Radicchio is a leafy Italian vegetable. Most varieties have burgundy-red leaves with white ribs, while some have leaves flecked with shades of pink, red and green. Some radicchios grow in small heads, narrow and tapered like endive, while others are round, resembling lettuce or cabbage. Known for its sharp flavor, radicchio makes a distinctive salad green, adds zest and texture to soups and risottos, and is delightful grilled on its own.
A Brief History
In true Italian style, radicchio’s name and appeal are inextricably linked to its home, history and family. First cultivated in the cool Veneto province of northeastern Italy (the mainland surrounding Venice), two legends exist as to its precise origin in the region: one, that mysterious birds from across the sea first dropped the seeds of this unique plant on local fields—the other, that friars in times of old collected seeds from the plants as they grew native and wild along the roadsides. The mass cultivation of radicchio likely began on Chioggia Island, where the plant’s mineral content was noted to leave behind a far healthier soil than had originally existed. A relative of endive, radicchio is a member of the chicory family, sometimes referred to in English as “Italian chicory,” in French as “Chicorée Rouge.”
Radicchio has been enjoyed since ancient times, not only for its excellent flavor, but for its many medicinal uses. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) was the first to write of radicchio when he praised its cleansing properties in his Naturalis Historia. Though probably first administered as treatment for insomnia, radicchio was most often prescribed to aid digestion, and was said to protect the liver while acting as a purifying diuretic and metabolic stimulant. Radicchio is high in fiber, as well as Vitamin C.