The exact origins of radicchio’s culinary history is unknown, but it was first recorded in Pliny the elder’s masterwork Naturalis Historia, as he believed it to have various medical properties. He’s essentially the forefather of radicchio preparation, as he made some pioneering discoveries that serve as the basis on how farmers harvest the vegetable. Radicchio has been cultivated and exported in northeastern Italy since the 1400’s, allowing generations of chefs to define their recipes.
Radicchio is a perennial vegetable throughout most of the world, reaching peak quality in the spring and fall months. Italy however, considers the winter to be prime season for radicchio, as harvesting typically runs for November to February. With this in mind, consider pairing radicchio with other winter vegetables.
Farmers and chefs take radicchio extremely seriously, and only allow certain varieties to grow in specific areas. Similar to how champagne can only be called such if it’s grown in the Champagne region of France, many varieties of radicchio are intertwined with their region. For example, the popular Chioggia variety is named after a town near Venice, and production is strictly limited to the nearby region. This isn’t to say that radicchio is exclusively grown in Italy however, as only the specific varieties have exclusive IGP protection.
When you think of radicchio, you’re likely imagining the cabbage-esque Chioggia variety. It’s a great option to start experimenting with, but you should consider a gourmet variety if you’re comfortable with chicory. Treviso tardivo is one of our favorites, and is widely considered to be of the utmost quality. If you decide to go with this variety, we’d recommend roasting or grilling it, as it becomes wonderfully complex. If you can’t get your hands on tardivo, we’d also recommend radicchio Castelfranco. This variety is pretty comparable, but is generally more delicate, so be careful when cooking it.
Unsurprisingly, the centuries-long popularity of radicchio has led to some truly amazing dishes. Central and northern Italian cuisine are particularly indebted to the vegetable, as they often use the chicory to bring subtly bitter notes into pastas, risottos, and ravioli. Radicchio is typically added into savory dishes, but also works as a wonderful base for pesto. When serving it, be aware that longer cooking times will soften the bitter aspects. Beyond that, it’s well suited to a variety of classic Italian dishes, so use it to bring sophistication to otherwise everyday-meals.