Four excellent ways with radicchio

“It looks like a fleshy purple flower, as fresh as if it had been specially created to bring spring to the dinner table in winter,” wrote Ada Boni in her Regional Italian Cuisine cookbook, while Marcella Hazan calls it the “most magnificent vegetable.” I have to agree. Radicchio might just be my favourite vegetable. It’s beautiful to look at, it’s incredibly versatile — you can grill it, roast it, braise it, have it raw or even in a cake — and that is before I even go into how delicious it is with its slightly bitter, juicy leaves. I find myself seeking it out every week and the market, and whenever I see the impossible curls of radicchio tardivo, or the rose-like speckled pink tender leaves of radicchio variegato Castelfranco, I cannot help but impulse buy — and cook!

Radicchio varieties

First, a bit about the different varieties because in Italy, radicchio is also the name given to chicory in general, not just the reddish-purple salad you may know, so sometimes it is also called radicchio rosso (red radicchio). The main varieties are named after their cities of origin.

The most well-known are radicchio di Chioggia — a round salad head, slightly less bitter than its relatives, from the town of Chioggia, south of Venice — and radicchio di Treviso, an elongated variety from Treviso, just north of Venice, which actually comes in two forms. The first, simply called Treviso or precoce, is an early-harvested version with long flat leaves, similar in shape to a Belgian endive (witlof), and the second is the tardivo, a highly prized, late-harvest version with beautiful, gently curled, crunchy leaves that have large white veins that resemble fingers or tentacles. It’s impressive.

To earn prestigious IGP status, both Treviso precoce and Treviso tardivo must be grown only in a select number of municipalities in the provinces of Treviso, Padova or Venice on land rich in water in central Veneto. Tardivo is a work of art, literally, and considered the king of the radicchio family. It doesn’t just grow like this but takes weeks of manual work. The seeds are planted in fields in the height of summer, then once the first frosts of autumn come along (there should be two frosts for IGP standards), the leaves are ‘burned’ and growth is stopped. This is usually at the start of late November and this is where the transformation begins — the radicchio is taken, roots and all, and transferred to large pools of running water at a constant temperature in complete darkness for 10-25 days. The water revives the plant and it begins to grow again. Without sunlight and without photosynthesis turning the leaves green, the characteristic brilliant red and white leaves grow. The plant is then trimmed and cleaned manually — a process called toelettatura — removing about 70% of the dead and wilted outer leaves and trimming the root to retain just the heart of the plant. It is then thoroughly washed and packed ready for the market. It’s in season in the coldest months of winter, until the end of February.

Meanwhile the regular Treviso (or precoce) is harvested earlier in the season — from September. It’s characteristic elongated form is created in the fields, an elastic band wrapped around the tops of each broad salad head like “soldatini“, soldiers, which keeps the hearts of the salad blanketed in darkness for 15-20 days so that, like the Tardivo, the lack of photosynthesis keeps the new leaves from turning green. When they are harvested, they are cleaned in the field of their outer green leaves to reveal their red hearts.

Some favourite radicchio recipes

I love radicchio in basically any form. I most often eat it as a salad vegetable, it’s delicious dressed in something sweet-acidic to balance its slight bitterness. This is one very rare occasion where I like balsamic vinegar in salad, particularly a sweeter, aged one. It’s also very nice with a mustardy dressing or with something strong and salty — hello anchovies (recently I have been testing it in a salad with salted herring). And it goes so well with cheese — gorgonzola is my go to, it ticks the salty/strong/spicy boxes all at once. Tardivo is the preferred, prized radicchio to cook with, but outside of Italy it might be easier to find the round Chioggia or the early Treviso precoce, which are also slightly less bitter. 

Radicchio, mascarpone and walnut cream is a condiment that is just as excellent as a dip with crunchy vegetables, a few nicely aged cheeses and crostini, as it is on sandwiches (below on a bagel with ham and more radicchio!) or even as a pasta sauce! It’s also a very pretty colour to brighten up the winter table.

Grilled radicchio, although I don’t have a recipe to send you to, this is an easy non-recipe. I like the elongated radicchio precoce for this one. Slice it in half lengthways and cook it on a dry grill pan or barbecue until wilted and tender. Serve it on a plate dressed in some extra virgin olive oil, balsamic or red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. (You could, if you wished to, wrap them in some lardo or pancetta before grilling).

Risotto al radicchio, a simple winter risotto that marries two iconic ingredients of the Veneto – rice and radicchio. Plus a good slug of red wine. There are a couple of ways sweetness is brought into this classic Venetian risotto. One is through the use of onion, and the other is the addition of pancetta, with its salty-sweet tendency. I love the red wine in this, you could use white too but I love that it matches the beautiful color of raw radicchio – which the vegetable inevitably loses as it cooks. To help with the balance of flavors, you could go for a red wine on the sweeter side too, perhaps a Lambrusco Amabile or, for a local choice, Barbera.

Torta di Radicchio That’s right. This is an intriguing, delicious, dessert made with radicchio. It is a Tessa Kiros recipe for a traditional, if unconventional, cake from Chioggia. Tessa tops it with an easy, thick glaze of melted white chocolate—even for those who aren’t fans of white chocolate, it’s an addition that works beautifully with this otherwise quite plain, but moist radicchio cake. But you could also dust with powdered sugar or do a simple lemon glaze here too.

This recipe comes from Tessa Kiros’ Linenwater and Limoncello cookbook, which I adore. I have only made one quite different modification, which is to add lemon juice to the water where the radicchio leaves are blanched. This acidic bath keeps the radicchio a bright pink (which you can see in flecks in the finished cake) —otherwise, the leaves can turn greenish blue, especially if you happen to live in a place with hard water (I do), or use unprocessed sugar, which can be slightly basic rather than neutral. Radicchio, like red cabbage and other fruit and vegetables that contain anthocyanin, can change colour from red to blue in acidic and basic environments.

Do you have a favourite way with radicchio?


  1. George says:

    It’s amazing.

  2. Dulcistella says:

    Hi! I usually put it in salads or make risotto with it (with red wine, to keep it the right color), but once I made lasagne with it. The recipe is in Sigrid’s book “Diario italiano” and it has only radicchio and Asiago, no meat. My mom makes another version of it, with radicchio and sausage… different ways, boh delicious!

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