Chef and food writer Ursula Ferrigno on radicchio, a family of bitter Italian leaves
Images: Orlando Gili
What is radicchio?
It’s an Italian leaf vegetable. There are several varieties: chioggia, which is maroon and round; treviso, which is pink and slightly bitter; and castelfranco, which looks like it’s been splashed with pink paint — it’s much more delicate in flavour, and hasn’t as much bitterness as treviso. Radicchio is similar to endive, in that they are both part of the chicory family, but endive is generally paler, more watery and less bitter.
When is it in season?
Radicchio is only in season in the winter, so it’s available from now through to February. It’s as if it chooses to appear at a time of year when we really need its nutrients to fortify our bodies, and when its lovely bright colours can cheer us up.
Where is it from?
People have experimented with growing it here, but it really relishes the soil and climate of northern Italy. Interestingly, my father, a vegetable grower, was the first person to really bring it to the UK and campaign for it, about 40 years ago. No one thought it would sell well, but it became his most dominant crop on his farms near Treviso and Trieste.
How should we use it?
Radicchio is very versatile: you can have it cooked or raw, in salads, in pastas, in risottos. One of my favourite ways is chargrilled, with layers of cheese sauce and mushrooms. Parmesan is a great cheese for that, or a bit of gruyere. Sadly, radicchio tends to lose its colour when cooked, so a fresh salad, dressed with lemon, vinegar and olive oil, is really all you need to enjoy that bright, crisp crunch. Apple and fennel work well, and other leaves like pea shoots—though you don’t want to overwhelm the flavour.
Castelfranco can sustain a slightly more robust olive oil, being milder, but personally I would anoint treviso and chioggia with something subtler, so as not to adulterate the bitterness. In Italy, we tend to have salad after our main course as a palate cleanser, and radicchio is perfect for that. Incidentally, I did see a recipe for a radicchio pizza recently: radicchio with grapes, on top of a pizza—but I think I’m a bit old fashioned for such things.
How do radicchio dishes vary across Italy?
In Puglia, they often enjoy a salad of radicchio and grated carrot. In some areas of northern Italy, they have it in a paté, with a little oil and garlic—it’s a great spread for crostini, or as a sauce for spaghetti. With red wine and a bit of ricotta and parmesan, thinly sliced radicchio makes a great filling for ravioli. Lasagne with chargrilled radicchio, a bit of cheese sauce and some red onions, is a Venetian speciality. In Bologna, they often chargrill radicchio as a side dish.