Brow Beat

The Genius Chopped Salad Everyone’s (Still) Talking About

A chopped salad with chickpeas and red onions visible in the mix.
Ty Mecham

Why does everyone keep talking about this chopped salad?

It started making waves in 2006 when Nancy Silverton put it on the menu at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. Thirteen years later, Food52 community members are still writing to me to tell me how genius it is. It even, briefly, stormed Sweetgreen fast-casual counters nationwide last year.

Not since Caesar Cardini has a restaurant salad had such good branding. On the Pizzeria Mozza menu, it’s Nancy’s Chopped Salad—even though ostensibly most other dishes on the menu are also Nancy’s. When I asked Silverton over the phone if she’s made any changes since codifying her recipe in The Mozza Cookbook in 2011, she replies, “Nancy’s Chopped Salad will always be that recipe. That’s a recipe that needs no fiddling.”

So what makes it tick? Or rather, what in it makes us tick? Is it the tang, the crunch, the color? The leather-and-lace dance of opposites like bitter radicchio and sweet iceberg? The fact that it’s just riddled with crowd favorites like salami, salty cheese, and chickpeas, the darling of the canned bean aisle? Is it, as many viral recipes often begin, because Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen wrote about it one time?

Onions, lettuce, radicchio, tomatoes, chickpeas, and more ingredients strewn about a white marble table top.
Ty Mecham

All of those things have certainly helped, but none are so powerful a wedge in our brains as nostalgia, plus Silverton’s cheffy tricks to make it even better than you remember. “It’s supposed to remind people of my generation of that antipasti plate that they had at Italian-American restaurants,” Silverton told me. The one with the salami, the cheese, the spicy pepperoncini.

Or as Perelman wrote, “If you grew up eating Good Seasons ‘Italian’ dressing from the seasonings packet, you’re going to have something of a Proustian moment (but so much better).”

Perhaps the crispest takeaway here is her powerhouse dressing, with red wine vinegar and garlic and enough dried oregano that you’ll think it’s a mistake (1). Silverton even marinates the oregano together with the garlic, acid, and salt for five minutes to help the herb travel further, before whisking in the olive oil.

But beyond this super-powered memory-box dressing, there are a few other thoughtful tricks Silverton’s been honing since the 1970s that cement this salad’s icon status:

Garlic on a cutting board and a bowl of oregano.
Ty Mecham

• She lightly salts the tomatoes on their own first, so they taste riper and more tomatoey. “When I’m giving a cooking demonstration, I always talk about the need to layer food with seasoning as you go,” Silverton told me. “It makes a difference in the end.”

• She brings in two different types of garlic—a mellow smashed clove and potent grated one. Squashing that extra clove adds another layer of flavor without piling on the raw garlic.

• She de-layers and slices the onion (she calls this “petaling”), then washes the funk away with ice water so all that’s left are pert, sweet curls.

• She finishes this salad, like all others, not just with salt to taste but also lemon (so the oregano vinaigrette recipe that looks light on acid flips to bright and balanced at the end).

Thirteen years in, the good branding doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Along with Pizzeria Mozza’s famed Butterscotch Budino (2), Silverton told me, “I can’t tell you how many times people have said, ‘I was just at a restaurant in Minnesota and they had Nancy’s Chopped Salad!’”

Nancy’s Chopped Salad

For the vinaigrette:

• 2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons dried oregano
• Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon
(1 tablespoon), or more to taste

• 2 medium cloves garlic, 1 smashed flat and 1 grated
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
• 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad:

• 1/2 small red onion
• 1 head (22 ounces) iceberg lettuce
• 1 head (11 ounces) radicchio
• 1 pint small, sweet cherry tomatoes, such as Sun Golds or Sweet 100s, cut into quarters
• Kosher salt
• 1 1/2 cups no-salt-added chickpeas, drained

• 1/4 pound aged provolone, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices, then cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
• 1/4 pound Genoa salami, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices, then cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
• 5 pepperoncini (stems discarded), cut into thin slices (about 1/4 cup)
• Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon
(1 tablespoon), or more to taste
• Dried oregano (preferably Sicilian oregano on the branch), for sprinkling

(1) Silverton says with this much oregano, be sure to get the good stuff from Penzey’s or another store that specializes in dried herbs.

(2) Were you wondering if that Butterscotch Budino is in Genius Desserts? Of course it is.

See the full recipe at Food52.

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