October 2, 2019


Fresh and nutritious, an Italian salad can be a delicious option when the idea of ​​turning on the oven throws you into despair, and you are looking for a quick, simple idea for a light lunch.

Colorful and rich in taste, Italy’s salads give you great satisfaction, whether you’d prefer a minimalist recipe that focuses on a few outstanding ingredients, or if you’re searching for unusual flavor combinations. 

Not traditionally considered a proper “meal” in Italy, these insalatone (big salads) are becoming increasingly popular in The Boot.  A mix of healthy ingredients contained in a single bowl has now become somewhat chic in bigger cities like Milan or Rome. 

Since these are not traditional Italian dishes, there are no strict rules to prepare a tasty salad rich in flavor, so let your imagination run wild. The only real criteria are that the ingredients should simply be fresh, colorful and nutritious.

That said, what are some fundamental ingredients for a delicious salad? Generally the recipes include:

  1. A base of vegetables: leafy greens, carrots, celery, cabbage, fennel, peppers, tomatoes or onions.
  2. Then enrich the recipe with whole grain carbohydrates such as pasta, rice, quinoa, or farro.
  3. Finally, add some protein: meat, fish, or cheese, but also nuts or seeds.

As a rule, to prepare a low-calorie, nutritious salad, stick to the following scheme:

25% carbohydrates, 15% proteins, 35% vegetables, 10% “dressing” (oil and/or vinegar) and 15% ingredients extras such as nuts, seeds or sprouts

Popular Salads in Italy

OK, let’s give a couple of examples. So while there is no such single dish as an “Italian Salad,” this recipe comes about the closest. Very simple, with some authentic Italian flavors.

“Italian” Salad

  • 5 ounces of mixed lettuce (arugula and iceberg)
  • 5 ounces of black olives (try the brined saracena or minuta variety from Sicily)
  • 5 ounces of mortadella cut into cubes
  • 5 ounces of provolone cut into cubes
  • 1 ounce of pistachios
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Salt

Put the salad in a large bowl, add the olives, mortadella, provolone and pistachios. Season with salt to taste, the oil, a few drops of vinegar and mix. The “Italian” salad is ready to be brought to the table!

However, arguably, another version of an “Italian” salad is the insalata caprese

Italian cuisine is very regional, and this one comes from its namesake island, Capri (accent on the first syllable, CA-pri), just off the Amalfi Coast. Perfect in its simplicity, therefore the key to getting this right is finding the absolute best, freshest ingredients

caprese salad from Italy

Insalata Caprese

  • 4 – 5 tomatoes (beefsteak work well)
  • 10 ounces of fresh, high-quality mozzarella di buffala or fior di latte
  • Fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • High-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper (optional)

As for preparation, it seems obvious enough, but here’s the proper procedure:

First wash and dry the tomatoes, and cut them into 1/4 inch slices. 

Then arrange the tomatoes on a wooden cutting board and sprinkle with salt

Also slice the mozzarella into 1/4 inch slices, and dab the slices with a paper towel to absorb the excess water.

Assemble the dish, adding a few basil leaves, and alternate a slice of tomato, a slice of mozzarella, and every 2 – 3 pieces, a few basil leaves.

Sprinkle with a pinch of dried oregano, a dash of salt and pepper, a few more basil leaves, and finally add a drizzle of oil.

Now take a picture of the Italian flag you’ve just created!

Here’s something with more of a “continental” twist that might be found in other European locations, as well. 

Mixed Salad with Bacon, Grapes and Gruyère

10 ounces mixed lettuces

4 slices of smoked pancetta (or bacon)

5 ounces Gruyère cheese

2 slices of Italian bread

1 bunch of white grapes

Salt and Pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon of raw honey


  • Cut the bread into cubes.
  • In a non-stick pan, fry the bacon until crispy.
  • Take out the bacon and put the bread cubes in the leftover oil and toast them until brown.
  • Wash and clean the salads and grapes.
  • Take individual salad plates and arrange the vegetables and fruit in them.
  • Crumble the bacon and add it to the salads.
  • Then add your croutons.
  • Then add the gruyère cheese that you have cut into strips.
  • Mix the vinegar and honey until you have an emulsion, add a pinch of salt, a grind of pepper, 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and use it all to dress the salads.

Authentic Italian Salad

During a vacation long ago, I ordered a salad in Italy to accompany my dinner at a charming local trattoria. Being from the U.S., I supposed I envisioned our version of a tossed salad or side salad, or in other words, a medium-sized bowl with eight or nine ingredients mixed together, topped with croutons and some sort of dressing.

Instead, what arrived (after my pasta course, by the way) was a just a simple plate of lettuce. And the only “dressing” offered was salt and olive oil.

Indeed, in Italy the word insalata (salad) is nearly synonymous with lattuga (lettuce). At the local bar at lunchtime, you’ll see on display “panino con prosciutto e insalata,” or a sandwich with ham and salad (meaning just lettuce). The “salad” in ON the sandwich, not on the side.

And honestly, after living in Italy for several years, I eventually saw the light. Fresh, seasonal vegetables don’t really need much help to taste great. Salt and olive oil is plenty to bring out the natural flavor, and heavy dressings only cover up what you’re trying to taste…the delicious fresh lettuce, in this case. Believe it or not, good lettuce DOES have a nice flavor.

It made me question why we in the U.S. feel the need to throw the kitchen sink into every salad bowl… and then dump a thick, calorie-dense dressing on top of it. This is precisely how take something incredibly healthy and turn it into junk food. (Or maybe on some level, Americans can be forgiven for assuming that lettuce is flavorless, because in the U.S. it usually IS flavorless!)

Here is a recipe for a healthy salad from a popular website. I actually really like this doctor/author (Mark Hyman, MD) and I have learned a lot by listening to his podcast. And make no mistake, his salad recipe is healthy.

But by Italian standards, the sheer number of ingredients is indiscrete, unnecessary, and to a certain degree, it aligns with the Big Food companies who believe that more is always better. In other words, an attempt to “improve” food by crafting clever combinations instead of letting the simplicity of the fresh ingredients shine for themselves.

Best Salad Dressing in Italy

In Italy, you wouldn’t want/need all of these ingredients. As I’ve already mentioned, a “salad” (insalata) would only be lettuce with salt and olive oil. Un’insalata mista might have 3 or 4 vegetables, maximum, but certainly no seeds or mustard or canned fish.

And why all the condiments and complicated dressings? (Buttermilk Green Goddess? Coffee Vinaigrette? Seriously?) The default should always be towards FEWER ingredients. You want to taste the individual components. The more “stuff” you put into the salad, the harder you this is. Perfection always runs towards simplicity. Once you start messing with what nature created, you’re going down the wrong road to a point of no return.

veggie burger just say no!

Further in this discussion is the confounding concoctions of “plants disguised as animal products.” You know, like “veggie-burgers” or tofu tacos. Why? What’s wrong with eating the vegetables the way nature intended?

While we’re at it, let’s say “no” to the smoothie, as well. If you enjoy them as a treat, then sure…indulge and don’t feel guilty about it. Just don’t pretend that you’ve improved upon what the ingredients offered you before you put them in a high-speed blender. Enjoy smoothies as a rare treat, not part of your daily diet.

Always go back to the rule of thumb: if you’re trying your best to mimic the Mediterranean Diet, imagine what your great-grandmother would have prepared and eaten (assuming she was from a Mediterranean country). I doubt she had access to a high-speed blender, canned salmon, or vegetables in the shape of a hamburger.

Salads in Italy – The Wrap Up

We all know that the Italian diet contains more vegetables than the Global Industrial (read: American) Diet. So when you see a salad in Italy on a restaurant menu, you likely wouldn’t be surprised. However, it should be noted that a salad in Italy won’t necessarily be the same as an “Italian salad” found in other countries.

But one thing is for sure: a salad in Italy will be something quite simple, and it will NOT have any “Italian” dressing on it!

What is an Italian salad typically?

A salad in Italy is actually a very simple thing. Usually it’s just fresh lettuce dressed with a pinch of salt and some olive oil. In any case, stay closer to whole foods that are organic and in season. The more processing, the more you should avoid it. In other words, don’t eat anything that your Italian bisnonna wouldn’t recognize as food. If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it.

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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