There’s more to radicchio than the misnomer “bitter round cabbage.” The experience of this unique chicory is challenging to encapsulate in words because its flavor notes are so complex and depend heavily on the variety, seasonality, and culinary preparation.
If you’re an adventurous gardener or chef, I highly recommend sowing a few different radicchio varieties in your spring, winter, or fall garden so you can taste the unexpected delicious diversity of this old-time Italian classic.
‘Rossa di Chioggia’
The ‘Rossa di Chioggia’ variety has red leaves and is popular in cooked dishes.
This is the most mainstream category of radicchio you usually see in grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Chioggia radicchio is often mistaken at the check stand as a miniature red cabbage because it is wine-red, spherical, and dense. Of course, Chioggia is completely unrelated to cabbage and has an entirely different flavor and texture.
It is mistakenly called just “radicchio,” but only one variety comes from the coastal town of Chioggia in northern Italy. You may also recognize ‘Chioggia’ as the name of a red-and-white candy-cane striped beet variety.
Rossa di Chioggia was released in the 1930s-50s and became the poster child for radicchio worldwide. The dense redheads have thick white midribs, crunchy texture, and vibrant burgundy leaves that stand out amongst fall and winter gardens. It has a very assertive bitterness when raw, which has made it more popular as a cooking type. It shines when slightly wilted with fat like nuts or cheese and a sweet accent like pears or figs.
This is probably the most forgiving radicchio and a great starting point for beginners. It takes 50-60 days to mature into a dense, rounded head. In temperate climates, it is typically seeded around the summer solstice to mature during the cool months of early fall. However, the farther south your growing zone, the later you should plant. Radicchio does not like hot weather above 65°F. It also works great as a spring crop sown as early as the soil can be worked.
Remember, radicchio classification is a bit complicated. Radicchio di Chioggia is a type of radicchio with several seed cultivars in its category, including the next selection on our list.
‘Palla Rossa Mavrik’
‘Mavrik’ has a mild flavor and distinctive appearance.
‘Mavrik’ is a Chioggia-type radicchio that forms the iconic rounded burgundy heads with bright white ribs. This seed variety has a milder flavor with only slight bitterness, making it more adaptable to the American palate. At 80-95 days to maturity, ‘Mavrik’ takes longer to grow than other Chioggias but rewards the gardener with perfectly round compact central heads in late fall or early winter. It overwinters well in zones 4 through 8.
Seed ‘Mavrik’ in cell trays 8 to 10 weeks before your average fall frost and transplant once the seedlings reach four weeks old. The little seeds should be sown no deeper than ¼” and covered lightly with soil. They take about 5 to 15 days to emerge and prefer soil temperatures around 60-75°F.
When plants have filled their cell trays and grown several sets of true leaves, you can harden them off and transplant them into your fall garden. Space seedlings every 8-10” in rows 18” apart. You can harvest outer leaves individually at any growth stage or wait until the inner heads have firmed. Harvest radicchio in the morning and immediately dunk in cold water for the best storage.
‘Rosso di Treviso’
‘Rosso di Treviso’ is an Italian heirloom with football-shaped heads perfect for raw or braised dishes.
Participate in an iconic Italian tradition by growing this milder variety of radicchio that won’t blast you with bitter notes. ‘Rosso di Treviso’ is an upright Italian heirloom shaped like a Belgian endive. The football-shaped heads have burgundy and white leaves similar to Chioggia types. Treviso’s notable mildness makes it unique, perfect for raw eating or braising. Some chefs take it further by soaking the leaves in ice water to make them more palatable.
Treviso resembles a mini romaine lettuce at first. The leaves grow upright and fold inward to form a tight, elongated head. They turn from green to variegated red and then deep burgundy. Colder nights enhance the color.
‘Rosso di Treviso’ is best suited to fall growing and tolerate frosts as low as 20°F. They can mature fairly quickly, in around 65-70 days. Seed it in cell trays in late summer and harvest throughout the fall or winter. The outer leaves are notably more bitter, while the tender inner cores are delectably smooth and mild.
‘Variegato di Lusia’
‘Variegato di Lusia’ is a captivating heirloom radicchio with cream-colored leaves speckled in crimson-purple.
Another heirloom, this dazzling radicchio will capture your attention in the garden and on the dinner table. ‘Variegato di Lusia’ has striking cream-colored leaves speckled with crimson-purple variegations. The delicately overlapping leaves fold over rounded packed heads, becoming paler and sweeter near the center.
This early maturing variety is great for summer or fall harvest. It is less bitter than Chioggia or Treviso and almost akin to lettuce’s flavor with a more crisp crunch. The buttery yellow leaves flaked with red are enough to draw people in and hook bitter-skeptics on the unique flavor of radicchio. Grilled wedges of ‘Variegato di Lusia’ are delectable when sprinkled with goat cheese and drizzled with balsamic. For a nice textural accent, you can also shred it raw into coleslaw or carrot salad.
Closely related cultivars of ‘Variegato di Lusia’ include ‘Bel Fiore,’ ‘Sorgente,’ and ‘Delta.’ They mature for 60 to 90 days and perform well in early spring. This fancy chicory requires no more than loamy, well-drained soil, consistent moisture, and properly timed seeding. I prefer to get these babies in the ground as early as the soil can be worked. Transplanting is usually more successful than direct sowing.
‘Voglia’ is a vibrant, rose-like radicchio with a subtle bitterness, but it requires effort to grow.
If you are a plant lover who enjoys a challenge, ‘Voglia’ is arguably the most vibrant, unique, and addicting variety of radicchio to grow! Its deep red flowery leaves resemble delicate petals with a flowy, elegant look, almost like a rose. The thick leaves and refreshing but subtle bitterness taste mouthwateringly delicious with parmesan cheese and nuts.
But, like the most striking roses or delicate orchids, its breathtaking appearance requires some effort to enjoy. Growing ‘Voglia’ is not for the faint of heart, but it is an exciting and worthwhile endeavor for the savvy gardener seeking to master the Italian art of radicchio delicacies.
The plant is extremely cold-hardy and robust. Sow the seeds in late summer, keep plants well-watered through fall, and dig them up about four months later to bring them inside for forcing.
Forcing is an unusual growing technique that involves placing dug-up radicchio plants in shallow indoor bins in complete darkness for a couple of weeks while they sprout new leaves. “Forced” radicchio varieties are chefs’ most prized high-end varieties because their secondary growth is so special and delicious. This is where the magic of ‘Voglia’s rose-petal leaves unfurl.
As the plant roots sit in water indoors, you trick them into thinking it’s spring. They send up new growth from the taproot that is extra tender, sweet, and complex in flavor. Forced ‘Voglia’ is considered the pinnacle of radicchio flavor, but it requires more research and planning than most garden crops.
Rosa del Veneto ‘Rosato’
‘Rosato’ radicchio features stunning salmon-pink leaves and needs cold to develop its rose-like color.
These pastel pink balls of radicchio are so pretty it is hard to imagine eating them. Their stunning salmon-pink leaves are unlike any other salad vegetable you’ve tried. Despite their delicate appearance, they are extra cold-hardy and handle harsh winters like champs. In fact, they need the cold of November, December, and January to develop their iconic pink color.
If your Rosa Del Veneto radicchio cultivar is still green in late fall, don’t worry! The pinkness will appear while you are cozied up by the fire indoors. When it is time for the midwinter harvest, the buttery-crisp leaves will have a pleasantly comforting bitter flavor sweetened by frost and perfect for raw eating.
A few different seed varieties of Rosa Del Veneto are available in the U.S., but ‘Rosato’ is the most common thanks to the Gusto Italiano Project. Seed ‘Rosato’ around the summer solstice, transplant in early fall, and have plenty of patience.
The heads take up to 4 months to mature. They are best spaced 8-12” apart in rows 12” apart. The plants must receive consistent moisture, especially during the two weeks before harvest, as a lack of water can cause the leaves to become extremely bitter.
‘Variegato di Castelfranco’
This elegant radicchio is known as the “Tulip of Winter,” with a mild bittersweet flavor.
‘Castelfranco’ is another rare Italian heirloom with buttery greenish-yellow leaves speckled in purple or red. It looks similar to Variegato di Lusia, except their heads are more open, like a tulip or lettuce head.
This refined, elegant variety is often called the “Tulip of Winter” because it is so pretty and rosette-shaped. An old legend says a noble princess from Castelfranco Veneto, Italy, once attended a winter gala in Milan with a head of Castelfranco radicchio adorned to her gown. If it’s pretty enough to wear on a dress, surely it deserves a spot in your garden!
The pale green heads develop bright splashes of red as the weather gets cooler in fall and early winter. The flavor of this radicchio variety is notably mild and bittersweet. It is grown just like the other varieties mentioned here, well-adapted to late summer or early fall sowing and fall or winter harvests.
Alternatively, you can seed indoors in very early spring (5 to 8 weeks before transplanting) and plant outside as soon as you can work the soil. This crop loves the cold and does not do well in hot weather.
This is a radicchio cousin with smooth leaves, mild bitterness, and sweetness, which can grow from spring through fall.
If you want a more season-round radicchio variety, Sugarloaf chicory ( called groenlof in Dutch) is a very close cousin to radicchio with smooth leaves and distinct mild bitterness coupled with sweetness, hence its name. ‘Virtus’ can grow from spring through fall and holds in the field well. It handles more heat than other varieties and grows a striking 10” tall.
The light-green dense heads resemble slender, tall romaine, but the blanched, crisp interior and lightly bittersweet notes make it far more desirable than lettuce. ‘Virtus’ takes about 70 days to mature and has some bolt resistance. It performs best in mild zones, with late summer sowing about eight weeks before the first fall frost.
The succulent, tender leaves will surely take over the autumn vegetable show and make perfect alternatives to late-season salads after your lettuces have dwindled. I love Sugarloaf sliced thinly with carrots, olive oil, and vinegar.
Rosso di Verona ‘Costarossa’
This egg-shaped radicchio, known for its small size and deep crimson-red leaves, is among the most bitter radicchios.
Our list is perfectly rounded off with the egg-shaped Rosso di Verona type. These mini heads only reach the size of a man’s fist and have garnered a reputation as the cutest of all radicchio varieties. This distinct cultivar likely emerged in the late 18th century near Verona. The deep crimson-red leaves are a vibrant treat in the fall garden. They have a cup-shaped and slightly triangular point perfect for filling with meats, veggies, or spreads. I love serving Rosso di Verona on a cheese platter as a little cup of cheesy goodness.
Rosso di Verona would be considered one of the most bitter radicchios on the bitter spectrum. This is why they are such a great compliment to sweet or creamy fillings! However, they get sweeter in the cold weather of late fall and early winter.
‘Costarossa’ is the most well-known and adapted variety of Rosso di Verona available in the U.S. These cute radicchios may seem like they’d grow more quickly, but they take up to 120 days to mature from transplant. Basically, you plant, water, and forget about them until mid-winter when you’re craving something bright and fresh.
Tips to Grow Great Radicchio
Proper spacing, consistent moisture, and seeding in cool weather are essential for successful cultivation.
No matter what variety you choose, radicchio needs to be treated as a distinct crop. It is not a lettuce or brassica; the chicory family has a mind of its own!
Fortunately, experimenting with radicchio is fairly straightforward. The worst thing that can happen is the plants bolt, and you have pretty, cornflower-blue chicory flowers in the garden. That wouldn’t be so bad! But if you want to prevent bolting, follow these quick tips:
The most important thing to remember about radicchio is that it despises hot weather. This is not a Southern summer crop! Always grow in the cool weather of spring and fall. You’ll be surprised by how hardy these plants can be. Some farmers even harvest them from beneath layers of snow! Traditionally, radicchios are seeded indoors around the summer solstice and transplanted about four weeks later.
Most cultivars should be spaced 8 to 12” apart in full sunlight. Like overcrowded cabbage, radicchios planted too close together will struggle to form a central head. The roots are fairly shallow, so tight spacing can cause unnecessary water competition.
Radicchio will not tolerate drought and needs a nice loamy, moist soil. These plants enjoy growing in full sun but benefit from a layer of mulch to prevent the soil from drying out. Big fluctuations in moisture can lead to ultra-bitter leaves that aren’t desirable. Mixing in a generous amount of compost is best to improve moisture retention and drainage.
With all its nuances and Italian terms, the world of radicchios can initially seem intimidating. Rest assured, once you grow these chicory crops in your garden, they are easy to handle. The key to success is the proper planting window and consistently moist (but never soggy) soil. Whether you have Italian heritage or love European food, this bitter delicacy will dazzle your tastebuds and make for a fun break from lettuce.