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Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad

This Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad is light, refreshing, and packed with the best flavors of the season. Sweet corn, crisp peppers, and peppery arugula complement succulent shrimp and crispy pancetta. A simple, creamy pesto dressing brings it all together in a bowlful of deliciousness.

Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad on a white serving platter with a serving fork.

As the days get longer and the weather tempts us to enjoy more meals alfresco, there’s no better way to celebrate the season than with a dish that’s both vibrant, satisfying, and distinctively summery. But my Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad isn’t just any ole pasta dish; it’s a colorful toss of bell peppers, sweet corn, tender baby arugula over cute and hearty orecchiette pasta. It’s perfectly suited for sunny day picnics or a relaxing meal enjoyed while binge-watching your favorite summer series.

But what really sets this pasta salad apart is the addition of savory proteins: crisped pancetta and beautifully seasoned shrimp, cooked to perfection in the rich, drippings of the pancetta itself. All tossed with plenty of fresh basil and cilantro for a burst of herbal freshness, and then capped off with drizzles of a quick-and-easy creamy pesto dressing.

The thing I love most about summer salads is that so much of summer produce — vegetables, herbs, fruit, leafy greens — go so well together flavor-wise, that you can add just about anything to some pasta or a bowl of lettuce and create a beautiful, crave-worthy meal.

And that’s what I’ve done here with my favorites. So, let’s dig into it!

Angled side view of pasta salad on a white serving platter.

Ingredients, Prep Notes, and Substitutions

I think this pasta salad is perfectly balanced with a variety of flavors and textures. Here’s what’s inside:

Pancetta — Pancetta is a cured Italian bacon that’s more subtly savory and less in-your-face salty than our American bacon. Pancetta is often sold cubed or chunked in 4 to 6 ounces packages at most of the big chain grocery stores in the U.S. It has a fatty element to it that makes it perfect for crisping up in a hot pan, and rendering its fat for other purposes.

If you can’t find pancetta, prosciutto is a very close taste substitute. Crisping would be optional, as there is usually very little fat to render.

Shrimp — Although pre-cooked shrimp is often my friend for salad recipes, here I prefer to start with raw so that I can first season the shrimp and then cook it in the rendered fat of the pancetta. This gives the shrimp an extra “presence” in the pasta salad, where shrimp often takes a back seat in cold salads.

I used “medium” frozen shrimp. Unfortunately, being landlocked in the Midwest, my local seafood options are unreliable and ever-changing. The day I made this pasta salad for the blog, I had to use frozen Kroger-brand packaged shrimp (always questionable anyway, but the seafood department that day smelled like something had gone horribly wrong, so buying “fresh” raw shrimp from them was absolutely out of the question).

Anyway, shrimp sizes are usually indicated by the number of shrimp per pound. So, a “21/25” or “21-25” designation means that there are 21 to 25 shrimp per pound. Kroger, however, doesn’t do that with their brands, using instead medium, large, extra large, jumbo.

So, when buying shrimp, it’s probably best to eyeball the sizes available and take a guess at what will be work in your pasta salad.

Pasta — A small, flat pasta works great in this dish. I love orecchiette because it’s bowl shaped (literally means, “little ears” — pronouced: or-reh-kee-ET-teh. They ch is a hard “k”) and captures and grips sauces and small veggies like a soccer goalie. But of course you can always substitute another shape, such as bowties or wagon wheels. Or even orzo.

Arugula — I didn’t want this pasta salad leaning anywhere in the direction of a green salad — carby comfort FTW! — but I did want a little textural change-up to complement the fresh herbs. Baby arugula is my go-to here. Torn into smaller pieces so that it’s not lanky and stemy, arugula adds a little leafy, peppery bite that’s very enjoyable. If you don’t like or can’t find arugula, I would say, just skip the the greens. Kale is too papery for my tastes in this pasta salad, and spinach is a little too heavy.

Veggies — The beauty of this pasta salad is that it’s agreeable with a wide variety of raw summer vegetables. I went with red bell peppers and sweet corn, but cucumbers, zucchini, baby carrots, or broccoli florets would be lovely as well.

In the summer, when the corn is extra sweet and fresh, try to slice it fresh off the cob in “rafts,” which look great on plate and are a delight to eat. I photographed this Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad in April, so my corn options were very slim. It’s perfectly fine to use frozen corn, as I did. Heat it up and let it cool before adding.

By the way, in case you didn’t know, you can absolutely consume corn raw. It’s crunchy, it’s sweeter (than cooked), and saves some prep time when you’re making green salads and pasta salads, like this one. Try it! I think you’ll like it.

Creamy Pesto Dressing — This pasta salad was made so that it wouldn’t need to be drowned in a heavy dressing. I made a quick creamy pesto dressing from some leftover store-bought pesto, plus mayo and red wine vinegar, thinning it all out with some heavy cream.

If you look carefully at the photos, you can see drizzly lines here and there of the light green pesto dressing. That’s intentional. This pasta salad is very flavorful on its own and doesn’t much outside help. The dressing is lovely touch, though, and “just a little” is the perfect amount.

How to make Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad

Here’s an overview of the process, organized step-by-step, with photos. Don’t forget to review the recipe card below to make sure you have the correct ingredient amounts and cooking times.

Step 1: Prepare the pesto dressing

A bowl of creamy pesto dressing on a wooden serving board, with a small serving spoon.

Whisk together the pesto, mayo, and vinegar in bowl. Add a short drizzle of heavy cream (less than a tablespoon), and whisk that in. Test the thickness by lifting the whisk and watching the dressing run off of it. After first, it will be so thick that it won’t “run” at all. Add a little more cream, and test again.

When the dressing is at a pourable consistency, set aside, and start on the salad. Or make ahead and refrigerate.

Step 2: Cook and cool the pasta

Overhead view of a pot of cooked orecchiette pasta.

In a medium pot, cook the pasta according to package directions (usually 9-11 minutes). Drain into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water. You can leave the pasta to drain in the colander while it finishes cooling to room temperature.

Step 3: Crisp the pancetta

Small cubes of pancetta crisping in a non-stick skillet.

While the pasta cooks, heat a large skillet over medium, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook for 5 minutes or so, until the edges start to crisp and render the fat. Transfer the pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool completely. Leave the liquid fat in the pan.

(Don’t forget to check on the pasta!)

Step 4: Cook the shrimp

A duo collage of photos showing raw shrimp seasoned on a plate, and shrimp cooking in a skillet.

If you’re using frozen shrimp, make sure it’s been thawed completely and patted dry with paper towels.

ln a small bowl, mix together the smoked paprika, garlic, onion, and salt. Season both sides of the shrimp.

Add the shrimp to the hot skillet and cook for 3 minutes. Flip each shrimp — these kitchen tweezers come in handy, if you’re not a pan-flipping kind of cook (which I’m definitely not) — and saute for 3 more minutes. All of the shrimp should be plump, pinkish, and opaque. Transfer to a plate to cool completely.

Step 5: Assemble the pasta salad

A duo collage of photos showing the veggies and herbs in the pasta, and the proteins layered over the salad.

Transfer the cooled pasta to a large mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the bell peppers, corn, arugula, and fresh herbs. Pour in about a third of the dressing and toss well.

Add the cooled pancetta and shrimp and carefully mix in with the pasta salad. At this point, you can add the rest of the dressing to the pasta salad (recommended if you’re making ahead and refrigerating), or serve it on the side for the fam to add their own.

Cook’s Notes

  • Crisping the pancetta is a preference on my part, as I enjoy the texture, and like to cook the shrimp in the rendered fat. Pancetta is usually sold fully cured and ready to eat, like ham. But check the packaging to be sure, if your intent was to add it “uncrisped” to the pasta salad.
  • Serving suggestion (see photo below): if you’re serving this pasta salad to impress, hold back about a fourth of the pancetta, shrimp, and fresh herbs, plus some of the dressing, when you’re assembling the pasta salad in step 5 above. Spoon the mixed pasta salad onto a platter, and then top with the reserved pancetta, shrimp, and herbs, like what you see in the photos in this post. Drizzle randomly with the dressing and then the pistachios (if using). This will ensure that the proteins don’t sink to the bottom of the bowl and disappear, like they always seem to want to do.
  • Can this pasta salad be made ahead of time? For the absolute best flavor, I would not make the whole thing a day in advance. A few hours before? Yes! However, if you’re looking to save time when assembling dinner, I suggest instead that you cook the pancetta and shrimp ahead, and prep the bell peppers, corn, herbs, and arugula. Oh, and make the dressing! Refrigerate all of these parts. When it’s time to prepare the salad, cook and cool the pasta, and then toss with the prepped ingredients.
  • When I make the pancetta and shrimp ahead of time and refrigerate, I reheat them gently in the microwave for a minute, just to take the chill off and loosen their seasonings and oils.
  • The chopped pistachios are optional. I really dig chopped nuts on salads — the crunch is an unexpected but welcome texture.
Overhead view of a platter with Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad.

What to Serve with Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad

To me, this pasta salad is absolutely made for those easy-going summer evenings at the backyard picnic table under a shady tree, where you can pass around the platter for easy serving. It’s a filling meal, thanks to the carbs and proteins.

But sides are always a nice touch. I’m thinking, fresh bread or light appetizers. Here are some suggestions:

I hope this pasta salad has you dreaming of breezy summer meals filled with the season’s best produce. Whether you’re hosting a sunny backyard barbecue, a chic picnic brunch, or simply need a quick and satisfying dish that celebrates the season, this pasta salad promises to be one of the highlights.

Karen xo
Print Recipe
5 from 1 vote

Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad Recipe

This Summer Shrimp & Pancetta Pasta Salad is a fresh and flavorful celebration of summer ingredients. The creamy pesto dressing ties together sweet corn, bell peppers, arugula, herbs, crispy pancetta, and seasoned shrimp for a perfect light, summery meal or side dish.
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time20 minutes
Total Time30 minutes
Course: Pasta
Cuisine: American
Keyword: pasta salad
Servings: 8
Author: Karen Gibson

Ingredients

For the creamy pesto dressing:

  • 1/4 cup prepared basil pesto (either homemade or store-bought)
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • heavy cream or half-and-half or buttermilk

For the salad:

  • 4 ounces pancetta , chopped into small cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered onion
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 10 ounces raw shrimp peeled and deveined (thawed if frozen)
  • 8 ounces orecchiette pasta (or bowtie or wheels pasta)
  • 1 small red bell pepper chopped
  • 1 cup corn kernels (fresh or thawed from frozen)
  • 1 cup baby arugula torn or roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped pistachios (optional)

Instructions

For the creamy pesto dressing:

  • Whisk together the pesto, mayo, and vinegar in bowl by hand. Add a short drizzle of heavy cream — maybe a teaspoon — and whisk it in until completely combined. Test the thickness by dipping and then lifting the whisk from the dressing and watching the dressing run off of it. After first, it will be so thick that it sticks to the whisk. Add a little more cream, and test again. When the dressing is at a pourable consistency, set aside, and start on the salad. Or make ahead and refrigerate.
    1/4 cup prepared basil pesto, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar, heavy cream or half-and-half or buttermilk

For the salad:

  • In a medium pot with plenty of salted water, cook the pasta according to package directions (usually 9-11 minutes). Drain into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water. You can leave the pasta to drain in the colander while it finishes cooling to room temperature.
    8 ounces orecchiette pasta
  • Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium, with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. When the oil shimmers, it’s hot enough – add the pancetta and cook for 5 minutes or so, until the edges start to crisp and the fat is rendered as liquid into the pan. Transfer the pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool completely. Leave the liquid fat in the pan.
    4 ounces pancetta
  • Don’t forget to check the pasta! I prefer mine slightly softer than al dente, so usually go with the upper limit recommended on the packaging.
  • ln a small bowl, mix together the smoked paprika, garlic, onion, and salt. Generously season both sides of the shrimp.
    1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, 1/2 teaspoon powdered garlic, 1/2 teaspoon powdered onion, 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Add the shrimp to the hot skillet and cook for 3 minutes. Flip each shrimp and cook for 3 more minutes. All of the shrimp should be plump, pinkish, and opaque. Transfer to a plate to cool completely.
    10 ounces raw shrimp

Assemble:

  • Transfer the cooled pasta to a large mixing bowl and season thoroughly withh salt and pepper. Add the bell peppers, corn, arugula, and fresh herbs. Pour in about a third of the dressing and toss well.
    1 small red bell pepper, 1 cup corn kernels, 1 cup baby arugula, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper
  • Add the cooled pancetta and shrimp and carefully mix in with the pasta salad. Top with the pistachios, if using. At this point, you can add the rest of the dressing to the pasta salad (recommended if you’re making ahead an hour or two ahead and refrigerating), or serve it on the side for the fam to add their own.
    chopped pistachios
Nutritional information, if shown, is provided as a courtesy only, and is not to be taken as medical information or advice. The nutritional values of your preparation of this recipe are impacted by several factors, including, but not limited to, the ingredient brands you use, any substitutions or measurement changes you make, and measuring accuracy.
Recipe Rating




Brian

Monday 20th of May 2024

Excellent pasta salad! My grocery store was out of pancetta so I used smoked sausage instead

Karen - SoupAddict

Monday 20th of May 2024

That sounds delicious!