Know your Radicchio

  • Radicchio is a leaf chicory (Cichorium intybus, Asteraceae), sometimes known as Italian chicory and is a perennial. 
  • It is grown as a leaf vegetable which usually has white-veined red leaves. 
  • It has a bitter and spicy taste, which mellows when it is grilled or roasted.

  • Humans have been using radicchio since ancient times. 
  • Pliny the Elder wrote of it in Naturalis Historia, praising its medicinal properties; he claimed it was useful as a blood purifier and an aid for insomniacs. 
  • In fact, radicchio contains intybin, a blood and liver tonic, as well as a type of flavonoid called anthocyanins.
  • Modern cultivation of the plant began in the fifteenth century, in the Veneto and Triestino regions of Italy, but the deep-red radicchio of today was engineered in 1860 by the Belgian agronomist Francesco Van den Borre, who used a technique called imbianchimento (whitening), preforcing, or blanching to create the dark red, white-veined leaves. 
  • Radicchio plants are taken from the ground and placed in water in darkened sheds, where lack of light and ensuing inhibition of chlorophyll production cause the plants to lose their green pigmentation.

    • The varieties of radicchio are named after the Italian regions where they originate: 
      • Radicchio di Chioggia, which is maroon, round, and about the size of a grapefruit. 
      • Radicchio di Treviso, which resembles a large Belgian endive: 
      • Other varieties include radicchio di Tardivo, and the white-colored radicchio di Castelfranco, both of which resemble flowers and are only available in the winter months.
    • In the same way that the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese-makers of Parma, Italy, have sought to protect the name "Parmesan" to signify only cheeses made in their region under the supervision of a regulating body, so too have the radicchio farmers of the Veneto sought to protect the names of some radicchio varieties, including Tardivo.
    • Other varieties include: radicchio di Gorizia (also known as "cicoria zuccherina"), radicchio di Trieste (biondissima) and Witloof/Bruxelles (also known as Belgian lettuce).
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