~ Italian Pasta Salad is always a hit … but classic pasta salad recipes are typically loaded with unwanted fat and white carbs. This easy recipe has all the bold flavors you love, but a few simple tweaks make it so much healthier, too! It’s the perfect dish to share at picnics and potlucks. Or keep it stashed in the fridge for a quick side dish all week long! ~
This Recipe Is: • Ready in 30 Minutes or Less • Make Ahead •
Looking for a pasta salad recipe that’s easy to make … and that you can actually feel great about sharing with friends and loved ones?
You know, one that harnesses all the big, bold flavors everybody adores in those classic Italian pasta salads … but without all the empty carbs and the big ol’ bottle of store-bought dressing poured on top?
Then this is 100% exactly what you’re looking for!
Why This Will Be Your New-Fave Pasta Salad!
This salad has so many great layers of flavor and texture! We’re talkin’:
• Italian vibes from the pepperoni and fresh mozzarella.
• Freshness and crunch from the cucumbers, plus juicy bursts from the tomatoes and an extra flavor-pop from a handful of finely diced red onion.
• All draped in an easy, zesty, homemade Italian dressing. (You’ve probably got everything you need to make it, already in your pantry!)
• And of course, it’s a rotini pasta salad … rotini is the absolute perfect pasta shape to capture all the flavorful bits. Plus, those fun spirals are a delicious, chewy counterpoint to the crunchy veggies and creamy, soft mozzarella!
Yep – this definitely has big, bold classic Italian Pasta Salad flavors, and so many great textures. No wonder these types of salads are always a favorite at picnics and potlucks!
But maybe even better yet???
This version is so much healthier, too!
I specifically developed this recipe for my son, who adores Italian pasta salad with pepperoni, mozzarella … and allllll the goodies. But he’s also an athlete and wanted me to make him a version he wouldn’t have to regret later. A version with fewer naughty fats and fewer empty carbs.
This is for him … and for you! For anybody who wants a BETTER pasta salad!
A few simple tweaks and updates are the key!
How This Version Is Healthier
Some little, easy swaps add up to a big difference nutritionally. (But don’t worry … no one will even notice!)
• The first switcheroo was using whole wheat pasta instead of regular, white pasta for a boost of fiber and other nutrients.
• Next, I use turkey pepperoni (instead of regular, full-fat pepperoni) so you’re still getting lots of that Italian flavor but also keeping it a little leaner.
• Lastly, I quickly whip together a homemade Italian red wine vinaigrette. This slashes the fat you’d normally find in bottled dressings – and actually, in lots of other homemade dressing recipes, too. (Oh and BTW – this is the same yummy dressing as in the adorable Christmas Tree Holiday Salad, which you should definitely keep in your “idea file” for Christmas parties!)
Of course, I also toss in plenty of veggies. But, to be fair, that’s not exactly an “upgrade” from classic recipes for Italian Pasta Salad, since most of those older recipes feature plenty of veggies, too. But … you know … veggies are always a nutrition win!
Ready to make a batch? (Of course you are!) It’s really easy! Plus you know I’ve got some little tips and tricks up my sleeve to help you along the way …
How to Make Italian Pasta Salad
Get your rotini cooking away while you chop up your mozzarella, pepperoni and veggies.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients. Tangy red wine vinegar, Italian herbs, a background hint of Dijon for complexity, and a kiss of sweet honey to round it all out. Yeah … yummy!
Pro Tip: This Italian vinaigrette doesn’t stay emulsified as well as some of our other dressings. (In fact, red wine vinaigrette recipes are often served un-emulsified.) So, it’s a good idea to give your dressing a quick whisk again, right before using it. Alternately, you can buzz the dressing in a blender or mini food processor (I use the small processor in this Ninja set), to keep it better emulsified for a while longer.
Toss together your rinsed and drained pasta with the other salad ingredients. Make sure to rinse it in cold water, so it’s at least slightly cooled – you don’t want it to melt the cheese!
Then, drizzle some of the vinaigrette dressing over top, and toss it all to thoroughly combine.
How much of the dressing, you ask?
Well, that depends on how far in advance you’re making this pasta salad.
If you’re serving the salad right away, go ahead and use all of the dressing, although at first a lot of it will probably trickle down to pool at the bottom of the bowl. The pasta will absorb the dressing little by little as it sits, though, so it’s helpful to stir everything together again after a few minutes.
BUT … if you’re making this even an hour or two ahead of time … DON’T USE ALL OF THE DRESSING RIGHT AWAY.
Well, like with most pasta salads, the dressing in this recipe slowly soaks in after the salad has been all stirred together. On one hand, this is great, because the dressing is absorbed into the pasta and marinates the vegetables, melding all the flavors … YUM!
But, that can also mean that your pasta salad ends up dried out when you serve it later on. *SAD*
The Solution? Add part of your dressing (we recommend about 1/2 cup) right when you first make the pasta salad, but also reserve some to add later, just before serving. That way, you get the best of both worlds – deep flavor from the dressing that’s marinated your veggies and been absorbed into the pasta, but also a fresh, bold layer of flavor and plenty of moisture from the dressing you add at the last minute.
Before serving, taste your pasta salad and adjust by adding a little salt, if you think it needs it. (I often don’t.)
Surprisingly, the extra salt isn’t for making the flavors pop … it’s actually used to round out or soften the tangy vinegar flavor, if you think it’s slightly too acidic.
But be careful! Too much salt will actually go the wrong way, and dull the flavors.
If you need any extra salt at all, I recommend maybe 1/4 teaspoon (and no more than 1/2 teaspoon), tasting as you go to get it just right.
• This Italian Pasta Salad is a great side with grilled kabobs, chicken, or burgers (especially our Italian Grilled Hamburgers, pictured below). Maybe add some corn on the cob and juicy watermelon wedges, and you’ve got a quintessential summer meal!
• Or, try it alongside our Caprese Grilled Fish to really max out the Italian vibe at dinnertime.
• And no doubt, this is a perfect recipe for summer picnics, family get-togethers, block parties and potlucks! Everyone will be so happy when you show up bearing a huge bowl of this delicious salad (yay you – hero status!).
• Honestly, though, I don’t wait for parties or special occasions. I usually just make a batch to keep on hand in the fridge all week long. Since it keeps well for several days, we scoop it up as part of our lunches, or to go with most any dinnertime main dishes I make through the week.
I normally find packages of it hanging in displays along with regular, full-fat pepperoni near the deli section of my grocery store.
I’ve also tested this recipe with chunks of provolone, which we love, too. The provolone is actually a little more flavorful than the mozzarella, but fresh mozzarella offers that irresistibly soft, creamy texture. Choose whichever you prefer. Alternately, you could also try using part-skim, low-moisture mozzarella.
Rotini is terrific here because of the way its ridges capture both the dressing and also some of the bits of veggies and pepperoni. I definitely recommend sticking with rotini if you can. But, in a pinch, you could swap another mid-size pasta like penne, or even try elbow macaroni.
This will easily keep all week, covered, in your fridge. Great for meal prep or for getting some dishes made ahead of time when you’re hosting a big summer party! Just remember to reserve some of the dressing to re-moisten the salad right before serving.
Absolutely! This recipe is super easy to scale up or down as needed. It’s terrific for making a really, really big batch!
Mmmmmmm … classic pasta salad … re-invented with all the great flavor, but a little less guilt!
It’ll be your summertime go-to side dish.
Perfect for potlucks. Perfect for easy grillin’ nights. Perfect as a big-batch-make-ahead.
Really, just perfect.
Love the Recipe? • Were My Tips Helpful?
Please leave a star-rating in the recipe card below – I truly appreciate all your wonderful feedback!
- 12 ounces whole wheat rotini, cooked according to package instructions, drained and rinsed in cold water
- 1 1/2 cups halved (horizontally) grape or cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup finely chopped seedless English cucumber (about half a cucumber)
- 6 ounces diced fresh mozzarella (1/2" cubes to equal about 1 cup)
- 2 ounces turkey pepperoni, slices quartered (to equal about 1/2 cup)
- 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
- 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 5 teaspoons honey
- 1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- additional kosher salt to taste (up to about 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon, see note)
- In a large bowl, combine cooled pasta, tomatoes, cucumber, mozzarella, pepperoni, and onion.
- In a medium bowl, whisk vinegar, oil, honey, mustard, salt, oregano, basil, and black pepper until emulsified. (Note that this dressing is difficult to emulsify completely. If you want it more emulsified, you can whiz it in a small food processor for a minute or two.)
- Pour about 1/2 cup of the dressing over the salad and toss to combine. If serving salad immediately, you can add more dressing at this time. But, if you are making the salad ahead, wait to add the rest of the dressing until just before serving (see note).
- Before serving, season with additional salt if needed (see note).
Dressing: Like most pasta salads, this salad absorbs the dressing as it sits – so if you are making it ahead, it can be dry when serving. For that reason, we recommend adding only about 1/2 cup of dressing to the salad when you first make it. The dressing absorbs into the pasta and marinates the vegetables, melding the flavors. Adding additional dressing later, just before serving, adds a final layer of bold flavor and keeps the salad from being dry when served.
Additional salt: The optional additional salt in this recipe isn't designed to add a pop of flavor. It actually serves to slightly soften the sharp tang of the red wine vinegar, if needed. This can vary based on your taste preferences and the exact flavor profiles of some of your ingredients' brands. Add extra salt only if needed, and be aware that adding too much can actually MUTE the flavors rather than making them pop. We usually use just an additional 1/4 teaspoon salt, if any.
Mozzarella substitution: We've also tested this salad with provolone cheese, which is delicious, too.
Make ahead tips: This salad keeps well for at least 5 days, although note the suggestion above to reserve some of the dressing to moisten your salad prior to serving.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 20 servings Serving Size: 1/2 cup
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 87Total Fat: 5gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 10mgSodium: 176mgCarbohydrates: 8gFiber: 1gSugar: 2gProtein: 4g
Nutrition information should be considered an estimate only, and may vary depending on your choice of ingredients or preparation. No guarantees are made regarding allergies or dietary needs. Always consult a physician or dietician for specific advice and questions.