zia's dinner salad photo by madison sanders

5 great Italian salads in St. Louis

While the Italian salad is a popular dish in most St. Louis Italian restaurants, it’s not always clear what you’re getting when you order one. That’s because “Italian salad” doesn’t denote a specific group of ingredients as much as it points to a philosophy of preparing and serving light, palate-cleansing courses.

Italian salads boast an array of tasty greens and herbs, always impeccably fresh and clean, as well as a selection of enticing vegetables, often chosen based on what’s in season. The aim of the Italian salad is to showcase a tight assortment of luminous flavors, from salty olives and sour vinegars to earthy ingredients like chickpeas and tomatoes. According to Marcella Hazan, author of the indispensable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Italian dressing is simply “extra virgin olive oil, salt, and wine vinegar.” She goes on to share an old Italian proverb that’s a tip for the perfectly balanced salad: “For a good salad you need four persons: A judicious one for the salt, a prodigal one for the olive oil, a stingy one for the vinegar, and a patient one to toss it.” 

Clearly, there are many ways to make a great Italian salad, and St. Louis’ eclectic group of Readers’ Choice winners in the Favorite Italian Restaurant category all put their own unique spin on the dish.

Even if you haven’t eaten at Zia’s Restaurant on the Hill, you’ve probably at least seen their sweet Italian vinegar and oil dressing at the grocery store or tried it at a dinner party – it’s a treasured local brand that’s been on shelves since 1996. With ingredients like red wine vinegar, olive oil, soybean oil, salt and a small amount of Parmesan cheese, Zia’s Italian dressing is also popular at the restaurant, where it tops multiple salads: The dinner salad has romaine and iceberg, diced red peppers and blended Italian cheeses, while the Sicilian features the same ingredients but adds prosciutto, artichoke hearts and green olives.

zia's restaurant on the hill // photo by madison sanders

According to owner Dennis Chiodini, in addition to their venerated dressing, Zia’s has a few other tricks that set its salad game apart. “One thing that we do that a lot of restaurants don’t do is that we keep our salad plates in the freezer. People love it because it’s so cold,” he pointed out. “And we still use romaine and iceberg lettuce, and that’s kind of old school. Everybody else goes mixed greens. A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you try to use this lettuce or that lettuce?’ We don’t try to do any trendy stuff.” In any case, if you order a salad at Zia’s, you’re getting an appetizing introduction into Sauce readers’ selection this year for their favorite Italian restaurant in St. Louis.

A few blocks away, at Cunetto House of Pasta, the insalata Italiana features a simple romaine and iceberg lettuce mix with wine vinegar and virgin olive oil, whereas the insalata Cunetto adds green onions, pimentos, prosciutto, Provel and Parmesan cheeses and housemade croutons to the lettuce base, and dresses it all with Cunetto’s house dressing. Italian-Greek restaurant Anthonino’s Taverna, another staple on the Hill, offers an Italian salad with an artisan lettuce blend, pimentos, Sicilian olives, onions, artichoke hearts, pecorino Romano and red wine vinaigrette. At Trattoria Marcella in Lindenwood Park, the mista – Italian for “mixed” – is a punchy, homey take on a type of salad usually populated with a ton of fresh veggies; Marcella’s version features chopped romaine and iceberg, provolone, Parmesan, crispy artichoke heart leaves and red wine vinaigrette.

Pastaria offers a mixed greens salad with sliced pear, walnuts, goat cheese and red wine vinaigrette; its little gem chopped salad brings big, salty, funky flavors with chickpea, green olive, pistachio, pepperoni, oregano, pecorino and red wine vinaigrette. The popular Clayton restaurant also retails the dressing, which can be bought next door at Pastaria Deli & Wine or online. 

As their menus show, these restaurants are all attempting to do their own thing while still honoring the Italian tradition of making fresh, approachable dishes that bring strong flavor and sync up nicely with the entrees they precede. The common denominator here, of course, is that the salads mentioned above don’t come from Italy, but from your favorite Italian spots right here in town.

Readers’ Choice Favorite Italian

  • Zia’s Restaurant, 5256 Wilson Ave., St. Louis, 314.776.0020, zias.com
  • Cunetto House of Pasta, 5453 Magnolia Ave., St. Louis, 314.781.1135, cunetto.com
  • Anthonino’s Taverna, 2225 Macklind Ave., St. Louis, 314.773.4455, anthoninos.com
  • Trattoria Marcella, 3600 Watson Road, St. Louis, 314.352.7706, trattoriamarchella.com
  • Pastaria, 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.862.6603, eatpastaria.com