Deconstructed Italian potato salad, reconstructed

by Terry B on April 14, 2010

With heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, capers, red onion and garlic-infused olive oil, this colorful layered Italian Potato Salad tastes like the promise of summer. Recipe below.


The latest challenge to deep dish pizza’s reign in Chicago just opened in our Logan Square neighborhood. Ciao Napoli Pizzeria. We had lunch there last weekend.


The pizza was wonderful. The crust crisp and cracker thin, the toppings delicious. The space was lovely too—clean, airy and contemporary, with two walls of windows. But what really wowed us was a potato salad.

Specifically, their Neapolitan-style potato salad made with a handful of ingredients and beautifully arranged on a bright white plate, called simply “Old School Insalata.” The flavors were lively and fresh, tasting of spring or even the summer to come. What caught our attention, though, was the salad’s elegantly deconstructed construction. Slices of potato were arranged in a single layer in a golden green pool of olive oil, and the other ingredients—in Ciao’s version, tomato chunks, chopped red onion, oregano and parsley—were scattered over the potato slices. Before the pizza even arrived, I had decided that some version of this salad would be this week’s post.

My default lazy-man’s-way-to-riches research technique—Googling “Italian potato salad”—brought up a staggering variety of salads, none of which seemed anything like the one that had started me down this path. “Neapolitan potato salad” brought up  a mere handful. One contained sliced potatoes, but they were tossed in the salad, not arranged. To some, this lack of road map might seem daunting. To me, it meant I was free to reconstruct my own take.

One thing that I liked about the Ciao salad was the absence of vinegar. But I thought it could use a little brightening to cut the richness of the oil. So I added capers. I livened up the oil itself, infusing it with garlic and ground pepper. And I swapped basil, another Italian favorite herb, for the oregano and parsley of the original. The beautiful thing about this salad, well apart from its looks, is how it invites experimentation. If you try it [and you really should—it’s easy to make and restaurant good, if I say so myself], I encourage you to make it your own.

Deconstructed Italian Potato Salad
Serves 2 [can be doubled or tripled or…]

For garlic-infused olive oil [makes 1/2 cup]:
1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil [see Kitchen Notes]
1 large clove garlic
freshly ground black pepper

For potato salad:
4 tablespoons garlic-infused olive oil
1 large russet potato
1 cup chopped tomatoes [see Kitchen Notes]
2 tablespoons chopped red onions
4 teaspoons capers [chopped if large]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Make garlic-infused olive oil. Peel garlic clove and bash it with the side of a knife to break it up, but not pulverize it. You want big chunks. Combine with olive oil in a jar. Grind in several generous grinds of black pepper. Seal jar and shake to combine flavors. Make at least 2 hours to up to a day or more ahead. The longer you let it sit, the more garlicky it will become. If using the same day, leave it on the counter and give it an occasional shake. If making it a day or more in advance, refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.

Make potato salad. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Peel and slice the potato into generous 1/4-inch slices, discarding ends. When water is rapidly boiling, salt it generously and add potato slices. Cook until they just lose that raw potato taste, but are still firm, no more than 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer potato slices to bowl of iced water to stop the cooking. After potatoes have cooled transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Combine tomatoes, onions, capers and half the basil in a bowl. When you’re ready to assemble the potato salad, dress the tomato mixture with 1 tablespoon of the garlic-infused olive oil [shake the jar first to get some of the ground pepper in the mix]. Spoon 3 tablespoons of the oil into the center of a serving plate. Arrange the potato slices in a single layer in the pool of oil. Scatter the tomato mix evenly over the potato slices. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of basil over everything and season the salad with salt and pepper. Serve.

After you finish the salad, there will still be olive oil on the plate. If you have some crusty bread to sop it up with, you will be really, really happy.

Kitchen Notes

Olive oil—get the good stuff. Regular readers will notice that I almost never use the words extra virgin when referring to olive oil. For everyday use, especially when cooking is involved, I like my olive oil non-virginal. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point and will burn, sometimes even at moderate temperatures. It also has an assertive taste. Most of the time when I’m using olive oil, I’m doing it for the health benefits, not the big flavor. For this dish, though, you totally want that big beautiful olive oil taste. So use some good stuff for this—it’s worth it. And whatever you do, don’t say “evoo.” Ugh. We’re grown-ups here—let’s use the real name.

Use the leftover garlic-infused oil for a future salad dressing—or with more crusty bread as a snack. It will keep for a week or so in the fridge. You can even add more oil to the jar to percolate with the garlic.

You say tomato, I say get creative. The chef at Ciao used a yellow tomato for his salad. It added to the visual surprise and beauty of of the dish. We lucked out and found a colorful heirloom mix of small tomatoes that I halved or quartered, depending on their varying sizes. Red tomatoes would also be absolutely fine. If you use full-sized tomatoes, seed and drain them before chopping so you don’t end up with a watery slush in your olive oil.

Editor’s note. Sadly, Ciao didn’t last long. Happily, it was replaced by Reno, which continues to make amazing use of the brick pizza oven Ciao had installed.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

WizzyTheStick April 14, 2010 at 4:39 am

This is fantastic. I love a new twist on an old idea.

Ronnie Ann April 14, 2010 at 4:46 am

This looks so amazing, Terry! Gorgeous photo. I want to pick up a piece and taste it right now. And best of all, this is something even I can prepare and look like I know what I’m doing.

The French April 14, 2010 at 6:07 am

I just broke a tooth trying to eat my computer screen, but it was worth it. Can’t wait to make this. Thanks:)

Laura [What I Like] April 14, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I am slightly mortified to say that I’ve actually never even considered making a salad without vinegar…shows just how much of a lemming I am I suppose! This looks gorgeous, I’ve been trying to figure out what to bring to an upcoming party, this may be gracing the table!

Terry B April 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Thanks, WizzyTheStick!

Now, Ronnie Ann, you’ve told me of some of your cooking adventures. You’ve got more chops than you publicly claim credit for.

The French—Thanks! And ouch!

Laura—I think it would be a hit at the party. Just make sure to assemble it there; otherwise, you’ll have olive oil sloshing all over the place.

Rocquie April 14, 2010 at 6:55 pm

What a perfectly beautiful salad.

Teri April 14, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Hi Terry- Thanks for this. Because I have Italian groceries and markets near where I live, this is the very sort of salad I like to make, especially in the warm months. I’ll first try it with the basil and then with the oregano and parsley later.

altadenahiker April 14, 2010 at 10:52 pm

You can make even potato salad look lovely. (And I’m now going to save a whole lot of money on olive oil.)

Ciaochowlinda April 14, 2010 at 11:45 pm

There are so many wonderful ways to enjoy potato salad, but this has got to be one of my favorites.

Tava April 15, 2010 at 12:57 am

I have been a visitor of your site for a bit now. Tried the Matzoh “Crack” and loved it! Saw this picture and couldn’t resist reading more. Instantly, decided to add this to the “To Make Soon” list. Read the Kitchen Note about “evoo” and have now decided that I am full fledged fan! Great recipe too btw. Can’t wait to try it out.

Terry B April 15, 2010 at 4:09 am

Thanks, Rocquie! I enjoyed my visit to your blog. And I love that your Jack Russell Terrier is named Jill. Ha!

Hi, Teri! I’m looking forward to experimenting some more with this one too. I’m thinking a little lemon zest for the color and bright flavor.

Thanks, Altadenahiker! Yeah, we go through a lot of the cheap stuff compared to the fancypants version. But in a case like this, you really need the big flavor of the extra virgin olive oil.

Thanks, Ciaochowlinda!

I’m glad you liked Marion’s matzoh crack, Tava! And I’m really glad someone else thinks “evoo” sounds, well, silly.

Christina April 17, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Lovely, Terry B. It looks like summer on a plate.

Dani H April 18, 2010 at 4:53 am

Can. Not. Wait. To. Try. This. OMG! This is one of those drooling at every ingredient …almost smelling and tasting as I read… recipes. Amazing, Terry! Thank you so much for reconstructing! I look forward to devouring very soon. {{and I’m right there with you on the evoo.}}

Jason April 20, 2010 at 3:58 pm

The bright colors are beautiful and i can see this being a hit. One thing i might try is a lemon infused olive oil vs garlic, to brighten the flavors of the basil and capers. On the contrary if garlic olive oil was being used i might add in some uncured bacon. All in all a beautiful idea none the less!

Terry B April 21, 2010 at 4:45 am

Thanks, Christina! That’s how it tasted.

Thanks, Dani! Especially for sharing my stand on “evoo.”

Hi, Jason. Some interesting ideas there—this kind of dish really encourages experimentation.

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