Genius Recipes

The Genius Chopped Salad Everyone’s (Still) Talking About

Nancy Silverton's been honing her version since the 1970s.

October 23, 2019

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


Why does everyone keep talking about this chopped salad?

It started making waves in 2006 when Nancy Silverton put it on the menu at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. Thirteen years later, Food52 community members are still writing to me to tell me how genius it is. It even, briefly, stormed Sweetgreen fast-casual counters nationwide last year.

Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

Not since Caesar Cardini has a restaurant salad had such good branding. On the Pizzeria Mozza menu, it’s Nancy’s Chopped Salad—even though ostensibly most other dishes on the menu are also Nancy’s. When I asked Silverton over the phone if she’s made any changes since codifying her recipe in The Mozza Cookbook in 2011, she replies, “Nancy’s Chopped Salad will always be that recipe. That’s a recipe that needs no fiddling.”

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Top Comment:
“I love this salad and I've been making variations of it for years now -- in the winter, I prefer roasted red peppers to flavorless tomatoes, sometimes I also add artichokes, which are excellent, etc, etc. But I have to say, the one change that I've made to the original recipes that's truly a game changer is to toast the chick peas for about 10 minutes in a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. This small thing totally transforms other somewhat bland canned chickpeas and it totally worth doing and so improved the salad overall. ”
— Sarah H.
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So what makes it tick? Or rather, what in it makes us tick? Is it the tang, the crunch, the color? The leather-and-lace dance of opposites like bitter radicchio and sweet iceberg? The fact that it’s just riddled with crowd favorites like salami, salty cheese, and chickpeas, the darling of the canned bean aisle? Is it, as many viral recipes often begin, because Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen wrote about it one time?

All of those things have certainly helped, but none are so powerful a wedge in our brains as nostalgia, plus Silverton’s cheffy tricks to make it even better than you remember. “It’s supposed to remind people of my generation of that antipasti plate that they had at Italian-American restaurants,” Silverton told me. The one with the salami, the cheese, the spicy pepperoncini.

Or as Perelman wrote, “If you grew up eating Good Seasons ‘Italian’ dressing from the seasonings packet, you’re going to have something of a Proustian moment (but so much better).”

Perhaps the crispest takeaway here is her powerhouse dressing, with red wine vinegar and garlic and enough dried oregano that you’ll think it’s a mistake (1). Silverton even marinates the oregano together with the garlic, acid, and salt for five minutes to help the herb travel further, before whisking in the olive oil.

But beyond this super-powered memory-box dressing, there are a few other thoughtful tricks Silverton’s been honing since the 1970s that cement this salad’s icon status:

  • She lightly salts the tomatoes on their own first, so they taste riper and more tomatoey. “When I’m giving a cooking demonstration, I always talk about the need to layer food with seasoning as you go,” Silverton told me. “It makes a difference in the end.”

  • She brings in two different types of garlic—a mellow smashed clove and potent grated one. Squashing that extra clove adds another layer of flavor without piling on the raw garlic.

  • She de-layers and slices the onion (she calls this “petaling”), then washes the funk away with ice water so all that’s left are pert, sweet curls.

  • She finishes this salad, like all others, not just with salt to taste but also lemon (so the oregano vinaigrette recipe that looks light on acid flips to bright and balanced at the end).

Thirteen years in, the good branding doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Along with Pizzeria Mozza’s famed Butterscotch Budino (2), Silverton told me, “I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I was just at a restaurant in Minnesota and they had Nancy’s Chopped Salad!’”

(1) Silverton says with this much oregano, be sure to get the good stuff from Penzey’s or another store that specializes in dried herbs.

(2) Were you wondering if that Butterscotch Budino is in Genius Desserts? Of course it is.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to Ali Slagle, Marian Bull, and Tom Hirschfeld for this one!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LLinMpls
    LLinMpls
  • Bibemleem
    Bibemleem
  • Luke Murden, Cooking Coach
    Luke Murden, Cooking Coach
  • Sarah Hornung
    Sarah Hornung
  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

10 Comments

LLinMpls October 28, 2019
I have made this many times. Using Sicilian oregano is a game changer!
 
Bibemleem October 24, 2019
Good
 
Luke M. October 23, 2019
This sounds amazing. Can it made ahead? How would it hold up?
 
Sarah H. October 24, 2019
I’ve made it quite a few times and I can get a bit soggy. If you are going to make it in advance, or recommend Deb Perlman’s slightly different instructions, http://smittenkitchen.com/2014/06/nancys-chopped-salad/, which are make the dressing, set aside; mix the chickpeas, red onion, provolone, salami, pepperoncini together in the serving bowl, set aside; and then chop (or even mix together) the tomato, lettuce, and radicchio but set aside and then combine all in the salad bowl when you want to serve.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. October 25, 2019
The radicchio holds up nicely, but the iceberg doesn't. If you want it at its crunchiest, better to prep and fridge (but not dress) everything ahead. Sarah's tip sounds great.
 
Sarah H. October 23, 2019
I love this salad and I've been making variations of it for years now -- in the winter, I prefer roasted red peppers to flavorless tomatoes, sometimes I also add artichokes, which are excellent, etc, etc. But I have to say, the one change that I've made to the original recipes that's truly a game changer is to toast the chick peas for about 10 minutes in a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. This small thing totally transforms other somewhat bland canned chickpeas and it totally worth doing and so improved the salad overall.
 
Sarah H. October 23, 2019
This small thing totally transforms *otherwise* somewhat bland canned chickpeas and it totally worth doing and so *improves* the salad overall.
 
Max M. October 23, 2019
Love this!
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. October 25, 2019
I love this, Sarah—and it probably brings them closer to the version Nancy makes at Pizzeria Mozza with chickpeas cooked from scratch with aromatic good things.
 
Sarah H. October 25, 2019
Good point, I hadn't thought of that! I've made the salad probably about 10 times over the years and I did this, maybe the 5th time I can't imagine going back. It's absolutely worth dirtying a skillet or a sheet pan as I imagine a quick roast would work as well.