Radicchio
Resources > Food > Vegetables > Chicory > Radicchio

Are you a Smart Kitchen™ Chef?

Try it FREE or take a TOUR to explore Smart Kitchen!
+ -

 

Radicchio (Chicorum intybus, L.) is a perennial plant and a member of the family Asteraceae, aka Compositae.  It grows in smallish round or oval-shaped heads and is a deep burgundy/maroon color with white streaks.

Radicchio (the “ch” is correctly pronounced “k,” as in Pinocchio, not the soft “ch” as in cheese) can grow to about the size of a small head of Cabbage, and in fact is sometimes mistaken for Red Cabbage.  You can get quite a shock at the checkout counter if you’ve accidentally picked up Radicchio instead of Red Cabbage. Red Cabbage usually costs less than $1.00 per pound. Radicchio? Anywhere from $3.00 to $6.00 per pound. Quite a difference.

If by chance the checkout person also isn’t familiar with Radicchio and you end up taking your “red cabbage” home and using it in Coleslaw, you’ll be in for another shock.  It’ll likely be the most bitter coleslaw you’ve ever tasted.

The Radicchio family, Asteraceae, is one of the two largest flowering plant families in the world (Orchidaceae is the other).  This giant family contains over 23,000 species that grow across the globe. Cooks commonly call Asteraceae the Lettuce family; flower enthusiasts call it the Aster, Daisy or Sunflower family.  In one of those odd twists of scientific classification, the family contains such diverse plants as the above-named flowers, lettuces, Artichokes, marigolds, echinacea, dandelions, sagebrush and chamomile, and various vines, shrubs and trees.

This is all by way of saying that Radicchio is part of the Lettuce family.  However, you won’t find Radicchio listed under “Lettuces” in a plant book, or Radicchio seeds on the shelf with the lettuce seeds in a gardening store, because Radicchio is also a member of the Chicory genus, a distinctive sub-group within the Lettuce family.  There are many kinds of Chicories, but the ones we are most familiar with are the few edible ones.  These include Chicory (yes, it’s a plant as well as a genus), Belgian Endive and Escarole, and Radicchio.  In addition, the root of the Chicory plant (not surprisingly, called Root Chicory) is baked, ground and used as either a flavoring for Coffee or as a substitute for the Coffee itself.

The names in the Chicory genus are pretty confusing.  As you can see above, there’s the genus Chicory, and within that genus there is a specific plant called Chicory.  The edible Chicories are also called Endives. The plant Chicory has two other names, Curly Endive and Frisée.  Belgian Endive is also called White Endive, and Escarole is also known as Leafy Endive.

Continuing our complicated Chicory monikers, Radicchio is also known as Italian Chicory, as Italy is where the plant was first cultivated.  In Italian, the word “radicchio” originally meant Chicory in general, but the word has become synonymous with just the red varieties of Chicory.  Interestingly, modern day Radicchio is not actually Italian, but Belgian. Though a version of Radicchio was first cultivated in Italy in the 15th century, the plant with which we are familiar today was first developed and grown in Belgium in 1860.

Season

The most commonly used varieties of Radicchio (Chiogga Radicchio and Treviso Radicchio) are available year round. Another popular type, Tardivo Radicchio, is rarer and can be found from November to March.

Cultivation

Radicchio grows best in cool moist weather.  It is usually planted in late summer and matures in the fall.  In mild climates, it can be grown all winter.  If can also be started in the spring if it’s planted very early, but if it matures in hot weather, it turns tough and may be too bitter to eat.

Production

Historically, Radicchio was eaten as a wild plant in ancient Greek and Roman times.  Today, Radicchio is only a cultivated plant and the various types are strictly controlled in order to retain their particular appearance and flavor.  The bitterness of each type is especially important, because some cultures love the sharp flavor and will go out of their way to get it, unlike in America where we tend to love the appearance of Radicchios and do our best to minimize its bitter taste.

Radicchio often undergoes a manipulation or “forcing” while it is growing.  The top halves of harvested plants are cut off and are replanted in running water.  After some time, a new red center of the plant begins to grow.  This “heart” is a sweeter and more tender version of the original plant.  The outer leaves are removed and the “heart” is sold as is at market.

Radicchio used to be almost exclusively imported from Italy, but it’s now grown on many specialty farms in the US and is becoming more easily available to us.

Varieties

There are many varieties of Radicchio, and three or four that are on our shelves.  They are named for the different areas in the Veneto region of northern Italy where they are grown (Venice is the capital of the region).

In the US, the most available type is Radicchio Rosso di Chioggia, the ball-shaped Radicchio which looks like a small Cabbage or Grapefruit.  Chioggia is mainly a deep purplish color (similar to a Red Cabbage), with a few wide white streaks, and it has a strong bitter taste.

Radicchio Rosso di Treviso is the other type you may find in your produce section.  It is more elongated and is a darker maroon/burgundy color with more visible streaks of white.  There are actually two varieties of Treviso Radicchio.  The oval-shaped Precoce Radicchio, which is often simply called Treviso, is the first Radicchio grown in a season, and is the sweetest and most delicate flavored Radicchio.  The second Treviso type is called Tardivo, which is more elongated and has long, curly leaves.

Radicchio di Verona is grown in the Verona area, and is a non-heading type of Radicchio.  It has the characteristic deep red color and white veins, and open leaves.  It is another variation of the Treviso/Precoce Radicchios.

There are many other types of Radicchios developed in different towns and areas in Italy, including all-white heirloom hybrid called Radicchio variegate di Castlefranco, which is a cross between radicchio and endive.  Many varieties are protected in Italy by designations such as PDOs and IGPs to ensure the quality and integrity of the plants.

Purchasing

As we noted above, Radicchio can look a bit like Red Cabbage.  Radicchio heads are smaller than most heads of Red Cabbage, and weigh a lot less. Its individual leaves are thinner and more pliable than Red Cabbage leaves. Fresh Radicchio will be firm and free of any brown spots or browning on the edges or tips of the leaves.

Storage

Radicchio should be refrigerated as soon as you get it home from the market.  Wrap the heads  loosely in paper towels or a cloth towel and put them in a plastic bag.  Its flavor is best within 1 to 3 days of purchase, but it will last refrigerated for about a week.

Culinary Uses

In America, Radicchio is usually eaten Raw in Salads.  It’s not often the main lettuce, but is Chopped or Sliced and added as an accent color and flavor.  In Europe, and Italy in particular, Radicchio is much more widely used, occasionally in a salad, but it’s usually a cooked vegetable. 

It can be Sautéed and served as a side dish with Meats or tossed on Pizza.  It’s delicious Grilled.  It’s also used in Pasta fillings and in Rice dishes, especially Risotto.  Because it is so bitter, it’s often paired with acidic, sweet and/or salty ingredients that will minimize its bite, which makes Marinating a very good way to prep it before cooking.  You can learn how to marinate Radicchio in Smart Kitchen’s Exercise on Marinating Bitter Vegetables.

Nutritional Value

One cup of Radicchio (40 g) contains 9 calories, .57 grams protein, .4 grams fiber, 1.79 grams carbohydrates, .24 g sugar, .10 g fat, 8 mg calcium, .23 mg iron, 5 mg manganese, 16 mg phosphorus, 121 mg potassium, 9 mg sodium and .25 mg zinc, 3.2 mg vitamin C, small amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and B6, 24 µg folate, 11 IU vitamin A, .90 mg vitamin E, and 102 mg vitamin K.

Nutrition

Radicchio has lots of good nutritional value.  Its bitter taste is caused by lactucopicrin, which is a natural sedative and painkiller that also helps guard against malaria (in ancient times, Radicchio was believed to be a cure for insomnia).  Its deep red color denotes the presence of phytonutrients which help regulate blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of some cancers.  It’s also high in healthy antioxidants.  Eating Radicchio also helps increase bile production, which improves digestion and lowers cholesterol.  Its vitamin and mineral content helps promote bone health, protects against macular degeneration and increases circulation.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes