Why you should care
Because so far you’ve likely been eating the fake stuff.
Delicious grilled radicchio. With every savory bite you probably assumed you were eating the real premium Italian veggie, right? Well, chances are, it was fake.
Why? Because radicchio rosso di Treviso — the real thing, which is named after the tiny picturesque northern Italian town that gave birth to it — only grows in a fertile patch of foggy land where precious minerals flow in fresh mountain streams and radicchio farmers are considered artists. If you’ve dined on the roundish version, it could have come from anywhere.
And please don’t call it red chicory — that would be an insult. In Treviso, where locals fiercely defend the vegetable against counterfeits, it’s dubbed “the winter flower” because it flourishes when placed in Alpine water pools. The three original radicchio variants, which many Italians might not even be familiar with, are a sight to behold, with ruby-red leaves and a white-as-snow root. First, the oval version with long wide leaves — it’s bitterer. There’s a yellowish-cream-colored variety, which is a hybrid between radicchio and lettuce, with juicy purple veins. The premium, sweeter radicchio is called tardivo, meaning “late” (it flourishes and is picked later in the year compared to the other ones). This most precious variety, with its dark leaves that curl inside at the very top like the tentacles of a squid or a cat-o’-nine-tails, is a challenge to find even in Rome.
On the palate it should be bittersweet, juicy and crunchy. If it’s mushy or soggy, or the stem bends, dump it.
So to eat the real radicchio? You must trek all the way to Treviso. To make sure it’s the real deal, first check the label for authenticity — “radicchio rosso di Treviso IGP” — then carry out a simple test. Pick a leaf and twist the white stem. It should be sturdy and tough, and crack with the twist. On the palate it should be bittersweet, juicy and crunchy. If it’s mushy or soggy, or the stem bends, dump it.
Radicchio also comes with its own folklore. According to legend, in the Middle Ages “its seeds were transported by the wings of doves and thrown on top a cathedral, where they flourished like flowers,” says farmer Paolo Manzan, president of Consorzio Tutela Radicchio Rosso di Treviso, an actual consortium that protects the veggie in Europe. Medieval monks used it to treat anemia. And some have long considered the tender vegetable a libido booster.
Today you’ll find it on pizza and in creamy sauces, jams and biscuits — and even ice cream, cheese and tea. Some smoke it like pot. But the best way to consume it? Risotto with radicchio, nuts and Gorgonzola. Or just savor it raw; munch it like a carrot stick or dip it in olive oil and salt. I love to eat radicchio with oranges and pine nuts. I once stuffed a carry-on bag full of the real stuff before flying back to Rome.
You can also drink it. At the restaurant Antica Ostaria al Cavallino in Treviso, try sipping on the aperitif called “Foglia Rossa” (red leaf). It’s an infusion of radicchio tardivo and sparkling wine. Its “death” — what Italians call the best way to fully enjoy something — is to have it straight with two heart-shaped tardivo leaves. It’s a drink that can slowly get you tipsy, but doesn’t lead to a nasty hangover — unless, of course, you gulp down the whole bottle in 30 minutes. Which, believe me, is very tempting and doable.