Home Cooking: Insalata di Riso (Italian Rice Salad)
by Daniela Savone contributor
July 17, 2020
An ideal summer dish for picnics or lunch at the beach. Learn how to prepare it.
Since I was a baby, my family and I would board the 8-hour Alitalia flight out of New York City’s JFK International Airport, bound for Italy’s Rome Fiumicino Airport, where my Zio Angelo, and cousin Stefano would anxiously await our arrival. We would spend 3 weeks in August vacationing in my father’s hometown of Lucxa. We always made sure to book our trip around August 15th, a national holiday in Italy, similar to the United States’ Labor Day, known as Ferragosto. To celebrate the holiday, Italians across the country traditionally take off work – heading either to the mountains for a big family picnic or to the beach for a couple of days’ escape. My fondest memories of Italy in the summer as a kid are celebrating Ferragosto and driving up to Prato di Campoli, in the mountains and picnicking with all our family and friends, or going to la Spiaggia di Sperlonga and sitting under a huge ombrellone (beach umbrella) at the beach, feasting on my families insalata di riso.
Zio, is my father’s younger, loud, vibrant, sharp-tongued brother – always bursting with personality, much like his famous Italian rice salad: It’s colorful, refreshing, packed with flavor and you just can’t get enough! And while I know that rice may sound bland, when it comes to this salad – delicioso!
This cold Italian rice salad is a traditional summer staple in Italy. It’s the perfect dish to make during the sweltering months of summer. It’s so easy to make and requires very little preparation since the recipe often relies on ingredients found in the pantry or refrigerator. Make it easily ahead of time and store it in the fridge for days. Pack it for a picnic in the mountains, at the beach, the lake or even the pool! Or serve it as a side dish with dinner alongside grilled meat or fish, or as a main dish at lunchtime, because this is literally an all-in-one meal!
You can make insalata di riso in so many ways, and every Italian usually has their own recipe, but typically, the main ingredients are a classic combination of cooked rice, pickled vegetables, tuna, ham, and boiled eggs. And sure, the sound of mixing tuna and ham may sound strange – but these ingredients actually work very well together!
Just beware: It’s important to use a high-quality tuna variety preserved in olive oil along with a specific type of rice since the fundamentals of this dish are rice and tuna. The best tuna to use is jarred or canned Italian tuna packed in olive oil because it has so much more flavor than regular canned tuna in water, which simply won’t have the same effect. Italian jarred tuna can easily be found in the same aisle as regular tuna fish at the grocery store or in any Italian delicacy store.
It is best to use arborio or carnaroli rice – the precious and highly-valued rice grown in Italy that you would use for a traditional risotto. They cook well and tend to maintain their shape and texture. These rice varieties also contain the largest amount of starch, which is why it should be cooked like pasta – al dente – to give the salad a nice texture.
The rest of the ingredients needed for the salad can be adjusted to taste. That’s the beauty of this dish: You can customize it to your liking and there are infinite options! As long as it’s colorful and savory, you can use whatever variations of ingredients you prefer, such as the following; marinated artichokes, giardiniera salad, marinated mushrooms, antipasto salad or basically any vegetables preserved in vinegar. I suggest you just head to the deli counter and choose from the selection of antipasto in the salad case, or from the antipasto section of the salad bar. Eating so much of my Zio Angelo’s insalata di riso growing up explains my obsession with any kind of pickled vegetables, especially pickles. Nowadays, I can easily eat an entire jar – juice and all. I just love that flavor combination of salt and vinegar, which is why this rice salad is my favorite summer go-to meal.
Cured meat is another traditional ingredient used in this dish. You can use either prosciutto cotto, or ham, mortadella, or my Zio Angelo’s secret ingredient: boiled hot dogs.
I remember trying his insalata di riso for the first time as a kid and shouting with excitement: “Cane caldo!” And everyone in my family burst out laughing because I thought the literal translation of hot dog in Italian was a dog that is hot. Turns out they refer to hot dogs in Italy as würstel, a German word, which sounded strange to a five-year-old, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time; I was just ecstatic that they actually had hot dogs in Italy. So not only is this rice salad delicious and refreshing, easy to make, and to tote along with you, but kids will enjoy it too, especially if you use my Zio Angelo’s secret ingredient, würstel – better known as hot dogs!
Another must-have ingredient is a semi-soft cheese: either mozzarella, provolone, fontina or asiago cheese. My uncle also used the following ingredients in her Italian rice salad (but again, you can choose to use as many, or as little, ingredients as you like): cherry tomatoes, chopped fresh parsley, cocktail onions, capers, black and green olives, boiled egg, peas, and corn. Plus, there’s no need for dressing besides a little extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and freshly ground black pepper, because, with the combination of pickled vegetables, tuna, and cured meat, the salad already has the right balance of salt and vinegar. People also use celery, pimento peppers or roasted peppers, dill gherkins, scallions, chopped fresh dill, thyme or oregano, swiss or gruyére cheese – and even anchovies! I suggest using my Zio Angelo’s recipe as a guideline, because just like pasta, the recipe is totally open to improvisation, and every time you make it, you can experiment with different variations of flavors and ingredients.
Anyone who has traveled to Italy from June to September knows just how stifling hot it can get, so even the most avid cook like my Zio would rather not do any major cooking inside the kitchen. And since most of the older homes in Italy, like those in my father’s hometown, were built before the invention of air conditioning, Italians generally opt for easier recipes in the summer – like insalata di riso – because they require minimal to no cooking. That is why this has become a summer staple meal in Italy. It’s quick and easy to prepare, it’s deliciously satisfying and refreshing, and simply perfect for a hot summer day – especially since outdoor eating is such a huge part of Italian culture, where friends and family gather over the weekends in the summer to enjoy long languid meals served alfresco!
And now you can make room on your own picnic table for this Italian rice salad at your next BBQ! You’ll have your guests feeling like they’re sitting under a canopy of olives and fig trees, under a veil of stars, enjoying that aria fresca (fresh air) and feasting on insalata di riso.
Italian Rice Salad Recipe
Prep time: 35 mins
Cook time 20 mins
3 cups arborio rice
3 6.5oz. jars Italian tuna in olive oil, drained
2 16oz. jars giardiniera salad, drained, chopped into smaller pieces
5 hot dogs, boiled & sliced
2 cups mozzarella, cubed
6 boiled eggs, quartered
1 can of peas, drained
1 can of corn, drained
1 ½ cups black olives, sliced
1 ½ cups Spanish Queen olives stuffed with pimento peppers, sliced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups cocktail onions, halved
1/2 cup or 3.5 oz jar non-pareil capers, drained
1 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 lemons, juiced
Black pepper to taste