Tourists may go to Italy intrigued with the pasta, the veal, the gelato, but they come home raving about the Italian genius for "insalata mista," theld,10.1 mixed green salads that are a symphony of colors, textures, contrasting flavors, crisp freshness and earthy crunchiness.

Visitors eating their way across Italy pay a terrible price, and it isn't in the extra pounds they will have to diet off at home.

It is that never again can salads be taken for granted.

In this country we reach for the leaf lettuce and the romaine, but the Italians like more kick in their greens. They go for the bitter edge of the chicories and endives, the hot bite of the arugula, the cresses and young mustard greens.

Now that Americans have developed a new tolerance for hot pepper cuisine -- the jalapenos of the Southwest and the hot little red Thai peppers -- they just may be ready for a hot bite to their salad greens, flavors revered since the days of the Caesars.

Italian salads begin in the neat vegetable gardens and orchards that fill every inch of suburban Italian plots. But first they figuratively begin with the Italian psyche, where good food and the growing of beautiful vegetables are revered.

When the terrain is rough, there is necessity in cultivating every available square inch and Italians are masters at turning mountainsides into orchards and vineyards. A people who will espalier tomato vines on the autostrada retaining walls are a people who know how to use their land to the fullest.

The Italian salad, served as either a light antipasto to begin a meal or after the main course to clear the palate, may be as simple as a combination of lettuce and endive dressed with olive oil and vinegar and black pepper. But oh, what lettuce and endive, and oh, what olive oil.

Or, the salad may be as colorful as a plateful of carnival confetti filled with mysterious leaves of every shape and color -- red, yellow, chartreuse, pink, curly, oval, ruffly -- and brightened further with paper-thin silvers of peppers -- red, yellow and green.

Italians are as passionate about their food as about their art and music, and they all appeal to our deepest emotions, too. Your senses are assaulted when you arrive in Italy. Their beautiful vegetables are heaped high in the mercantinos, the fresh vegetable markets found in every neighborhood square. In Rome, shoppers can fill their baskets with more than 20 different salad greens, brilliant peppers in blinding crayola colors, tomatoes so sweet that Italians prefer them half-green and crunchy, slender zucchini with the blossoms still attached, so fresh they are just folding their petals.

Luigi Barzini, Italian essayist and analyst of the Italian character, says in "Cooking of Italy" by Waverly Root (Time-Life Books, 1968, $16.95) that what distinguishes Italian food is that the ingredients are brightly colored, "each thing unmistakably separate . . . each color loud and clear . . ."

Barzini says these distinct hues correspond to distinct tastes. "Each ingredient harmonized with but was not confused with the others." Each could be experienced separately, "just as each voice in the sextet from 'Lucia di Lammermoor' is meant to be heard separately."

Opera star Luciano Pavarotti has a sign posted in his kitchen: "Please chop fine that parsley." That's because he wants to experience that parsley as a separate clear note, and knows that parsley chopped finely has a completely different taste than parsley chopped coarsely.

To achieve these singing flavors, the separate ingredients themselves must be very good, fresh from the garden and quickly into the kitchen. The fetish for freshness began in Italy.

English author Joy Larkcom, author of "The Salad Garden" (Viking, 1984, $12.95), published in cooperation with the New York Botanical Garden Institute, was fascinated with the flats of seedling salad vegetables and baskets of small wild plants she saw in the Italian markets. Housewives would buy a handful of this and that to make a mixed salad.

"These small plants were called insalatine, the diminutive of the Italian word for salad, insalata," she writes, "but my untuned ears heard it as 'saladini.' We liked the word, it was associated with the unusual continental plants we began growing and using in mixed salads after our return . . . and we adopted it as our own."

For the American cook who wants to get into "saladini" there are a couple of routes. You can start experimenting with the lettuces, endives, chicories and fresh herbs in your supermarket. Or, if you can't find what you want, grow your own "saladini."

Seedlings can be grown in pots and windowsill flats if you don't have a garden plot. You may not get enough to fill your salad bowl, but you will get some pungent leaves to spark the lettuces you buy.

Seeds for Italian salad vegetables are available from some herb nurseries or by mail order. (Tourists in Italy can find seeds in the flower shops there, and it is legal to bring home commercially packaged seeds.)

Once you have eaten your home-grown arugula or found your corn salad (the French call it ma'che) growing under the snow in February, you will be hooked forever on the joys of supplementing the salad bowl with a variety of flavors -- mild and sharp, rough and sweet. And you will have the luxury of using seedling lettuce when it is very tiny, often within 30 days after planting.

Fresh herbs -- basil (what did we ever do before we discovered it?), dill, cilantro, Italian parsley, chives, marjoram or feathery anise-flavored fennel tops -- can lift the simplest salad. And there is no greater honor to pay a guest than to serve something you have grown: basil for the classic Neapolitan tomato and mozzarella salad, rose-like radicchio leaves or the rare taste sensation of an arugula salad. Perfect Salad Greens

First, buy several kinds of lettuce; don't settle for plain old head lettuce that is tasteless, good only for shredding on the top of a taco. Get crisp, sturdy romaine, soft and tender red and green leaf lettuce. Try some opalescent endive, tart escarole or chicory, pungent arugula alone or mixed for contrast, fragile boston or baby crunchy bibb lettuce.

Next, lettuce must be washed and dried carefully. Most people rush this and end up with limp, soggy or gritty salads. Salad spinners are wonderful. They can be filled with water to give the greens a good splash, the basket lifted and drained and then spun to whip away the water by centrifugal force. Since water will destroy lettuce, I spread a large bath towel on the counter, spread the leaves over that and then very gently pat them nearly dry with paper towels. Line a plastic bag with two more paper towels, fill loosely with the leaves, and twist-tie the top. The lettuce will be fresh and crisp, sometimes for a week, for perfect salad making.

Resist the temptation to clean out the refrigerator when you make a salad. Good greens, a good olive oil, a splash of bright vinegars, salt and pepper -- that's all you need to make the classic everyday Italian salad. You can add more, fresh or cooked vegetables; just do it judiciously. The freshest seasonal specialties should be your guide. The Perfect Dressing

The perfect dressing does not come in a bottle. It is homemade. Even using the finest olive oils available, these exquisite dressings are cheaper than pallid commercial concoctions. The secret is to listen to the Italian proverb about salad dressings: be lavish with oil, miserly with vinegar.

Buy good olive oil. You want more than just something rich and slippery. You want a beautiful flavor. You get what you pay for. The best is extra virgin olive oil, the first cold pressing. People buy olive oil and never taste it. Try several kinds in smaller quantities. Taste them and decide which has the flavor you like.

Now safeguard the flavor. Olive oil has a shelf life of two years. But unless you use great amounts of olive oil, buy in quantities you would use in a few weeks. Do not refrigerate it. Refrigeration, according to the Bertolli, a major importer of olive oil, makes it cloudy and gelatinous. The firm recommends keeping it in a cool dry place in your kitchen.

The vinegar should be there to accent, but not to steal the show and overpower the other flavors. Use good quality wine vinegars, reds and whites. Growing in popularity here is the balsamic vinegar, aged in wooden casks sometimes for as long as 50 years. It is a robust vinegar and for salads can be used sparingly mixed with an ordinary vinegar. Freshly squeezed lemon juice is used sometimes, especially with tomatoes and fruit salads.

The proportions are a personal choice, but don't let the vinegar dominate.

Additional flavorings are kept to a minimum -- occasionally some garlic, mint in fruit salads, fresh herbs, and recently the inclusion of the dijon-style mustards. Sources

Italian vegetables, herbs and seeds are available from the following:

Earthworks, 923 N. Ivy St., Arlington, 243-2498. Greenhouse open through June 12, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Herbs and salad plants are available; also, new this year are exotic salad seeds -- fennel, arugula, ma che, chicory, endive, cornichons, chervil, Italian parsley, basil and misticanza, mixed Italian greens.

St. John's Herb Garden, 7711 Hillmeade Rd., Bowie, 262-5302. Located in a historic Victorian farm house. Owner Sydney Vallentyne says plants are available starting this month, and that he welcomes phone calls for catalogue and seed mail orders. They will have plants and seeds for exotic European vegetables -- Italian, French, Belgian, Dutch and German lettuces, chicories, endives, and all the usual culinary herbs.

Washington Cathedral Greenhouse, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, N.W., 537-6263. Potted culinary herbs and some lettuce seedlings in flats are available. Greenhouse open 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 10 to 5 on Sunday.

Bittersweet Hill Nurseries, Rt. 424 & Governors Bridge Road, Davidsonville, Md., (301) 798-0231. Fresh herb plants and potted arugula.

Smile Herb Shop, 4908 Berwyn Rd., College Park, Md., 474-8791. Their selection includes fresh basil, cilantro and oregano.

Mail order exotic salad seeds:

Le Jardin Du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873. Superb selection of European seeds available by mail order.

Herb Gathering Inc., 5742 Kenwood Ave., Kansas City, Mo. 64110, French and Italian gourmet vegetable seeds.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Road, Albion, Me. 04910. INSALATA MISTICANZA (6 servings)

The French would call this a mesclun salad, a term derived from the Nicoise word for mixture, and which refers to young wild greens. The Italians sell a seed mixture of salad greens, misticanza, so several mysterious greens will pop up in one row of the garden. They can be grown in windowsill gardens or used in successive plantings in the garden for a longer season of home-grown salads. Misticanza seeds are available at Earthworks.

6 handfuls very young salad greens (a handful each of such varieties as arugula, ma'che, red and green leaf lettuces, curly endive, chervil, baby dandelion greens, green chicory, mustard seedling, baby sorrel or spinach)

1 clove garlic (optional)

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar or lemon juice

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste

Wash and dry greens thoroughly. Tear into bite-size pieces in a large salad bowl. In a small bowl crush garlic. Add salt, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice and let stand a few minutes. Add oil in a steady stream, whisking until emulsified. Remove garlic. Taste and correct seasoning. Add dressing to greens, just enough to give each leaf a light coat. Toss and serve immediately. Alice Waters' Garden Salad Pizza

Many different lettuces are especially grown and picked at an infant stage for the salads at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. Chef Alice Waters is a legend for showing up in New York at a party bearing flats of seedling lettuce to make the salad. Now she has a new creation. In Cafe Fanny, the sandwich shop adjunct to Chez Panisse, Waters has combined two Italian classics, the pizza and the simple green salad, to create a delicious variation of the popular Italian bread salad.

Individual 6-inch pizza dough rounds are baked. When they emerge from the oven they are brushed with a good olive oil. While this cools slightly, a green salad of several very young lettuces is tossed with a simple oil and wine vinegar dressing. The chilled salad is heaped gently on the warm pizza to make a complete luncheon dish.

To do this yourself, cut out individual 6-inch rounds of pizza dough rolled 1/4-inch thick. Turn up a 1/2-inch fold around the edge of the dough to form a lip. Bake on pizza stone or quarry tile according to dough directions, being sure to preheat baking stone for 30 minutes before baking.

Dress the salad greens with the misticanza vinaigrette (above) or your own favorite olive oil and vinegar dressing. ARUGULA AND BEET SALAD (4 servings)

The earthy sweetness of freshly cooked beets with the intense arugula greens is an Italian favorite. Arugula leaves should be no more than 4 or 5 inches long for salad, and smaller is even better. The leaves are very fragile and should be handled gently and used while very fresh. The bunches usually look limp in the market but usually will crisp up when washed and dried carefully. Remove heavy stems.

4 or 5 small fresh beets, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter

4 handfuls arugula greens

1/4 cup misticanza vinaigrette (see above) or your favorite vinaigrette

Trim andld,10.6 scrub beets (do not peel); place in a saucepan and cover with water about 2 inches above beets. Bring to a boil and simmer about 20 minutes or until beets are tender but still firm. Remove, drain and peel when cool enough to handle. Slice, grate or cut in julienne strips. Drizzle with a teaspoon of dressing and keep at room temperature until ready to serve.

Toss arugula with enough dressing to coat each leaf. Arrange on salad plate with beets heaped in the center. ROASTED RED PEPPER, ESCAROLE AND ANCHOVY SALAD (4 servings)

Roasted peppers have an exquisite flavor, but roasting peppers can be tedious. The technique is streamlined in this recipe. This salad can double as an antipasto and begin an Italian dinner. With it, serve a spring dinner of veal or lamb chops with fresh broccoli or asparagus and a dessert of fruit and cheese.

1 large red bell pepper, quartered, seeded

4 anchovy fillets, drained, patted dry, minced

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

5 cups escarole, washed, dried, torn into bite-size pieces

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Place pepper quarters skin side up on rack of broiler pan and broil about 4 inches from heat for 5 to 7 minutes until skin is charred and blistered. Transfer to plastic bag, seal, and let steam 10 minutes. Peel, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Do not wash. In a small bowl combine anchovies, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper to taste, whisking until anchovies are emulsified. In a salad bowl toss together escarole, parmesan, pepper strips and enough dressing to give a sheen to the escarole leaves. BIBB, WATERCRESS AND ARTICHOKE SALAD (4 to 6 servings)

This vinaigrette is a treasure that may become a permanent part of your salad repertoire. There is nothing sacred about the kinds of lettuce you put into this classic, mild and tender salad. It could be sharpened with the substitution of arugula or escarole.

2 or 3 heads bibb lettuce

1 bunch watercress or arugula

4 to 6 Italian-style artichoke hearts (see recipe below), or regular artichoke hearts, quartered

FOR THE VINAIGRETTE:

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon dijon mustard

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Wash and dry lettuce and watercress. Tear into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl with the artichoke hearts.

Toss with vinaigrette. Use only enough dressing to add a shine to each leaf. Combine vinaigrette ingredients in a jar and shake well. Prepare in advance to allow flavors to blend. Remove garlic before using. CAROL CUTLER'S ITALIAN ARTICOKE HEARTS (6 servings)

Making your own marinated artichoke hearts for antipasto or salads produces a far superior product than the oily ones found in little jars.

2 10-ounce packages frozen artichoke hearts

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup vermouth

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon oregano

2 tablespoons chopped pimento (or roasted red pepper, chopped)

Salt and pepper to taste

6 lettuce leaves

6 tomato slices (optional)

Place artichokes in a small quantity of boiled, salted water. Cook 4 minutes after water returns to a boil. Drain. Place in a mixing bowl. While artichokes are hot sprinkle them with oil, vermouth, lemon juice, oregano, pimento, salt and pepper. Toss well to coat. Cover. Let stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If made a day or two in advance, let return to room temperature before serving. Serve as a first course on a lettuce leaf with a slice of tomato.

Adapted from "Cuisine Rapide," by Carol Cutler (Clarkson N. Potter Inc., $8.95) PANZANELLA (Italian Bread Salad) (4 servings)

This is another classic Italian salad. The Italians are very fond of using bread in salads and soups. Sometimes the bread is soaked in water and squeezed dry. The Italian bread we find here is not as sturdy and collapses when soaked. This version is neater and the bread absorbs the salad juices. To make a heartier salad or one-dish meal, you can added hard-cooked eggs, anchovies, or chopped celery and carrots.

3 cups bread cubes, 1/2-inch dice, stale French or Italian bread, toasted

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, coarsely chopped

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, coarsley chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped red onion

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, firmly packed

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

In a salad bowl combine bread cubes, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, salt and pepper to taste. In a blender or food processor blend basil, garlic, vinegar and oil until basil is incorporated. Toss salad with dressing. Serve immediately if you prefer the bread cubes crunchy. Or, allow the salad to stand and the bread will soften. Serve at room temperature or chill. ROMAINE LETTUCE WITH GORGONZOLA CHEESE AND WALNUTS (6 to 8 servings)

Italian walnuts are very good and frequently appear in salads either as toasted halves or chopped. Here they are teamed with the famous Italian blue cheese. Romaine is still called cos lettuce in England because it was native to Kos or Cos, one of the Greek islands in the Aegean. Later it became associated with ceremonial feasts in ancient Rome.

1 head romaine lettuce

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces gorgonzola (or blue cheese), divided

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely (divided)

Separate lettuce leaves, discarding blemished outer leaves. Wash and dry thoroughly.

In a large salad bowl whisk together olive oil, vinegar, salt and a few grindings of pepper. Add half the cheese and mash it well with a fork. Add half the chopped walnuts and the lettuce and toss thoroughly. Top with remaining half of crumbled gorgonzola and chopped walnuts. Serve with a crusty bread either after a meat course or as a luncheon salad.

Adapted from "The Second Classic Italian Cookbook," by Marcella Hazan, MacMillan, London (1982). James Beard's True Caesar Salad Secret

The caesar salad, the classical romaine lettuce salad, is usually credited as a U.S. invention by a Californian in the 1920s. But someplace in the lineage of the inventor was an Italian cook. The caesar salad is pure Italian in concept. Beard says it was named for one Cesar, a restaurateur in Tijuana, Mexico, who liked the sturdy romaine's ability to keep its crispness.

In "Beard on Food" (Knopf, 1974, $17.50), he writes: "Now I'm going to tell you the trick to making a true caesar salad -- toss the leaves first with the olive oil before adding the lemon juice, anchovies, egg, grated parmesan cheese and croutons. The oil forms a protective coating that prevents the leaves from wilting when they are tossed with the other ingredients. RED AND WHITE SALAD (4 servings)

The legacy of Pompeii is the volcanic-rich soil of southern Italy, which produces what must be the most wonderfully flavored tomatoes in the world. They are served in salads while still pale pink and with "green shoulders," meaning the top of the tomato still appears green. In this country we need a redder tomato for full flavor.

3 medium tomatoes, peeled, and quartered

3 stalks belgian endive, sliced crosswise

1 small celery heart, sliced crosswise

1 bulb fennel, stems and outer parts removed, sliced crosswise

1/2 cup vinaigette (your own favorite or one of those in this article)

Freshly ground black pepper.

Green lettuce leaves for garnish.

Toss together vegetables and vinaigrette in a salad bowl.

Adapted from "Food of Italy," by Edwin H. Knopf, Knopf Publishing, 1964

Sprinkle with pepper. Place a curly green lettuce leaf on salad plate and fill with red and white vegetables.