If you are a pasta lover no matter the season, then you are exactly in the right place. Around here, there is no shortage of vegetarian pasta recipes, and we wholeheartedly live with the understanding that there must be carbs at every meal.
And this pasta salad checks all the boxes. It’s the perfect side dish with its carbs and veggies and cheese, yet it also makes a fantastic light lunch or dinner (and quite frankly, is lovely with a chilled glass of wine on such occasions).
It’s easy to make in just about 15 minutes and bursts with flavor and is easy to make ahead, too, so it’s even more perfect for bringing to your friend’s cookout or the next family gathering. Because you know pasta salad is a must-have side dish at BBQs, right?!
The Type of Pasta for Cold Pasta Salad
The shape of the pasta you use is flexible in pasta salads, but you don’t want to use just any pasta in pasta salads. You’ll want to use a smaller shape that will hold the dressing well.
Ideal shapes include fusilli, bowtie (or farfalle), penne, or rotini, as shown here.
These pasta shapes all have nooks and crannies for holding in the dressing making them the perfect options.
You will also want to stick with dry pasta, as opposed to fresh pasta when making pasta salad. While fresh homemade pasta is incredible in hot dishes, it won’t hold up in cold pasta salads.
Ingredients for Italian Pasta Salad
Now, the beauty of making pasta salad at home is that you can absolutely customize the ingredients! It’s the perfect recipe for using up what you already have on hand; especially those last few olives or tomatoes that you’re just not sure what to do with.
We’ve covered the pasta you’ll need to make zesty Italian pasta salad; here are the rest of the ingredients I love adding to this dish:
- Bell Pepper: you can use any color of bell pepper that you’d like, but for this recipe, I stick with green bell pepper for a little zippiness… and zestiness.
- Grape Tomatoes: easy to halve and toss in the salad. They’re not overly juicy either, so they hold their shape well when tossed with the rest of the ingredients. Cherry tomatoes are a good substitute.
- Black Olives: mild in flavor and bring some saltiness. If you don’t love black olives, omit or sub with a mild olive you do love.
- Cucumber: a must-have for a summer pasta salad IMO – fresh, crunchy, and juicy! Remove the seeds if using a traditional cucumber, or opt for the English cucumber variety for no seeds.
- Banana Peppers or Pepperoncini: I absolutely love a little zest and tang that comes from either of these. Slice them up and they add a nice variety…but if you’re not into the little spice they add, feel free to omit.
- Shallot: a little more subdued than a red onion would be, I love the mild flavor a shallot adds. You could always sub with a red onion if you prefer.
- Mozzarella Pearls: the pearls are small ball shapes that you can just toss right in the salad without anything to prep. Otherwise, you can easily dice a block or fresh ball of mozzarella, or halve any larger mozzarella balls that may be available to you.
- Parmesan Cheese: because why not?! Add a little grated parmesan cheese to the salad for a salty addition. See the next note!
Zesty Italian Dressing
Now, to complete this pasta salad all those delicious ingredients get tossed with a homemade zesty Italian dressing. It’s packed with herbs and flavor for good seasonings…and is so easy to make. It can even be whisked up in the same bowl you’ll toss everything in to keep dishes to a minimum!
The vinaigrette base is red wine vinegar and olive oil. Added for flavor are garlic and onion powder, dried basil, parsley, and oregano.
The zesty part comes with a generous amount of red pepper flakes and black pepper. It’s not spicy spicy, but rather has a nice kick and zest to it. If you prefer less spice, reduce the amount and add more depending on your tastes.
Of course, salt goes into the dressing, too, as well as some sugar to balance everything out.
There is more salt in the dressing than there would be in a typical vinaigrette for a green salad because it is flavoring the pasta and veggies (both of which are unsalted). The salt is where we get the flavor.
- Protein: add drained and rinsed canned chickpeas or white beans for a plant-based protein addition. You can also add cooked shrimp, pepperoni, or salami for a meat-based protein addition.
- Vinegar: substitute white wine vinegar.
- Gluten-Free: use gluten-free noodles.
- Dairy-Free (or vegan): substitute your favorite dairy-free cheese or simply omit it.
- More Veggies! You can really add or substitute veggies here – add in little broccoli florets, diced zucchini, shredded carrot, mushrooms, and more!
How to Make Zesty Italian Pasta Salad
Everything comes together quickly and easily (and again, is perfect for making ahead of time!).
First, prepare the pot of water for the pasta. Get the salted water on the stovetop first so it has time to come to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook to al dente, according to package directions.
Al dente is when the pasta is still firm to the bite; it’s the perfect texture for pasta hot or cold. Be sure to test the pasta several minutes before the box cook time to ensure it’s cooked to al dente.
While the pasta cooks, whisk together the dressing ingredients and prepare the veggies. The dressing can be mixed in the bowl you’ll toss the pasta salad in, or it can be shaken in a jar.
Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, drain and rinse it in cold water. Do not toss the pasta in oil; it won’t be able to soak in that delicious dressing if it’s coated in oil.
Toss the cooked pasta in the dressing. It’s ok if it’s still a bit warm – that will help it absorb the dressing, too. Toss the rest of the ingredients in and you’re ready to serve it or store it in the fridge for later. If you prefer it served cold (instead of lukewarm as it will be right away), you will want to stick it in the fridge right away to chill before serving.
You can easily make this Italian pasta salad recipe ahead of time. In fact, the flavors just get better as they meld together.
The olive oil will somewhat solidify in the fridge as its stored, so if making ahead (or serving again later) set it out at room temperature for 15 minutes or so and give it a good toss before serving to warm up the oil.
The pasta salad will last in the fridge in an airtight container for 4-5 days.
What to Serve with Pasta Salad
So you’re ready to dive head first into pasta salad but you’re wondering what goes with pasta salad?! There really isn’t a wrong answer to this question. Of course, pasta salad is basically a summer staple when it comes to picnics, BBQs, and potlucks, so anything you serve there will go great with it.
It pairs well with other classic summer sides like tangy coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad, as well as corn on the cob. Serve it alongside other fresh summer produce like watermelon, cantaloupe, or green beans, too!
Did you make this recipe? Please leave a star rating and review in the form below. I appreciate your feedback, and it helps others, too!
Get the Recipe Homemade Zesty Italian Pasta Salad
- 1 pound rotini or bowtie pasta, or another small shape
- 1 bell pepper, diced
- 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup black olives, sliced
- 1 cup cucumber, diced and seeds removed as desired
- ½ cup banana peppers or pepperoncini, sliced
- 2 Tablespoons shallot, finely chopped
- 8 ounces mozzarella pearls, or diced cheese
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese*
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon for less spice
- ½-1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and add a generous pinch of salt. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook to al dente, according to package directions. I recommend testing the pasta a few minutes before the box suggests to make sure it is firm with a bite but done (this is al dente). Once it's cooked, drain and rinse with cold water.1 pound rotini or bowtie pasta
- Meanwhile, prepare the remaining veggies and set aside in a large bowl until ready to toss with the dressing and pasta.1 bell pepper, 1 cup grape tomatoes, 1 cup black olives, 1 cup cucumber, ½ cup banana peppers or pepperoncini, 2 Tablespoons shallot
- Whisk together all dressing ingredients except the oil, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking until it is combined. You can also shake all the dressing ingredients vigorously in a jar until combined.¼ cup red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, ½-1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon dried basil, 1 teaspoon dried parsley, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 Tablespoon granulated sugar, 2 ½ teaspoons dried oregano, 2 teaspoons fine sea salt, ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- When the pasta is ready, toss in a large bowl with the veggies and cheese, and combine with the dressing until everything is completely coated. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve. You can serve the salad immediately, it just may be slightly warm from the pasta. A little time allows the flavors to meld together, too.8 ounces mozzarella pearls, ½ cup grated parmesan cheese*
- Salt: There is more salt in the dressing than there would be in a typical vinaigrette for a green salad because it is flavoring all the pasta and unseasoned veggies. The salt is where we get the flavor and what makes everything delicious!
- If using regular table salt, you may want to reduce the amount slightly. I recommend using fine sea salt.
- Vegan: omit the cheese or use dairy-free cheese.
- *Look for cheese specifically labeled vegetarian, if needed. Whole Foods 365 and BelGioioso make vegetarian parmesan cheese.