It’s easy to understand why Italians are proud enough of things like parmigiano-reggiano that they would have laws protecting the genuine article and legal ramifications for those producing fakes. But to offer the same kind of legal protection to a head of lettuce seems a bit silly, right? Not if you’re talking about the famous Radicchio di Treviso, it’s not.
Most of us are familiar with radicchio in some form or another. It may be that bitter purple-and-white-colored leaf you may push to the side of your salad plate, or – if you’re lucky – someone has taken the time to prepare a warm salad with grilled radicchio leaves so that the bitterness is more muted. Even if you’ve eaten radicchio, however, chances are good you’re unaware of what’s required to produce the most sought-after Italian varieties.Radicchio is an ancient vegetable – it’s mentioned by Pliny the Elder as a remedy for insomnia in 79AD – although cultivation of what we know now as radicchio didn’t begin until the 15th century in the northeastern regions on Italy. The Veneto region in particular remains famous for one type of radicchio – radicchio di Treviso – that’s so prized it was granted IGP (protected geographical indication) status by the European Union. This means that in order for radicchio to be called “radicchio di Treviso” it must be produced at least in part in the Treviso area. There’s even a Consorzio Radicchio di Treviso governing the production.
The farmers in Treviso who grow radicchio aren’t phoning it in just to get the IGP label, either. They’re meticulous with the cultivation, which is a multi-step process.
Unlike many leafy greens, radicchio di Treviso isn’t ready for consumption when it’s picked. After harvesting, the radicchio is trimmed just a little and propped upright in tightly-packed rows so that the roots are submerged in cold, constantly-moving water. All of this is happening in darkened sheds so that the radicchio isn’t getting any sun. This concentrates both the color and flavor of the leaves, making them more red and more bitter. After a few days in this cool, dark bath, the radicchio is trimmed again (though a bit of root is left on) and they’re ready for sale.
Radicchio di Treviso that comes at the beginning of the growing season is called precoce, and although it’s a bit prettier to look at it doesn’t have the pronounced (and favored) bitter flavor of the one that comes later in the season, called tardivo. You’re likely to see radicchio in the markets in Italy starting in the late fall and then throughout the winter. In the U.S., the most common variety of radicchio is called radicchio di Chioggia, which has a similar purple-red color but is round like a head of lettuce or cabbage.
If you like radicchio in the U.S., don’t miss an opportunity to try it in Italy – especially if you find yourself in the Veneto in the winter.
>> Check out Gabriele’s recipe for sausage and radicchio orecchiette.
Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
Treviso may not be a household name when it comes to cities in Italy, but a nearby neighbor is – Venice lies only 30-40 minutes by train from Venice, so although there’s a small airport in Treviso you can also fly into Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport instead. That’s a good thing, because even though a few budget airlines like Ryanair use Treviso as their Veneto hub, you’ll have more options with cheap flights to Venice. Venice is a year-round tourist destination, but late fall and winter fares are often significantly cheaper, so if you’re taking advantage of low season airfare then the perk of getting radicchio di Treviso in season will be waiting for you.
The city of Treviso is home to a few churches and palazzi worth visiting, but you may prefer to stay in Venice and visit Treviso as a day trip – you can easily get Treviso’s famous radicchio at the markets in Venice, so you needn’t go to Treviso just for that. One benefit to staying in Treviso (aside from the fact that it’s significantly less touristy) is the lower cost. You’ll undoubtedly find much cheaper hotel rooms in Treviso, even during Venice’s low season – cheap hotels in Venice are something of a rarity.
As mentioned, Treviso is roughly 30-40 minutes from Venice by train, and trains run between the cities a couple times every hour. Even a first-class ticket on the faster trains is less than $10 one-way, and since there’s no reason to go first-class on such a short trip you can get a one-way ticket for $5 in second-class.
One thing to note is that while most of winter is considered low season in Italy, the period around the Christmas and New Year holidays as well as Carnevale in Venice make prices spike to high season levels. Be aware of the timing of the holidays and festivals so you don’t end up with an unpleasantly costly airline ticket or hotel room.