This Orzo Pesto Salad is the perfect, easy-to-make, fresh summer salad. It’s packed with ripe, bursting tomatoes and tiny perlini mozzarella and topped with toasted pine nuts.
The base recipe will remind you of a mashup between a pesto pasta salad with orzo and a Caprese. Make my homemade pesto alla Genovese or use a store-bought pesto if you don’t have the time. You’ll be taking this orzo pasta salad to potlucks and picnics all summer long!
Why you’ll love this recipe
- Summer produce really shines here.
- Great for potlucks.
There are not many components to this pesto orzo salad recipe, so the key is to use the freshest ingredients you can find. Your basil pesto and your tomatoes should sing of summer.
What is orzo?
Orzo literally means “barley” in Italian. It’s a small wheat pasta shaped like barley or rice. Orzo is often used in soup recipes but can be cooked the same way as Arborio in risotto or to make an orzo salad like this recipe.
About fresh mozzarella
Perlini mozzarella are the smallest size of mozzarella balls, about a centimeter in diameter. They are supposedly the size of pearls, though I can’t imagine a necklace made out of pearls that size!
If you’re unable to find perlini, use the smallest mozzarella you can find. Chop it if you have to. But please use fresh mozzarella in this pesto orzo pasta salad recipe and save the dried, shredded mozzarella for your pizza recipes.
Variations and substitutions
- If you can’t find orzo, any small pasta shape will work in this pasta salad recipe.
- Add spinach or other greens or finely chopped basil leaves to the pasta salad.
- Chop some artichoke hearts or steamed green vegetables like broccoli or asparagus into the salad.
- Add white beans for protein or add chopped roasted chicken breast to make this a chicken pesto salad.
Tips and tricks
Making the pesto orzo salad
Step 1: To make this orzo salad recipe, bring a large pot of water to a boil and then add your salt. Adding salt after the water is boiling helps prevent the salt from pitting your pots.
Step 2: When the water returns to a boil, cook the orzo to al dente, save a cup or so of pasta water, and drain the orzo. Return the orzo immediately to the warm pot and mix the orzo with pesto and some pasta water until it gets to your desired consistency.
Tip from the wisequacker: as a rule of thumb, combine your pasta and sauce in the pot and cook them a minute or two. With pesto, the pasta needs just to be warm. When your pasta takes up flavor from the sauce, it tastes better! Stay away from pasta recipes that stir pesto into cold pasta or show pasta sauce sitting pristinely on a pile of spaghetti.
Step 3: Let the pesto-coated orzo cool to room temperature before adding the other ingredients for the orzo salad. Serve immediately. Easy!
What to serve with this pesto orzo salad
This pesto orzo salad can be a light lunch or as a side for a more substantial meal. Some ideas for what you can serve with this orzo pesto salad recipe include:
Toasting the pine nuts that will be used to garnish this pesto orzo salad enhances their flavor and makes them crunchier. I always recommend toasting your nuts, whether it’s for baking like in this coffee and walnut loaf cake or for savory dishes like pesto or meatball recipes.
The easiest way to toast pine nuts is to put them in small pan in a hot oven for five to ten minutes. You can also heat them in a dry frying pan over low heat. Either way, be careful not to burn them. They should be lightly colored and smell toasty.
The simplest way to make this ahead is to make the pesto in advance. Pesto can be frozen for months. Fully made, the pesto orzo salad is best served within the first day, but it can be stored in the refrigerator for several days.
Related salad recipes
Check out other salad recipes from the side dish archives like:
Love this recipe? Please leave a 5-heart 💜💜💜💜💜 rating in the recipe card below. Let me know how much you loved it, or any problems you had, in the comments section further down.
Orzo Pesto Salad Recipe
- 8 ounces (about 1⅓ cups) orzo
- ¼ cup pesto plus more as desired
- ½ cup perlini mozzarella or other fresh mozzarella, chopped
- 10 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered if large
- 10 pitted Kalamata olives, sliced
- ¼ teaspoon salt plus more for salting the pasta water
- ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- Bring a large pot of water, add salt, and cook the orzo according to the package directions until it is just al dente. Before draining, reserve about a cup of pasta water.8 ounces (about 1⅓ cups) orzo
- Drain the orzo and return it immediately to the warm pasta pot. Add about ¼ cup of pesto the orzo and stir it until the pasta is evenly coated. If your pesto is thick, add some of the pasta water about a tablespoon at at time to thin it slightly.¼ cup pesto
- Transfer the orzo to a glass bowl and let cool to room temperature.
- When cool, add the perlini mozzarella, chopped tomatoes, chopped olives, salt, and pepper, and toss gently to mix.½ cup perlini mozzarella, 10 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved or quartered if large, 10 pitted Kalamata olives, sliced, ¼ teaspoon salt, ⅛ teaspoon black pepper
- Garnish with toasted pine nuts and serve at room temperature.2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
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