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Radicchio: The Bittersweet Green

I’ll never forget the simple grilled radicchio I had in Rome at a restaurant up the hill behind the Coliseum.

It took me a while to realize that the soft, meltingly delicious vegetable soaked in olive oil was something I had indeed eaten before. And so have you, if you’ve ever had a mixed green salad with crunchy bits of burgundy and white leaves.

Radicchio Nutrition

Although a relative newcomer to local markets, people have been enjoying radicchio for millennia.  Pliny the Elder praised its healing properties, saying it could be used as a blood purifier and a sleep aid. We now know that radicchio does contain:

  • Intybin, a mild sedative and analgesic pain-killer
  • Lots of flavonoids and anthocyanins, powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidants agents, which may help prevent cancer and neurological diseases

It’s true that radicchio is almost always described at a “bitter green.” But don’t let the word “bitter” put you off. It has an edge, yes, but just beneath is a sweet earthiness that quickly becomes addictive. And when radicchio is cooked, the bitterness almost disappears entirely.

Identifying Types of Radicchio

If you take a quick glance at the bountiful greens at your local market, you might easily mistake radicchio for red cabbage because the most common variety, Radicchio di Verona, makes a round head of maroon and white leaves.

But you’re also likely to find the greenish-red Radicchio di Treviso, which looks like an elongated, loose head of Belgian endive, and the Pan di Zucchero (Sugar Loaf), which is also an elongated, loose head, but of a beautiful shade of pale green.  

Radicchio Recipe Ideas

All varieties of radicchio have sturdy leaves that can be eaten raw–with just a bit of olive oil and salt–or cooked into a lovely risotto or pasta dish, or slowly braised with a beef roast or a chicken.  

Simplest of all, cut a head of radicchio in half, brush with olive oil, and grill until soft. Dressed with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a shaving of parmesan, you will imagine you are dining in Rome, just up the hill behind the Coliseum.

Grilled Radicchio Recipe

Ingredients: 

6 heads Radicchio

10 tablespoons olive oil

Salt & freshly ground pepper

Instructions: 

1. Wash the radicchio, and cut each head in half lengthwise, bisecting the core so the leaves stay attached. If the heads are large, cut again so you have quarters. Sprinkle each half or quarter liberally with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and let rest a few minutes.

2. Cook the radicchio over medium heat, turning and brushing with a little more oil every few minutes. When they're wilted and have lost their bright red color, they’re done. You can eat them straight off the grill, or dress them up with some balsamic vinegar and shaved parmesan or pecorino before serving.

The slightly smoky flavor that radicchio acquires over the grill makes for a great extra layer of flavor.

Notes: 
When people think of grilled vegetables, they don’t often think about grilling a leafy green. But Radicchio has the texture and body needed to stand up to the dry heat of a charcoal or stovetop grill, its pleasing bitterness nicely contrasting with the mild oil used to keep it from sticking and burning. Serves 6 as a side dish. By Terra Brockman, Photos by Cara Cummings