Classic Pasta Salad

Memorial Day weekend is the start the grilling season for me. I’ll admit, like most people around here, I enjoy grilling or barbecuing (low and slow) in my own back yard — but I’m definitely a fair-weather cook… no inclement weather or winter grilling for me! I just don’t get the appeal of standing in an open garage wrapped in a parka grilling burgers in January.

So this weekend (80 degrees and sunny) I got out there and cleaned up the ol’ gas grill; checked the remaining propane in the tank (praying I didn’t have to drive to the corner and get a refill), and fired her up to cook some burgers and hots for the Lista family. Well actually it was burgers, red hots, white hots, Italian sausage, spinach and feta sausage, and andouille sausage — we like variety. 

Along with all the charcuterie we also enjoyed several salads including that proverbial Lista favorite Pasta Salad. In my family, pasta salad is a staple at most gatherings. With its colorful fresh veggies, diced cheese and deli meats, pasta salad is the flamboyant cousin of the macaroni salad family — and a refreshing change of pace from the heavier mayo-based variety. I first remember making pasta salad at Lista’s Italian Cuisine as a feature for our “fabulous salad bar” and as a side dish for many lunch specials. We referred to it as Italian Pasta Salad (of course) and it was dressed with a simple vinaigrette and featured fresh broccoli florets, tomatoes, olives, salami and cheese.

It seems like pasta salad really came into vogue in the early 1980’s. I remember it becoming more and more popular around that time, and was served at restaurants featuring large elaborate salad bars (remember Charlie Bubbles?) and grocery store that  began carrying prepared foods to go. It was around that same time that many of  our local taverns began to serve food to their customers (definitely a nice break from pickle eggs and beer nuts). And when a bartender served a burger or beef on weck they could “fancy it up” by adding a side of pasta salad since the traditional oil and vinegar dressing held up better than a mayo-based dressing and thus kept customers experiencing undue intestinal discomforts.

There are so many different renditions of pasta salad that if you don’t have a particular favorite you can make it different every time. I tend to be a traditionalist and like the classics, so here is my favorite versions of Pasta Salad based on the one we served at Lista’s and I have made many times since.

Classic Lista’s Pasta Salad

Prep time:  30 minutes
Cook time:  15 minutes (plus up to 8 hours chilling)
Serves:  8-12 

16 oz Fusilli Pasta (spirals) preferrably Tri-Colored – cooked al dente
1 small head Broccoli – cut into tiny florets
1 lb Roma Tomatoes – diced (or cherry tomatoes halved)
1 small Zucchini – trimmed and halved lengthwise, cut into thin slices
1/2 small Red Onion – thinly sliced
1 cup Ripe (black) Olives – halved lengthwise
8 oz Fresh Mozzarella – cut into 1/2″ cubes
4 oz Genoa Salami – cut into 1/2″ cubes (or julienne strips)
1/2 cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese – divided
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 cup Red wine Vinegar
1 TBSP Dijon Mustard
1 TBSP Sugar
1 tsp Dry Italian Herb Blend
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1/2 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Pinch Red Pepper Flakes
Chopped Fresh Parsley – for garnish (optional)

1. In a large pot of slated water, cook the pasta per package directions until just al dente (about 8-10 minutes). Drain in a colander and rinse under cool water. Shake off excess water and allow to sit in colander until ready to use.
2. In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup Romano cheese, olive oil, vinegar, dijon mustard, sugar, Italian herbs, salt, black and red peppers. Whisk together with a few drops of water to form a vinaigrette. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the broccoli florets, diced tomatoes, sliced zucchini, sliced onions, halved olives, diced mozzarella and salami. Add cooked and cooled pasta and vinaigrette to bowl and toss until all ingredients are combined. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours up to over night.

4. Pour salad into serving bowl and sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Romano cheese and chopped fresh parsley (if using) over the top as a garnish before serving.

There you have it, a Classic Pasta Salad that will work for any pot-luck, picnic or family gathering. Remember to give it plenty of time to chill before serving and keep it colorful and fresh. I hope you enjoy this version of a simple family favorite.

Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”

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