge.
Check the seasonings. When dishes are served cold, they need more salt and pepper than food eaten warm. Once you have the pasta salad assembled, taste it and see if you need to season it. Salt has the ability to jumpstart the flavors of all the ingredients.
Make the Italian dressing from scratch. This can be a tempting shortcut, but you will be rewarded with better taste overall if you make your own vinaigrette.
Leave out the cheese and use maple syrup in the Italian dressing instead of honey.
You can keep pasta salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 3 days. After that, the noodles will lose their good al dente bite.
More Pasta Salad Recipes
Classic Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing
- 8 ounces rotini or fusilli pasta
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes halved
- 1 cup diced cucumbers
- 1 bell pepper diced
- 1 cup halved pitted Kalamata olives
- 1/4 cup finely diced red onions
- 1/3 cup grated parmesan plus more for serving
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley plus more for serving
- 1 garlic clove minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 pinch red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt plus more for serving
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper plus more for serving
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente according to package instructions. Drain and rinse with cold water in a colander.
- In a large bowl, combine the pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, olives, onions, Parmesan and parsley.
- For the vinaigrette, whisk the garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, honey, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl.
- Drizzle the dressing into the salad. Toss to combine. Taste the pasta salad and add more salt and pepper as needed.
- Spoon into a serving bowl and top with additional Parmesan and parsley as desired.
- Cherry Tomatoes: 1 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
- Red onions: 3 scallions, thinly sliced
- Kalamata olives: black olives
- Parmesan cheese: torn fresh mozzarella or mozzarella pearls, crumbled feta
- Chopped salami or pepperoni
- Chopped or shredded cooked chicken
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Diced avocados
- Sliced pepperoncini
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.