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Quick and Easy Pesto Orzo Salad Caprese

Pesto orzo salad in orange bowl with extra pesto drizzled over it.
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Pesto Orzo Salad combines the flavors of classic summer caprese salad with tiny orzo pasta in the easiest pasta salad recipe that you’ll make this season. In just 20 minutes, pasta, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fragrant basil pesto, arugula and chickpeas come together in this bright and herby pasta salad that’s perfect for cookouts, picnics, potlucks, lunch or dinner. Very versatile, indeed!

Orzo pesto salad in orange bowl.

Brimming with fresh summer flavor, pesto orzo pasta salad brings the classic Italian trinity of flavors (plus a few others for good measure) to a caprese-inspired pasta salad near you. And, the best part–it only takes 7 ingredients and 20 minutes to prepare!

Caprese-inspired dishes of all types are certainly ubiquitous this time of year–and for good reason. You really can’t go wrong with the winning combination of creamy mozzarella, aromatic basil and ripe, peak-season tomatoes. The pasta, chickpeas and arugula simply play a supporting role in this recipe performance.

Here, fragrant basil pesto is used as the dressing for intensified basil flavor. With the added ingredients of garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and extra-virgin olive oil, pesto is really all the seasoning that you’ll need in this recipe.

Close up of finished dish on spoon.

Like my summer tortellini salad with artichokes and olives, this orzo with pesto recipe really straddles the line between pasta dish and pasta salad since it’s great whether you serve it warm or cold.

And, although this recipe screams summer, it truly is one that you can (and should) make all year. By using juicy cherry, grape or pear tomatoes which are consistently sweet year-round, you can have ripe, summer tomato flavor throughout the seasons.

This orzo salad with pesto is a recipe I come back to again and again because it checks all the boxes: can be made quickly and in advance, is delicious warm or cold, has few ingredients, works for lunch, dinner, bbqs, parties and anytime I need a quick side dish, and everyone consistently enjoys it. Win-win-win-win-win if you ask me!

Side view of pesto orzo salad caprese in orange bowl.

Ingredients for Pesto Orzo Salad

⁠⁠ ⁠⁠You just need a handful of simple ingredients to make this summery orzo pesto pasta salad!

  • Orzo: Orzo is a tiny pasta that is shaped a lot like a grain of rice. They expand nicely once cooked. Feel free to use your favorite short, small- or medium-sized pasta in this recipe. Fusilli, shells and farfalle are all great options.
  • Basil Pesto: This classic basil/garlic/parmesan/pine nut/olive oil sauce is the ideal savory and fragrant dressing for this orzo pasta salad and enhances its inner caprese-ness.  You can use either store-bought or homemade basil pesto for this recipe.
  • Fresh Mozzarella: I hand-pulled fresh mozzarella into bite-sized shreds and I actually love the texture that it adds to this orzo salad recipe. However, if you can find mini mozzarella pearls (sometimes called perline), by all means, use them for convenience.
  • Tomatoes: Use either grape, pear or cherry tomatoes, or a combination, in any color. Slice them in half or in quarters lengthwise, based on their size.
  • Chickpeas: A great bean that’s full of protein and texture and adds a great deal of heartiness to the orzo pasta salad.
  • Baby Arugula: As in this Shrimp Arugula Pasta, I love the light, peppery flavor and color that arugula adds to this recipe, balancing out its flavor. Baby spinach is an option as well.

All ingredients to make caprese pasta salad in glass bowls.

How to Make Pesto Orzo Salad, Step-by-Step

Blink and the prep will be done for this Pesto Orzo Salad. To make it:

  • Prep and gather all ingredients. Make pesto if you do not have any on hand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Then, place the mozzarella, tomatoes, chickpeas and arugula in a large bowl. Once the water comes to a boil, add salt, then the pasta, stirring frequently.

  • When the orzo pasta is al dente, drain it well in a colander and rinse it under cold water briefly. Then, add it to the bowl with the veggies, beans and cheese.

  • Add the pesto and extra virgin olive oil and carefully mix until all ingredients are well-combined and coated with the dressing.

  • You can certainly serve this caprese pasta salad warm immediately. Otherwise, refrigerate it for at least 1 hour to serve a traditional chilled pasta salad. Garnish with some fresh basil leaves if you have them. That’s it!
    • PRO-TIP: You can make this salad up to two days in advance, but I suggest adding the arugula right before serving if you plan on doing this. Also, taste and adjust the seasonings again right before serving.

If you enjoy chickpeas with pasta, check out this classic Italian American pasta with chickpeas recipe!

Trio of summer salads in small bowls on a white plate with green towel.
This pesto orzo pasta salad complements other summer salads so well, like these Italian potato and tortellini salads.

A fragrant pesto makes almost everything better! For a few other delicious recipes that are made with pesto, check out Baked Tomatoes with Parmesan and Breadcrumbs, Pesto Turkey Meatballs, Chicken Parm with Pesto, Pesto-Roasted Potatoes, Pesto Ricotta Pasta, Zucchini Soup, Pesto Tortellini Salad and this dreamy Chicken Cutlet Sandwich.

Substitutions and Variations

  • Add Olives and/or Capers: Some chopped black, oil-cured or kalamata olives would be really nice in this pesto orzo salad and provide a slight briny flavor, as would capers. I love them in my Italian Potato Salad (without mayo) and in this Tortellini Salad.
  • Add Sun-Dried Tomatoes: Sometimes, I’ll fold in some chopped sun-dried tomatoes to this recipe for both color and sweet tomato flavor.
  • Add Additional Protein: While the chickpeas offer a good amount of protein, folding in some pulled rotisserie chicken meat, grilled shrimp or diced turkey or salami would amp up the heartiness and make this caprese orzo salad more entrée-like.
  • Change the Dressing: This caprese pasta salad is versatile in that it would work with a lot of other types of pestos. Some ideas are a sun-dried tomato pesto, roasted red pepper pesto or a mint pistachio pesto. Also, if you prefer an alternative to pesto, use a good Italian dressing. For a lemony twist, stir some fresh lemon juice into the pesto.
  • Other Mix-Ins that would be great in this Mediterranean orzo salad are meaty artichoke hearts, sweet bell peppers, red onion, roasted garlic and toasted pine nuts.
Orzo pasta salad in orange bowl.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the key to great pasta salads?

The most important thing to remember when making a pasta salad is to not overcook the pasta. Like all hot pasta recipes, pasta for a chilled pasta salad should be cooked until al dente, which means that it should still be firm to the bite. Al dente pasta is less likely to become mushy or soggy when mixed together with other ingredients.
 
Also, rinsing the pasta under cold water (as discussed in the next FAQ) and having extra dressing on hand to add to the salad after it sits awhile and absorbs dressing are important.

Should I rinse the orzo after cooking?

Yes. Unlike hot pasta dishes, it’s a good idea to to rinse the cooked pasta under cold water briefly after cooking for this pesto orzo salad. This will remove excess starch and cool the pasta which can help the salad from becoming soggy and sticky and the pasta grains from being clumped together. The cold water will also stop the cooking process immediately, helping to prevent overcooking the pasta.

How do you prevent orzo salad from drying out?

Pasta tends to absorb whatever sauce it’s in as it sits (a good thing, in my humble opinion!). This may cause the salad to look a bit dry after it sits awhile or after it’s been chilled.
 
Some recommend tossing cooked pasta with some oil before mixing it with the dressing or other ingredients to reduce absorption of the dressing. But I actually think that pasta that’s absorbed some dressing (i.e., flavor) is much more appetizing than one that hasn’t. So, I generally don’t do this and will just add some additional dressing as needed. Just keep some extra pesto on hand for this.


Pesto orzo pasta salad caprese on plate with roasted half chicken.
Pesto Orzo Pasta Salad pairs perfectly with roast chicken!

TOP TIPS FOR PESTO ORZO SALAD CAPRESE

  • Batch Size: This caprese pasta salad recipe makes a large bowl perfect for a get-together–about 13 to 14 cups salad. Orzo pasta really expands!. You can easily cut this recipe in half for a smaller yield.
  • Cooking The Pasta: It’s important to cook the orzo properly (to al dente doneness) to prevent a soggy salad. Al dente pasta is less likely to become mushy or broken when mixed together with other ingredients.
  • Serving: Serve the salad immediately or refrigerate for at least 1 hour to serve a traditional chilled pasta salad. It’s a great side dish for dishes like turkey meatballs, chicken cutlets, Italian sausage and all classic bbq favorites like burgers and ribs.
  • Make In Advance: You can make this orzo salad with pesto up to two days in advance of serving, but I suggest adding the arugula right before serving if you do this. Also, taste and adjust the seasonings again right before serving and add more dressing if the salad appears dry.
  • Leftovers: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Enjoy cold or at room temperature. Freezing is not recommended. I love the leftovers for lunch or easy dinners! It’s a great salad to pack for school or work lunches.

More Great Recipes to Try

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Orzo pesto salad in orange bowl.

Quick and Easy Pesto Orzo Salad Caprese

Michele
Pesto Orzo Salad combines the flavors of classic summer caprese salad with tiny orzo pasta in the easiest pasta salad recipe. In just 20 minutes, pasta, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fragrant basil pesto, arugula and chickpeas come together in this bright and herby pasta salad that’s perfect for cookouts, picnics, potlucks, lunch or dinner.
5 from 2 votes
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Course Side Dish, Salad, Pasta
Cuisine Italian, American
Servings 12 servings

Equipment

Ingredients
  

  • pounds grape, cherry or pear tomatoes, cut in half or quartered if large
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed under running water and drained
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella, pulled into bite-sized shreds or diced (tiny perline can be used!)
  • Large handful baby arugula (about 2 to 3 ounces)
  • 1 pound orzo pasta + salt for pasta water
  • 1 cup pesto at room temperature, either homemade or store-bought (about 8 ounces)
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • To Taste salt and black pepper

Instructions
 

  • Prep and gather all ingredients according to specifications above. Make pesto if you do not have any on hand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
    (Please see the section above in the blog post for Step-By-Step instructions with photos.)
    1 cup pesto
  • Place the tomatoes, chickpeas, mozzarella and arugula in a large bowl. Once the water comes to a boil, add salt, then the pasta, stirring frequently.
    1½ pounds grape, cherry or pear tomatoes,, 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas,, 1 pound fresh mozzarella,, Large handful baby arugula, 1 pound orzo pasta
  • When the orzo pasta is al dente, drain it well in a colander and rinse it under cold water briefly. Then, add it to the bowl with the veggies, beans and cheese, along with the pesto and olive oil.
    1 cup pesto, 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Carefully mix until all ingredients are well-combined and coated in the pesto and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
    To Taste salt and black pepper
  • You can certainly serve this dish warm immediately. Otherwise, refrigerate it for at least 1 hour to serve a traditional chilled pasta salad. Buon Appetito!

Notes

  • This recipe yields a large bowl that is perfect for a get-together–about 13 to 14 cups salad (orzo pasta really expands!). I figured about 1 cup or so per portion but adjust accordingly. Also, you can easily cut this recipe in half for a smaller yield.
  • I used tiny orzo in this recipe, but any small or medium-sized short pasta would work well. If you plan on enjoying this recipe as a hot dish and not a salad, long pasta would work, too!
  • You can make this salad up to two days in advance, but I suggest adding the arugula right before serving if you plan on doing this. Also, taste and adjust the seasonings again right before serving.
  • Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Enjoy cold, at room temperature or heated up in a small pan over medium low heat. Freezing is not recommended.
 
Recipe by Mangia With Michele. Please visit my site for more great cooking inspiration!
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2 thoughts on “Quick and Easy Pesto Orzo Salad Caprese

  1. 5 stars
    This was a great alternative to regular pasta salad. And it was also good warmed up as leftovers.

  2. 5 stars
    So easy and delicious! Thank you for sharing this recipe. Just made it last night and my family loved it.

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