Search for “pasta salad” on the internet, and you’ll see a rainbow of ’sta-lads out there. To Anna Billingskog, our Italian-American food stylist with very strong feelings on Italian-American food, pasta salad means “corkscrew pasta, cubed deli meat butts, and a red wine vinaigrette.” To Trevor, my partner, it requires mayo and diced hard-boiled eggs. To me, it means all of my favorite things in one bowl: buttery olives, salty meat ribbons, bouncy bocconcini, and leafy parsley.
And the thing is, we’re all not wrong—each version does make a banging pasta salad. So maybe it would be easier to define a good—dare I say “best”—pasta salad by what it is not. A stellar pasta salad is not soggy, not over-seasoned, not homogenous-tasting, not meh.
But how does something so full of yum—meats and cheeses, black and green olives, green olives, roasted and fresh peppers—ever become meh, willfully glossed over in the deli case? Though starting intentions and ingredients may be good, things can grow sour (literally) with improper seasoning and cook time.
Blend lemon and white wine vinegar (or lemon and red wine vinegar, or white and red) for a vinaigrette that’s more complex than just tart. Treat your tender herbs like salad greens—parsley and basil should be used just as liberally as arugula and iceberg/radicchio.
Another win for this pasta salad is that you can eat it ASAP. Pull the pasta a full minute before the package’s prescribed “al dente” timing, so it won’t fall apart in the salad bowl. If you’d like to make this ahead, hold back on the herbs/greens until just before serving. And if you’d like to eat this cold, peek here for a Genius argument for overcooking, not undercooking the pasta.)
Our best pasta salad need not be limited to certain deli meats and bad Italian dressing, but only the presence—and careful balance—of salty chunks, buttery nubs, springy pasta, and something fraîche (greenery and acid) to zip through it all. So here, a choose-your-own-adventure of sorts. Just respect the ratio, and you’ll be golden.
slivered red onion
lemon juice, plus more as needed
white or red vinegar, plus more as needed
extra-virgin olive oil
crushed red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
flaky salt, plus more as needed
cooked (from ¼ pound dried) fusilli pasta, warm or at room temperature
prepped cured meat (such as half a 5.5-ounce salami, cut into ¼-inch sticks, or 2 ounces prosciutto, torn)
olives in brine, such as castelvetrano or kalamata (or a mix), pitted and torn
greens, such as picked parsley, shredded lettuce, and/or arugula
Combine the red onion with the lemon juice and vinegar in a small bowl. Leave to lightly pickle for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the pasta, meat, and olives in a large serving bowl. Add the remaining dressing ingredients to the quickled onions, and stir to emulsify. Pour the dressing over the pasta salad and fold in the herbs, lettuce and/or arugula. Adjust seasonings to taste with flaky salt, chili flakes, and lemon/vinegar.
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga.
When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.