Passion for Radicchio



By Mat Schaffer
Wednesday, April 21, 2004

TREVISO, Italy – “This is not chicory, this is a work of art,” exclaimed Celso Paganini, brandishing a crimson-and-white head of radicchio like a scepter. Radicchio is grown all over Northern Italy, but what Paganini holds isn’t just any radicchio. It is radicchio rosso tardivo di Treviso, “late red” radicchio cultivated in the Veneto region’s Treviso province. It’s a vegetable whose unique characteristics are certified by its PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) designation granted by the European Union.

Paganini, who imports radicchio rosso di Treviso to the United States, is passionate about the product. One recent afternoon, he met with members of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, an organization of Italian-American restaurateurs and chefs committed to promoting authentic Italian cuisine in America, on a radicchio farm in Treviso.

`You can only grow this product here in this area,” Paganini explained, gesturing around him. “It is the rich soil and the hot summers and the cold winters and the water of the Sile River and how the land (lies) between the mountains and the Mediterranean. There is a uniqueness to this region of the world that is really, really wonderful.”

There are three major varieties of radicchio cultivated in Treviso. Radicchio rosso precoce – early red – is the vividly colored, maroon and white lettuce-like vegetable familiar to American diners. It’s harvested here from September to November.

But centuries ago, the peasants in Treviso who ate radicchio ingeniously developed a method to continue growing the plant after the first frost. The process allowed them to eat fresh vegetables throughout the winter – and resulted in two new styles of radicchio with more personality and taste than the original, thanks to the sugars produced by freezing.

The first is “late red” – radicchio rosso tardivo. “These are actually the shoots from the early red,” Paganini said. “The plant freezes and then you put it into water, from 18 to 27 days, and the plant shoots out in a second burst of growth. The dead leaves are cut away by hand and you have a product that is really special. It’s available from December through April.

Then there’s radicchio variegato Castelfranco, from the town of Castelfranco, available from November to April. Like the late red, it’s frozen and reborn in water, but growers keep it wrapped so the inside turns yellow. “. . .When you open it, it has beautiful colors,” Paganini explained.

Rosso tardivo is a tight bundle of long crimson-and-white leaves that resemble a kitchen whisk. It’s thicker and crisper than rosso precoce, with more pronounced bitterness and a distinctive sweet aftertaste. Variegato Castelfranco looks like a giant flower blossom, dappled with vibrant blotches of red. The leaves are tender, yet crunchy, and have a delicate sweet-bitter flavor. Both are delicious.

“There are 10 thousand ways to cook radicchio,” said Paganini. That’s no understatement.

In Treviso, they not only use radicchio in salads, but they grill it, bake it, fry it, saute and stew it. There’s radicchio risotto and radicchio alla Parmigiana. There’s marinated and pickled radicchio. They make pasta out of radicchio and dry it and reconstitute it with water. They even bake it into crackers and biscuits. As a garnish, it’s omnipresent – from appetizers through desserts.

“I once gave some radicchio to a friend of mine, an Italian chef, as a present and he brought me back marmalade,” Paganini laughed.

The tardivo and Castelfranco varieties are not yet available in Boston, but Paganini is in negotiations to distribute both to the Hub.

“If you call this only chicory or endive or whatever, you are not doing any justice to this wonderful product,” he insisted. “This is not just a vegetable, it is more like a flower of the winter. It is more like a great piece of art.”