Best Caprese Pasta Salad Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Prep/Total Time: 20 min.
When life hands you tomatoes, make... Caprese pasta salad. It captures the flavors of the classic Italian salad in a more durable form, perfect for taking to block parties and barbecues.

Updated: Jun. 07, 2024

Caprese pasta salad is a riff on one of Italy’s greatest and simplest culinary inventions, the classic Caprese salad. The canonical salad (named for the island of Capri, where it was invented) consists of just fresh, white mozzarella slices, perfectly ripe tomatoes, leaves of basil and a splash of olive oil. The red-white-and-green of the salad matches Italy’s national colors, so it’s a happy combination of patriotism and culinary genius.

Our Caprese pasta salad recipe scales those iconic ingredients down to bite-sized form. It calls for mozzarella pearls instead of sliced fresh mozz, and cherry tomatoes instead of sliced full-size tomatoes, but it hits all the same flavor notes. In its own way, it’s every bit as classic as the original salad.

Ingredients for Caprese Pasta Salad

  • Macaroni: Elbow macaroni isn’t the most glamorous pasta, but its small size and hollow shape—which holds dressing—makes it ideal for pasta salads.
  • Mayonnaise: Mayo’s mild, creamy richness makes it an excellent base for pasta salad dressings. It helps moisten and lubricate the pasta, and also serves as a platform for the dressing’s other flavors.
  • Italian dressing mix: The dressing mix adds a well-balanced combination of flavors that are compatible with these classic Italian ingredients.
  • Sugar: Sugar’s sweetness helps brighten the other flavors and mellows the sharp flavors of the mustard and Italian dressing mix.
  • Mustard: Mustard adds pungency and tang to the dressing.
  • Cherry tomatoes: A Caprese salad requires tomatoes with lots of flavor. Cherry tomatoes are reliably sweeter and tastier than full-size tomatoes, and their small size makes them a good salad add-in.
  • Mozzarella pearls: The sliced fresh mozzarella of a classic Caprese salad would be an awkward fit in a pasta salad. These tiny mozzarella balls offer a similar flavor, but in a size that works better on your fork.
  • Fresh basil: The sharp, herbal bite of fresh basil is what ties together the sweet tomatoes and the mild mozzarella.
  • Parmesan cheese: Parmesan cheese helps dial up the flavors of the pasta salad. It’s not used in a traditional Caprese, but it complements the tomato, basil and mozzarella here beautifully.

Directions

Step 1: Cook the pasta

In a large saucepan, cook the elbow macaroni according to the instructions on the package. Once it’s al dente, drain the pasta and rinse it thoroughly with cold water. Cool it completely before proceeding with the recipe.

Step 2: Assemble the salad

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, Italian dressing mix, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper to make the dressing. In a larger serving bowl, combine the tomatoes, mozzarella and cooled pasta. Add the dressing, and toss the salad gently until the pasta, cheese and tomatoes are evenly coated. Cover the bowl, then refrigerate the salad until mealtime. Sprinkle the basil and Parmesan cheese over the top before serving.

Caprese Pasta Salad Variations

  • Use a vinaigrette rather than mayo: A classic Caprese salad is quite light. To lighten up this Caprese salad pasta, consider using a balsamic vinaigrette like the one in this Caprese recipe. You’ll need to make at least double the amount shown, or possibly triple, if you plan to let your pasta rest in the fridge overnight (it will absorb a lot of the dressing).
  • Try a pesto-based dressing: If you love basil’s fresh, summery flavor, double down by using pesto in your dressing. Omit the flavoring ingredients from the dressing, and use 1 to 2 tablespoons of pesto instead (store-bought is fine, but homemade pesto is better). For a pesto-based vinaigrette, you could crib the dressing from this garden pesto pasta salad recipe.
  • Use regular-size tomatoes or mozzarella: Any variation on a Caprese should always use the best tomatoes you have. If you’ve got really good ones from your garden or farmers market, use full-size tomatoes and dice them into bite-sized pieces. Similarly, if you’re having trouble finding mozzarella pearls, buy regular fresh mozzarella and slice it into bite-sized pieces.

Can I make Caprese pasta salad ahead of time?

This Caprese pasta salad recipe will keep just fine overnight in your fridge. If you want to prepare even further ahead, combine the pasta and the dressing but leave out the other ingredients. Add the tomatoes and mozzarella at least a few hours before serving, so their flavors have a chance to meld with the rest of the salad, then top the salad as usual with basil and Parmesan just before serving.

How should I store Caprese pasta salad?

Leftovers can go into your refrigerator in a covered bowl or sealed storage container. The basil will begin to wilt before long, and the tomatoes will begin to soften and lose their texture, so it’s best to eat the leftovers within a day or two.

Caprese Pasta Salad Tips

How do I cut basil into thin slivers?

Cutting flat leaves neatly isn’t easy, but there’s a trick to it. Just roll up the leaves into a tight little cigar shape, and cut across it with a sharp knife (there’s a photo in this article about how to cut herbs). The technique itself, and the fine, fluffy shreds that result, are widely known under the French term “chiffonade.”

Are mozzarella pearls and bocconcini the same thing?

More or less. Bocconcini are bite-sized balls of mozz, and so are the smaller ciliegine (“cherries”) and tiny perlini (“pearls”). Some dairies and retailers call the littlest ones “pearl” or “cocktail” bocconcini, since that term is better known here, but they’re all usable in our Caprese pasta salad. If all you can find is the larger bocconcini, cut them into pieces roughly the same size as the cherry tomato halves.

If I don’t have fresh basil, is dried okay?

Dried basil can be substituted for fresh in a lot of recipes, but sadly, this isn’t one of them. If you have some pesto on hand you can add that to the dressing (to get the fresh basil flavor) and use chopped parsley to replace the basil’s green color in the finished salad. Alternatively, you can substitute other fresh herbs that go well with tomatoes, including dill, tarragon and fennel fronds. It won’t be a Caprese-themed salad, but it will still taste pretty good.

Best Caprese Pasta Salad

Prep Time 20 min
Yield 7 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon Italian salad dressing mix
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese pearls
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, slivered
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain and rinse with cold water. Cool completely.
  2. For dressing, in a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, dressing mix, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper. In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, mozzarella and macaroni. Add dressing; gently toss to coat. Refrigerate until serving. Top with basil and Parmesan before serving.

Nutrition Facts

3/4 cup: 397 calories, 31g fat (8g saturated fat), 29mg cholesterol, 458mg sodium, 20g carbohydrate (4g sugars, 1g fiber), 10g protein.

When fresh tomatoes and basil are abundant in the summer, I like to make this wonderful Caprese macaroni salad. —Debbie Glasscock, Conway, Arkansas
Recipe Creator
Community Cook