This quick and easy Italian dressing pasta salad recipe is the best Summer side dish! Rotini pasta, bell peppers, onion, spinach, and parmesan cheese are mixed with zesty Italian dressing to make the perfect cold pasta salad. Bring this vegetarian and easily made gluten-free dish to picnics, potlucks, and BBQs.
For just about every potluck, summer party, or church function, I always knew what my mom was making… this Italian dressing pasta salad.
Before I ever liked vegetables, I remember sneaking bites of it from the refrigerator.
My mom would chop the bell peppers and onion very small, and somehow my taste buds did not seem to mind, and actually even enjoyed the crunchy bites.
This cold pasta salad was always one of the first dishes to be devoured and the recipe requested by tons of family and friends.
Now as an adult, every July 4th barbecue or Labor Day picnic would not be complete without this simple salad recipe.
Not only is it easy to toss together, but it actually tastes even BETTER when it is prepped ahead of time.
You can make it gluten-free by using a wheat-free pasta, and keep it vegan by using a salad dressing without any cheese.
The simple ingredients you need to make this easy pasta salad include:
- Pasta. Gluten-free rotini pasta was used in this recipe. Read below for more information about the different types of pasta to use when making pasta salad.
- Italian Dressing. It’s worth it to make your own homemade Italian dressing. It’s healthier and only takes 5 minutes to whisk up! You can also use store-bought. Olive Garden is a great choice, as well as Wish Bone.
- Peppers. Both green and red bell peppers are used. You can also use yellow or orange peppers.
- Onion. Red onion has a great bite and color. You can also use a sweet onion for less of a punch.
- Parmesan. Grated Parmesan is best as it disperses more evenly throughout the dish.
- Spinach. Baby leaves work well for their taste and size. You can also use arugula or even kale.
How to Make
The easy steps for making pasta salad with Italian dressing are:
- Cook pasta according to package directions. (step 1 above)
Drain in a colander and make sure to rinse under cool water to remove any of the starchy outer coating from the pasta. This will keep the pasta from clumping together.
- Once pasta is cooled to room temperature, combine it with ¾ cup of Italian dressing in a large bowl.(step 2 above)
Toss IMMEDIATELY in the dressing until coated. The longer the pasta sits without any sauce, the more likely it is to stick together. Also don’t use all of the dressing. The pasta will soak some up while chilling, so save a little to add at the end.
- Add bell peppers, onion, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste. (step 3 above)
Mix until all ingredients are well combined. You can also mix in the remaining Italian dressing and spinach leaves if you would like to serve it immediately without chilling.
- Refrigerate pasta salad for 1-2 hours, or until chilled.
Just before serving pour in additional ¼ cup of Italian dressing and mix in spinach leaves. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and enjoy!
Best Pasta for Salads
Pasta salads can be made with a variety of pastas types:
Rotini or fusilli is the best to use in pasta salads. They have more surface area to soak up all of the sauce.
Farfalle, or bow-tie, pasta is also a great choice and gives the salad a unique appearance.
Penne pasta works almost as well but does have the least area to soak up any yummy sauce.
You can use either regular or gluten-free pasta. To make a gluten-free pasta salad, look for pasta made from rice, chickpeas, quinoa, or lentils. Avoid corn-based pasta. They tend to fall apart more easily than the other types.
Meal Prep and Storage
This easy Italian pasta salad recipe can be made in advance and is best when served within 24 hours of making.
- To Prep-Ahead: Make the salad but keep the spinach and ¼ cup of dressing separate. Mix in just before serving. Please note, some gluten-free pasta will get harder after being refrigerated for 48 hours.
- To Store: Keep this cold pasta salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3-4 days.
The recipe you’ll find below is already vegetarian as written. Here are some adjustments and substitutions you can make to help it fit your other dietary requirements:
- Gluten-Free: Use a gluten-free pasta.
- Dairy-Free: Make or purchase an Italian dressing without Parmesan.
- Vegan: Make sure there is no Parmesan in the dressing you use.
Whichever one that you like the taste of! For an Italian dressing, the Olive Garden brand is the best.
Yes, but cook no more than 12 hours in advance. Also, make sure to toss it with the dressing so it does not dry out.
It is not necessary, but it will prevent the pasta from sticking together.
This is best when made 2-3 hours before eating or, at most, the night before.
Add in only ¾ of the amount of dressing that the recipe calls for. Save the remaining ¼ to add in just before serving.
Expert Tips and Tricks
- Rinse pasta under cold water. This gets rid of the extra starchy coating. It also stops the cooking process so the pasta stays firm and doesn’t get mushy.
- Use fusilli or rotini. These pastas have more area to soak up the delicious dressing.
- Make it homemade. Whip up your own Italian dressing at home for the most flavor and the healthiest option.
- Cut into bite-sized pieces. Dice the bell peppers and onion small so you get flavor in every bite.
- Chill for 2 hours. This is long enough so the flavors meld, but not so long that the pasta loses its texture.
- Up the nutritional value! Black olives, cucumbers, asparagus, zucchini, and squash would all taste great in here.
Other Pasta Salads
You can never have too many pasta salad recipes! Try these other flavors to mix things up:
Italian Dressing Pasta Salad Recipe
This quick and easy Italian dressing pasta salad recipe is the best Summer side dish! Bring this vegetarian and easily made gluten-free dish to picnics, potlucks, and BBQs.
- 10-12 oz. rotini pasta gluten-free
- 1 cup Italian dressing bottled or homemade
- 1 red bell pepper cut into 1-inch slices
- 1 green bell pepper cut into 1-inch slices
- ½ red onion thinly sliced
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese grated
- ¼-½ tsp. salt to taste
- ¼ tsp. black pepper to taste
- 2-3 cups baby spinach
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain in a colander and rinse under cool running water.
Once pasta is cooled to room temperature, combine it with ¾ cup of Italian dressing in a large bowl. Toss until well coated.
Add bell peppers, onion, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Toss until all ingredients are well combined.*
Refrigerate pasta salad for 1-2 hours, or until chilled.
Just before serving pour in additional ¼ cup of Italian dressing and mix in spinach leaves.
Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and enjoy!
- You can also mix in the remaining Italian dressing and spinach leaves if you would like to serve it immediately without chilling.