This tri-color pasta salad is my favorite pasta salad in the history of ever. The creamy, simple dressing is perfect for the tender pasta. I’ve been making it for years; it’s a keeper!

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

Of all the pasta salads I’ve loved in my life (hint: I’ve loved a lot), this tri-color pasta salad is at the tippy tippy top of the ones I can’t live without. I’ve been making it for years, after my Aunt Marilyn passed it on to me over seven years ago, and it is still a huge family favorite.

In fact, I can easily say this pasta salad has appeared at more potlucks, BBQ’s, easy Friday night dinners, and family gatherings than I can even count. It is a little bit classic, a little bit unique, and a lot yummy.

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

If you’ve made it, you know the fresh basil and little kick of pesto take it from average to extraordinary. And don’t even get me started on the pine nuts. They are everything. (But don’t worry, I’ve offered a substitution in the notes of the recipe if you are allergic or opposed to paying an arm or a leg for them.)

I am also a little proud of myself for not spending the entirety of the post just on the looks of this pasta salad (I didn’t want to appear shallow). It is pretty, no doubt about it, and we all know looks definitely get you part of the way there in terms of rock star points.

But the real clincher is how wonderfully delicious it is. And the fact that it comes together quickly and painlessly is simply just another pasta salad bonus. I don’t know about you but I kind of like pasta salad bonuses.

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

If you’re looking for the perfect pasta salad for your Labor Day shenanigans, this is the one. I guarantee this tried-and-true tri-color pasta salad recipe will be the hit wherever you take it (even if you just stick around home and dig right into the bowl with a fork).

Have you perused my list of Best Recipes yet? A recipe has to be pretty darn amazing to make the cut. Think of the Best Recipes section as a a one-stop guide to the best of the best recipes so you don’t have to spend hours searching for the perfect “insert recipe you want here.”

This salad easily makes it onto the Best Side Dishes list. Easily.

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

Yield: Serves 6-8

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

I've subbed unsalted sunflower seeds for the pine nuts before with good results (although pine nuts are my preference; love them!).

You can use regular tomatoes in place of the Roma; I like to give them a light squeeze over the sink after slicing in half to get rid of a bit of water before adding them to the salad.

The original recipe called for 2 teaspoons sauté spice (equal parts black pepper, salt and garlic powder). I've scaled that amount down over the years and broken it out into separate ingredients in the recipe.


  • 12-ounce package tri-color rotini pasta, cooked and drained
  • 2/3 cup creamy Caesar dressing
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse, kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3 roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1 (6-ounce) can black olives, drained and chopped
  • 1/4 cup finely diced red onion (or green onions)
  • 3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 6-10 fresh basil leaves, cut into strips or torn into pieces, plus more for garnish, if desired
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto
  • 1/2 to 1 cup toasted pine nuts (optional - see note above for substitutions)


  1. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water according to package directions. Drain and coat with the Caesar dressing while still warm.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the pine nuts and extra basil. Toss well to combine. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed.
  3. Refrigerate until ready to serve (4-8 hours). If the pasta salad seems dry after refrigerating, add a little more Caesar dressing and stir to combine. Before serving, top with pine nuts and fresh basil, if desired.

Recipe Source: from my Aunt Marilyn

Recipe originally posted February 17, 2009; updated today with new pictures and fine-tuned details.

96 Responses to Tri-Color Pasta Salad {My Favorite Pasta Salad}

  1. Ann says:

    This pasta salad is delicious but I have to say mine was not creamy! I followed it to a “T”
    and used “Newmans Own”. I wonder if I did something wrong or is it supposed to be that way. Right before serving I did add more dressing but it just absorbed into the pasta very quickly and there was a lot of oil collected in the bottom of my dish. But we loved it!

  2. Carrie Bigger says:

    Hey, Melanie! I made this this week for a lunch at the church…so good! Thank you!

  3. Kristen says:

    Hi Mel, I’m new to your blog and happily bought your recent e-cookbook. The recipe on the cover (cashew chicken) was fabulous- as was this pasta salad I made last night! I followed the recipe to a “t”, and highly recommend everyone do! Yes, the basil and pesto are important, people. The pine nuts take it to the next level. I love a little meat in my pasta salad, so I thinly sliced a little calbrese salami (just a little) and added it as well. It’s a winner and in my rotation now- thank you so much!!!

  4. Gina says:

    I am going to make this for tailgating at a baseball game on Labor Day. I’m definitely going to use the sunflower seeds and I have an abundance of tomatoes and basil in the garden. My question is what variety of basil do you suggest. I have two types of lemon basil, the typical genovese and a sweet basil. When I make pesto I usually use a mixture of all of them with a bunch of parsley, too. I think I’ll try the lemon for the fresh topping and come back after I’ve tried it and post, but if anyone has tried a particular favorite, I would appreciate the info. We are also going to have the Magnolia Lemon Cream Pie. I know it is all going to be delicious, I am drooling just thinking about it. GO BREWERS!!! LONG LIVE HANK!!!

  5. Shaynee says:

    This pasta salad is amazing! I’m allergic to tomatoes, so I sub with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts. And definitely use a creamy Caesar. I subbed with a regular Caesar once and it wasn’t nearly as good. Love you and your recipes, Mel! They rarely let me down!

  6. Melody says:

    I think this was one of the very first recipes I made from your blog! I love it warm.

  7. I’ve been making this pasta salad all summer, and it really is the best pasta salad out there! (I have yet to make it with the pine nuts though because I have not been willing to pay for them.)

  8. Teresa R. says:

    Like many of your readers, I’ve made this pasta salad countless times. I’ve made it with and without pine nuts. It’s good either way, but best with the pine nuts. I’ve had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Thanks Mel!

  9. Angela T. says:

    I know this is an old post, but I gotta comment on it. The first time I made this, I didn’t have pesto, basil, or pine nuts. It was ok. This time around I used everything, but I had to use green onion in place of the red because I didn’t have one. For all of you asking about leaving the pesto out, I highly recommend using it. Unless you are alergic to it, then there is no excuse (☺). I have had good luck finding it with the refrigerated pasta & specialty meats and cheese. This salad is delicious! I will be making it again, and maybe adding some grilled chicken for a complete meal.

  10. april says:

    So i accidentally bought newman’s regular caesar instead of newman’s creamy caesar. Do you think that will be ok?

  11. Melanie Harris says:

    I’ve been looking for really good shrimp with tricolor pasta and stumbled upon this site. After reading the ingredients, this sounds like a hit! Fresh basil and pesto caught my attention. Oh, can’t forget the pine nuts.

  12. Melanie says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I’ve been looking for really good shrimp with tricolor pasta and stumbled upon this site. After reading the ingredients, this sounds like a hit. Fresh basil and pesto caught my attention. Oh, can’t forget the pine nuts.

  13. Melanie M says:

    I never thought I would dream about pasta salad, but this stuff is delicious! I am making it for the third time this month to take to a neighborhood BBQ- almost against my own will because I don’t want to share it with anyone else! I’ve put cold salmon on the leftovers before for a filling and delicious lunch. Yum!

  14. Jenny Richardson says:

    I’m late to this salad party. Made this last night with a bunch of 12 year olds for girl’s camp cooking certification in our stake–along with our now favorite sloppy joes from your “best” category. We made those as sliders. This salad is Winner Winner. The rest of the leaders were gathered around eating it all. Loved it. When I told them where I found the recipe, several were already fans of yours. You are famous. 🙂
    Thank you for another great meal–I can always trust your recipes.

  15. Chelsea says:

    I am having a pot luck at my work on saturday (a going away party for one of the stylists at my salon) and I think I am gonna give this a whirl! Stumbled upon your site after searching for an hour for pasta salad and I am glad I did 🙂 I have a famous, basic-ish but with personal twists ;), go-to pasta salad recipe that is always a hit, but its starting to BORE me lol… who doesnt love pesto and caesar? I am thinking of using grape tomatoes instead, and maybe adding fresh spinich, jarred chopped roasted red peppers, and marinated atrichoke hearts. Knowing the flavor do you think that will work?? Also… thinking of using toasted chopped almonds, hazelnuts, or maybe even sunflower kernals to save $$ replacing pinenuts 🙂 im sure all the girls at the shop will love your recipe!! I will keep ya posted!

    • Mel says:

      Hi Chelsea – glad you found your way here! I think your additions sound awesome and I bet they’ll pair very well with the flavors. Of all the crunch you suggested, I’d definitely go with sunflower seeds. I’ve used them before in place of pine nuts and they are delicious. Hope everyone like the salad!

  16. zella says:

    I’m just curious…where did the term saute seasoning come from? Is that a standard spice you use in other things? Thanks.

    • Mel says:

      Zella – It’s a seasoning my Aunt Marilyn uses all the time and since she gave me the recipe, I’ve kept the terminology. I use it for an all purpose meat seasoning sometimes, too.

  17. Ruth Bannister says:

    Can the creamy Caesar dressing be used if you added salami and artichokes? It sounds wonderful, but I don’t want to leave the meat out, and I have only seen the meat with the Italian dressing. I need to shop for a party soon.

    • Mel says:

      Hi Ruth – I’ve never added salami and artichokes so you’ll have to experiment with the dressing. I think it would work fine but I”m not too particular about using Italian dressing in pasta salads. Good luck!

  18. Mel says:

    Sara – my main rule of thumb is to stay away from generic. I’ve had bad luck using those but I’ve used Newman’s Own and several others (can’t remember brands right off the top of my head) with good results.

  19. Sara says:

    Mel- this looks delicious! What bottled creamy Caesar salad dressing would you recommend/use?

  20. Lisa Lamont says:

    After I had submitted my question, I had read the rest of the comments and saw that someone else had asked the same thing. Thanks for the response.

    Made it this weekend and it was dee-lish. It’ll be my go-to recipe for a potluck pasta salad.

  21. Mel says:

    Lisa – it is creamy Caesar dressing used int he recipe.

  22. Lisa Lamont says:

    Making this on Saturday for a family gathering…can’t wait. In the notes, you mention creamy ranch dressing but in the actual recipe, you mention creamy Caesar. Which dressing should I use?


  23. Mel says:

    Serena – I would say this serves about 6-8 as a side dish.

  24. Serena says:

    How many people does this salad serve? I am thinking of making it for a party, but want to make sure I make enough. Thanks!

  25. […] been going – going – going. I have a potluck tonight where I’ll be bringing the Tri-Color Summer Pasta Salad. I changed up that recipe so I’ll share that later this weekend. I hope it is a winner! […]

  26. […] Tri-Color Summer Pasta Salad – this is not for Garrett and I sadly, I’ll be bringing this to a potluck this week. […]

  27. Jamie says:

    Hey everybody,
    Im using alot of these side recipes for my wedding, can some be made the day before?? please let me know.

  28. […] For a side, I served Tri Colored Pasta.  […]

  29. […] Source:Another fantastic one from or click here Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. 09 Jul This entry was […]

  30. Leah says:

    I made this for a potluck and everyone loved it! I forgot to buy pine nuts but it was still really good. I can’t wait to make it again with pine nuts. Thanks!

  31. Clare says:

    I’ve made this at least half a dozen times before now, but I just have to tell you that it’s my absolute favorite pasta salad! Instead of pine nuts, I sub sunflower seeds. It still gives it a good flavor and crunch. Actually, I thought about buying some this weekend, and didn’t. Now I wish I had, since I decided to make this for our lunch with the missionaries at the last minute.

  32. This was delicious! Thanks Mel!

  33. Megan says:

    AWESOME. Our new favorite pasta salad. I don’t think I’ll ever make the plain old pasta salad with italian dressing after making this. It’s incredible. I forgot to add the cheese and it was still awesome!

  34. Julie in TX says:

    This is fantastic! I just made it for my BBQ tomorrow and I just want to eat it now! I used Ken’s lite creamy Caesar and reduced fat pesto to save a few calories and it is still delicious! I also substituted toasted blanched almonds for the pine nuts to save s few dollars. Thanks again for a great recipe!

  35. Tiffany says:

    also Mel – I noticed when you were describing the salad you mentioned the dressing was made of ranch and pesto, but in the ingredients creamy ceasar is listed? which one should i use?

    • Mel says:

      Hi Tiffany – I usually serve this at room temperature or cold. I pour the dressing over the pasta warm and let it cool. I think ranch could be substituted – I used the term “creamy ranch” to describe the bottled dressing I usually buy (the Newman’s brand of Creamy Caesar tastes a little ranch-like).

  36. Tiffany says:

    mel – do you serve this warm, or cold? i was slightly confused when you said to pour the dressing over the pasta while it was warm, I thought this was a cold salad? By the way…I LOVE your website…everything I have tried I have loved!

  37. Sara says:

    Ok, this is amazing! I made it with your Green Goddess dressing that I had leftover because I didn’t feel like making a Caesar dressing and didn’t want to go to the grocery. Anyway, it turned out awesome. I also subbed a salad cucumber for the olives since we’re not olive fans.

    I think I have made half the recipes on your site since I discovered it a couple months ago. Moo Shu noodles were amazing last night and pretty much everything else we have loved as well. I refer to you as “my new friend Mel” when my husband asks where the recipe came from. 🙂 Thank you!!!!

    • Mel says:

      Sara – what a great idea to use the green goddess dressing for the pasta salad. I’m definitely going to try it! I’m thrilled that you have been happy with the recipes you have tried! I’ll take your claim to be friends – you tell your husband it’s legit!

  38. juliann says:

    So I have 2 things to say
    1-Your blog has become my go to site for all my recipe needs. I needed some BBQ side dishes and came here and was not disappointed. Seriously, every recipe I have ever tried here become my new favorite (fill in the blank) Keep these awesome recipes coming.

    2-I messed this salad up and it was still waaaay better then any version I have ever had. I saw the 2 tsp. of equal parts of garlic, salt & pepper. I was a tad hungover and couldnt handle the math so I figured I would do 1/2 tsps of all 3 and leave it at that. I grabbed the 1/2 TABLESPOON, instead and didnt realize it until I had already poured it all in and mixed it. oopsie!!!!! I thought all hope was lost but I put some extra dressing in, and some more cheese and it came out AWESOME. The flavor was strong, but not strong enough that my 19 month old daughter couldnt inhale it. I also just realized I forgot to even put in the really expensive pine nuts I bought……maybe next time! Because I will be making this again and again and again. Your Aunt is a genius, thanks for such a great recipe for such a what is normally a blah side dish

    • Mel says:

      Juliann – thanks so much for your comment! I’m thrilled you have loved the recipes you have tried before and I’m especially glad that despite the over-seasoning, this salad still tasted great! Thanks for letting me know.

  39. Krysta says:

    Hi – This sounds yummy – how many servings would you say this recipe makes?
    Thanks and can’t wait to try it!

  40. Linda says:

    I just made this for our Father’s Day get-together as well. It was a hit! So yummy and full of flavor. We loved it. Thank you Mel.

  41. Alycia says:

    I just made this for our Father’s Day barbecue. Thanks for the great recipe! I did sub green onions for the red because my hubby is picky about onions. I used the fresh pesto from sam’s club. I am really picky about my pasta salad, but this recipe is a keeper!

  42. Mel says:

    Beth – I find the pesto above the spaghetti sauce in the grocery store.

  43. Amy says:

    We loved this recipe! I dropped the red onions and pine nuts and replaced them with sliced Italian sausage and replaced the garlic powder with a touch of fresh pressed garlic. It was a big hit with our dinner guests and my family loved it! I am SOOO loving this site!

  44. Beth says:

    This recipe sounds so good. I want to make it for a BBQ’D tomorrow night. Wwhere do you find the pesto? I have not ever bought pesto before and I don’t know where to find it.

  45. Danielle says:

    We had this the other night with your lemon garlic chicken. YUMMY! I am usually lukewarm when it comes to pasta salad. It’s not that I don’t like it, but I find most are a bit lacking in the flavor category. This, however, was full of flavor. I LOVED the pesto and fresh basil-really, can you ever go wrong with fresh basil? It had just the right amount of dressing. You and Aunt Marilyn have done it again!

    • Mel says:

      Danielle – it’s nice to hear all these somewhat anti-pasta-salad fans have liked this! Thanks for letting me know this was a hit!

  46. Sophie Bassett says:

    Hi Mel,
    This is sooooo good!! I am generally not a fan of pasta salad. I was given the assignment to make pasta salad for a BBQ I went to and it was a hit! I can’t imagine the salad without the pesto and fresh basil. It adds so much, and totally made the salad for me. Will be making again tonight…just for myself.

    • Mel says:

      Hi Sophie – thanks for checking in on this recipe! I’m so glad you like this salad, especially since you aren’t normally a fan of pasta salad. I agree that the pesto and fresh basil are absolutely necessary!

  47. Anissa says:

    Another FANTASGREAT recipe! 🙂 I added some cubed Pepperjack cheese to it too and it made it all that more tasty. Can’t have enough cheese in things in this family.

  48. Linda says:

    I’m anxious to try this yum pasta, but just curious!? What brand of ceasar dressing did you use? I get confused with all the different types out there. Is there a certain brand you recommend?

    • Mel says:

      Hi Linda – I’ve bought several brands over the years while making this salad. One that I like a lot is the Newman’s brand.

  49. Katie says:

    made the salad tonight and snuck a taste- its fab 🙂 even without the pine nuts. Thanks Mel, another good recipe from you!

  50. Katie says:

    where is everyone buying pine nuts?? Because I’m doubling this recipe for a work luncheon, and to get 3 cups of pinenuts at our local grocery store would have cost over $20??!! Couldn’t believe that… I was a bit bummed, because I’m very much a girl who likes to follow recipes exactly how they are… ended up ditching the pine nuts.

    • Mel says:

      Katie – you know, I actually noticed the other day that pine nuts have nearly quadrupled in cost over the last year. I don’t know why, but they were definitely a lot cheaper when I made this dish since I wouldn’t have spent 20 dollars either. Yikes! I hope it still tasted ok without them (and I bet it did).

  51. mini-mcgoo says:

    Ah ha! I’ve found it! I was on the prowl for a great pasta salad recipe…and i’m partial to black olives…well and basil, pesto, parmesan…all of it really. Thanks for being a great source of inspiration. The salad was a hit at our company Christmas party. I will be making it again and again.

    Hey, what else you got on this blog? I have some investigating for my freezable meal planning makeover.

  52. Melanie says:

    mini-mcgoo – so glad this pasta salad was a hit! Thanks for letting me know and I hope you find some other great recipes to try on the blog. Your comment made me smile, thanks!

  53. grace says:

    confession: tricolor pasta salad made the exact same way as regular pasta salad tastes better to me. i guess i’m partial to color. 🙂

  54. Adrienne says:

    I’ve had this with Italian dressing but I think the Caesar would be so much better. Can’t wait to try it!

  55. Queen B. says:

    I just printed this off. Can’t wait.Now I’m off to eaT MORE chowder. Thank the Lord for one more bowl !! Yipppeeee !!

  56. Maria says:

    I love pasta salads! This one has it all!

  57. Melanie says:

    Anonymous – glad this was a hit! It is a perfect pasta salad for a BBQ. Thanks for letting me know it turned out well.

  58. Melanie says:

    Anonymous – you can definitely prepare this the night before. When you take it out to serve it, you may need to add a little extra dressing to moisten everything up. Also, on the pesto, it is a delicious flavor in the salad but I know some have tried it without and have liked it, too.

  59. Melanie says:

    Bonnie – thanks for trying it so soon and letting me know you liked it! I agree that the pine nuts add a special touch.

  60. Lynda says:

    I love pasta salad and the addition of ceasar dressing and pesto sounds so good!

  61. Brindi says:

    This sounds great. My husband loves pasta salad and I am always looking for new ways to make it.

  62. Melody says:

    I made this today but without the whole basil leaves & basil pesto…I could not find either in the grocery store, but I think it turned out fine. I didn’t have time to go to the “fancy” store!

  63. Sadie says:

    I just found your blog and I’m so happy because I was in need of a new food blog for recipes. Everything looks so good. I’ll definitely be trying a lot of your yummy stuff out.Thank!

  64. Julie says:

    I love pasta salads, and this looks great. I love the addition of the pine nuts.

  65. Netts Nook says:

    The salad look great I can’t wait to try.

  66. Sara @ Our Best Bites says:

    ooh, I bet that pesto with caesar is so yummy together. This looks like a yummy, simple meal. I’m gonna put it on my to-try list!

  67. Laura says:

    I love the idea of the creamy dressing along with the pine nuts, pesto, and fresh basil. Thta definitely takes it up from your traditional italian past salad.

  68. Maris says:

    I love pasta salads! They’re great at picnics in the summertime, which will be right around the corner before you know it!

  69. Melanie says:

    Melody – thanks for letting me know that this worked out and you liked it, without the basil leaves and pesto even! It is a pretty forgiving pasta salad. Glad you liked it!

  70. Melanie says:

    Liz – thanks for trying this and letting me know what you think (I’ve loved getting all the comments today). I’ll let my aunt know you liked it!

  71. Donna says:

    It is beautiful and sounds super delicious! I so love this site!

  72. Anonymous says:

    This salad is just perfect! It has really great flavor and is really fast to put together too. I took a double batch to a neighborhood party and had many compliments! -Liz K.

  73. Anonymous says:

    Another question…how much flavor will be compromised if I leave out the pasto? or is there anyting you think I can sub it for?


  74. Anonymous says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I understand you are in the middle of your move but just wanted to post this now. This salad should be OK to prepare the night before right?

  75. Anonymous says:

    Hi Melanie,

    This was a hit at our July 4th BBQ. I couldn’t find pesto at the supermarket, so I left it out but it was still delish!

    Thanks for sharing.

  76. Leslie Green says:

    Love this pasta dish!! Easy too!

  77. Bonnie says:

    This was so yummy!! I think that the pine nuts really add to the salad. My 19 month old daughter especially loved it. Thanks for all of the great recipes!!

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