Radicchio rosso di Treviso tardivo. a daunting polysyllabic mouthful referring to one of winter’s finer offerings: a variety of radicchio cultivated late in the growing season, November to February, depending on the weather. Perfectly crisp, pleasingly bitter and slightly sweet but with a more delicate flavor than other members of the chicory family, this radicchio—nicknamed Trevisana in most of the vegetable stands here—is my absolute favorite.
I first encountered this candy-striped beauty of a vegetable one cold winter morning about 9 years ago at the Wednesday market in Via Calatafimi. A short, stout woman whom I recognized as a portinaia in the neighborhood was purchasing it before me. I was entranced by its loosely compacted head and the fanciful flounce of the leaves. The vendor mentioned under his breath to her that the Japanese were snapping it up for import at an astronomically high price. “It’s a delicacy for them,” he said. Before the woman turned to leave, I asked her what she did with it, and she answered precisely, giving me one of my earliest and most valuable on-the-street cooking lessons.
“You sauté some onion in un filo d’olio*. I prefer cipolla tropea to the regular type; the flavor is more subtle. When the onion is transparent and sweet, you add your chopped trevisana and sauté until it begins to soften and the moisture is cooked off. Then you add the rice and stir over the heat [until the edges of the rice become transparent]. A splash of white wine, and when that cooks off, you begin to add—one ladle at a time—hot broth stirring constantly until the rice is almost ready. It’s best if you mantecare* with…oh what is the name of that cheese?…” (Here she turned to the vendor and they began a discussion about the best cheese for finishing the risotto.) “…Yes, castelmagno. That’s it.”
NOTES: I have made this recipe countless times since then. She’s right that the tropea onion is superior (these are red-tinged oblong onions with a sweet delicate flavor not unlike a Vidalia), but when I can’t find them I substitute regular red ones. And as I can’t always conveniently lay my hands on castelmagno, I also make this risotto with taleggio, but you would have success using simply a good-quality parmigiano or grana padano added in with a knob of butter at the right moment. Once in the dish, finishing off with freshly grated parmigiano and on-the-spot ground pepper is also a good idea in my book.
There are many dishes that highlight this beauty. Filled fresh pastas. Dried pastas. It’s lovely raw, chopped with shavings of parmigiano and a simple dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Braised, it makes a delicious bed under monk fish. It’s perfect, grilled alongside other vegetables with or without smoked scamorza And it marries well with stinky, delicious cheeses such as the aforementioned taleggio or the well-known gorgonzola. I am imagining some variation on bruschetta as I write this. In any case, it inspires one to create and to re-make, again and again, the tried and true.
*I’ve given two expressions an asterisk here, because they are used all the time in Italian. The first—un filo d’olio or “a thread of oil”—is used constantly to refer to that exact amount of olive oil that you would put in the bottom of the pan to begin a sauté. It implies a light hand. The second—mantecare—refers to the finishing process when making a risotto or a pasta that leaves the dish with a slightly reduced and decidedly creamier, silkier base. To say simply “finish” or “reduce” isn’t sufficient. I once saw Gordon Ramsay destroy a risotto with a half-cup of butter and heavy cream, in a gross bastardization—or at the very least misunderstanding— of what it means to mantecare. All you’re doing here is exalting the flavor, and perfecting the creamy texture that is already born from the natural starchiness of the rice if cooked properly.