Gilda’s Insalata di Riso

insalata di riso over

My mom had three older sisters, none of whom ever married. They shared an apartment in Rome, near Villa Ada, and each managed to forge for herself a respectable career in an era where most Italian women stayed home and raised children.

Gilda was the oldest, and the most unassuming. Elsa, the second-oldest, was the bossiest, a well-respected professoressa di liceo and a take-charge sort who loved a good debate. Adriana, closest to my mom in age, had wavy black hair and sparkling dark eyes and was the funniest.

All my aunts are gone now, and have been for many years. But they often visit me in the kitchen. The other day it was Zia Gilda, while I made her insalata di riso (rice salad).

Gilda could knit and crochet like a no one else I know. In summer, when we were at the beach, you were likely to find her in the afternoon lull after lunch, stretched out on one of the lounge chairs on the terrace, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and embellishing a tablecloth with an crocheted border.

She loved fine things, like Bruno Magli shoes and Luisa Spagnoli dresses, but she was also modest, and the styles she chose were classic. It was the same with her cooking; she prepared simple, unfussy home fare. But she went to the open-air markets every day to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and bread.

At least once every summer she made insalata di riso for my sister and me. From the time we were kids we loved it ~ the chilled rice, the chunks of egg and tuna, the confetti of diced vegetables. It is just the dish to set out when the heat is at its most oppressive and even the idea of sitting down to a meal is too much. “Ti fa venire l’appetito,” as my aunt used to say. It gives you an appetite.

Of course Zia Gilda never wrote down her recipe ~ she wouldn’t have thought it worthy ~ and of course she never made it quite the same way twice. She used what was in season and what was in the pantry. It took me more than a decade after she passed away to even think about trying to recreate it from memory. I know mine’s not quite the same as hers but it’s close. As close as I’ll get.

Makes 6 main-course servings or 8 to 10 side-dish servings

Insalata di Riso {Rice Salad}

Make this early in the day, before the heat gets the better of you, and let it chill in the fridge. Take it out 30 to 45 minutes before serving ~ you want it chilled but not stone cold. Feel free to change the recipe to suit your own tastes. I sometimes add blanched asparagus tips or green beans. Pickled eggplant is delicious if you happen to have some on hand, and many Italians put a sliced-up hot dog, of all things, in their insalata. Here's my most recent version.


  • 1 1/2 cups arborio or other short-grain risotto rice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • One (4-ounce) can good tuna in olive oil
  • One (4-ounce) can wild baby shrimp (available at Trader Joe's)
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise or sliced crosswise
  • 2 best-quality anchovy fillets
  • 1 cup diced giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables)
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 1/2 cup diced bottled roasted peppers
  • 1/2 cup olives (purple or green or a mix)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and pour in the rice. When the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook at a gentle simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice is al dente (tender but still a bit firm and not at all mushy). Drain the rice in a colander set in the sink and rinse under cold water. Drain thoroughly and transfer to a large bowl. Toss the rice with the olive oil.

Add the tuna, baby shrimp, two of the eggs, anchovies, giardiniera, peas, celery, peppers, olives, parsley and capers. Gently fold everything together. Carefully mix in the lemon juice and mayonnaise and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the rice salad into a serving bowl. Arrange the remaining egg slices on top in a decorative pattern, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

NOTE: You don't have to chill the salad; it's really good warm or at room temperature. Just cover and let it sit for 30 minutes or so, to give the flavors a chance to mingle.

To make a molded rice salad, pack the mixture into a deep round bowl and chill. At serving time, unmold the salad onto a platter and garnish with egg slices (or whatever strikes your fancy).


29 Responses to Gilda’s Insalata di Riso

  1. Helen July 17, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Tangible portraits of your aunts! My Roman cousin Assunta served me this salad for exactly the same reason on a sultry day. Hers wasn’t molded but it did include the wurztel (sp?) aka hot dog. I was disappointed because she is a great cook and this salad seemed like a second rate dish- until I tasted it and couldn’t put my fork down.
    Happy to have a good recipe for it especially during our heat wave. Oh, and I bought an expensive jar of giardiniera at a fancy kitchen shop with no purpose in mind. Now I have one!

    • Domenica Marchetti July 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      It is one of those ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’ dishes, isn’t it Helen. And I think a lot of Italian cooks use sliced cocktail wieners in it, though I’m not sure. Can’t bring myself to go that far, thus the tiny shrimp that I found at TJs.

  2. rebeccasubbiah July 17, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    wow this looks so good, love all the seafood in here

    • Domenica Marchetti July 17, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      Thanks for dropping by Rebecca. Yes, the seafood makes it especially summery…

  3. Coco July 17, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    What a charming story! I feel like I know your Zia Gilda, and I certainly wish that I had had that opportunity!
    I didn’t know that Adri was named after your Zia Adriana…..

    • Domenica Marchetti July 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

      Thanks Coco. Adriana was my godmother. I always knew if I had a daughter that would be her name.

  4. Chiara July 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    mia nonna si chiamava Gilda e questo nome lo porto con orgoglio insieme a Chiara…Ottima questa insalata di riso, l’estate è un piatto must ! Buona settimana Domenica, un abbraccio !

  5. Domenica Marchetti July 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    Gilda e’ un nome bellissima, Chiara. Grazie e buona settimana anche a te cara. xo

  6. Laney @Ortensia Blu July 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    What wonderful memories of your aunts! Thanks for sharing them and for a perfect recipe for these blazing hot days…

    • Domenica Marchetti July 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      Welcome Laney, and thank you. I love the name of your blog and look forward to reading it. Grazie per il commento.

  7. Laura (Tutti Dolci) July 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    I love this post about your aunts! I had forgotten how much I like rice salads until seeing your recipe – so perfect for days too hot to cook!

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Thank you Laura ~ I just got back from Italy yesterday and am finally catching up on reading comments. Looks like the heat has broken a bit ~ at least here in Virginia. It was sweltering these last few days in Rome, though!

  8. staceysnacks July 17, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    It’s 100F today, and I am happy to find this recipe.
    Will start it early in the a.m…………….looks so good and I love the story about your aunts.

    your new site is lovely!
    Hope you are having a great summer.


    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:24 am #

      Thank you Stacey. Summer was great right up until yesterday when I had to come back from Italy! 😉 Speaking of 100 degrees days, it was pretty darn hot for much of the time we were there, even up in the mountains, but especially in Rome. No complaints, though. Loved every minute. But it was nice to come home to cooler weather. Cheers, D

  9. bettyannq @Mango_Queen July 17, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    What a great recipe for Insalata di Riso and I love reading about your family stories. The recipe seems fairly easy. I must try it. Thanks for sharing this, Domenica!

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:26 am #

      Thanks Betty Ann. Looked like you had a great time at BSP4. I was signed up to come but in the end we decided to take family a “detour” to Italy. Maybe next year…

  10. elisa July 18, 2013 at 1:08 am #

    Knowing exactly where Villa Ada is, I imagined your aunts walking in that park. Did your aunt Elsa by any chance teach at the liceo in Via Trieste? And for the insalata di riso, well is my favorite for these hot hot summer days. I just throw in some chopped tomatoes, basil and xvoil and I can eat a whole plate of it.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      Elisa, I’ll have to ask my mom where Zia Elsa taught. Your question has got me curious. I have many fond memories of mornings spent at Villa Ada, playing on “le giostre,” going down the slide and running along the stone paths. I remember the mimosa trees, with their feathery pink flowers. Such a lovely park. I haven’t been in many years. I just got back from Italy. Spent the last couple of days in Rome but we were not near Villa Ada. We did take the kids to see Villa d’Este at Tivoli. I hadn’t been there in many years either, and it was wonderful to see it again. It was a HOT day, so actually a good day to be wandering around a park full of fountains.

  11. Olga @ MangoTomato July 19, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    Love cooks rice salads: such a great way to use leftover ingredients. Growing up in Russia, e added rice to tuna salad with eggs and mayo.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:28 am #

      There’s another salad that my aunt Elsa used to make, Olga, called “insalata Russa” or, Russian Salad. It didn’t have rice, but it had all sorts of neatly diced vegetables molded together and covered with a thin layer of homemade mayo, then decorated with sliced eggs and pickled vegetables. Very pretty and so delicious. She didn’t leave the recipe, so one day I’ll have to recreate that one, too.

  12. Serena IntotheFworld (@intotheFworld) July 22, 2013 at 6:03 am #

    What a great website! I just discovered it courtesy of Francesca, the owner of Cantinarte Museum of Olive Oil in Chieti. Have bookmarked! Can I ask you which plugin do you use for presenting recipes in such a nice way? Thanks, Serena

    • Domenica Marchetti July 23, 2013 at 1:45 am #

      Benvenuta Serena, e grazie. Ti dico la verità – non sono sicura quale plugin ha usata quella che ha disegnata il sito. Appena tornò a casa chiederò e ti farò sapere. A presto.

  13. Jamie July 23, 2013 at 1:46 am #

    I always told you that the story of your three aunts is a book in itself. I want more about them! And we make rice salad all the time in the summer, pretty much as you and your aunt do. Lovely.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      Jamie, you are totally on to something. My three aunts would make great fodder for a book. It’s an idea that’s been churning inside my head for a long time. Actually doing it is another story…’piano piano,’ as they say…

  14. Frank @Memorie di Angelina July 23, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Close enough! This looks yummy. Your post reminded me that I hadn’t made rice salad yet this summer. How could I have forgotten about it? One of my favorite things to eat when the weather is steamy.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      Frank, we just got back from Italy yesterday. I always like to peruse the supermarket shelves while I’m there. I noticed that there are now bottled “condimenti” for insalata di risk ~ jars of already diced mixed vegetables in a vinegar brine that you can mix right into the cooked rice. Marketed differently than giardiniera, though. Not quite sure how I feel about this!

  15. Adri July 26, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    I’m with Frank on this. Close enough! I bet Zia GIlda would be proud. I love rice salads in summer. My mom used to make them, and we kids just gobbled them up. I loved all the different textures, the crunch of the vegetables (my mom always added diced celery, one of her favorite foods !), against the soft bite of the rice. We never really knew what she would add, but we finished off that huge bowl every time.

    I love reading about your aunts. Isn’t it wonderful to remember these women? They made us what we are today. So often when I speak or move, it is as if I am inhabited by their spirits. Even funny little things I do while cooking, a flip of a thumb to complete a task, the turn of a paring knife to remove that last bit of pear peel near the stem. These are all things I saw my aunts, grandmothers and mother do. Oftentimes my sister and I are in the kitchen cooking when one of us says or does something, and we both just stop because it is as if these women are right there. It is really pretty wonderful. Also wonderful is Gilda’s taste in shoes, I have to say. I too am a Bruno Magli fan – the simple leather peep toe slingbacks with a low heel are my faves. Add a little dress, and I am ready to go.

    • Domenica Marchetti July 30, 2013 at 10:20 am #

      Thanks for this lovely, thoughtful comment Adri. Yes, so often when I’m in the kitchen I find myself doing something the way one of my aunts did it. It’s such a nice way of remembering them and channeling their spirits.

      I have a couple of pairs of my Zia Gilda’s Bruno Magli shoes. They are always in style and I wear them only occasionally in the hope that they will last many more years.

  16. elisa July 31, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    The liceo I mentioned is Liceo Classico Giulio Cesare in Corso Trieste. I applied to study there and I was accepted, but then my family moved to Brazil and I couldn’t attend it. I continued my education in Sao Paulo.

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