A head of Rosa di Campo Rosso radicchio can, as its name suggests, look convincingly like a rose, with silken red leaves. It might also — depending on its genetic mix — resemble a crimson-speckled yellow orchid or a shocking pink peony. But it is, definitively, a vegetable: a herbaceous perennial descended from the ordinary blue chicory flower found by roadsides in Europe and North America. While chicory is also cultivated in the form of Belgian endive (the blanched, milky yellow root first harvested in Brussels in the 19th century) and puntarelle (spiny stalks famously beloved by Romans), radicchio is by far its most dramatic incarnation. “And the prettiest radicchios are the hardest to grow,” says Jessi Okamoto, one of the co-owners of Campo Rosso, the specialty vegetable farm in Pennsylvania that developed the Rosa di Campo Rosso. As with a handful of other varieties, the Rosa is beautiful, in part, because it has been lied to: In the fall, young plants are transferred from the field into a heated greenhouse, tricking them into a second round of growth and an overdressed debut amid December’s brassicas and tubers.
The Rosa di Campo Rosso is part of a new wave of American-grown radicchios that have exceeded — and are partly responsible for reshaping — our expectations of a fall and winter vegetable. Traditionally, most varieties have been named for cities in Italy’s northeastern Veneto and Friuli regions, where the plant has been a culinary staple for centuries. (Venetians typically eat them grilled or roasted.) There is the sharp, diminutive Rosso di Verona; the sweeter, nutty Treviso Tardivo, whose dark violet plumes suggest a fingered citron; the mellow golden-chartreuse Variegato di Castelfranco, with outsize, freckled leaves that are unfolded, one by one, in a lukewarm bath by the most fastidious cultivators. Until recently, the U.S. market was limited to Italian imports and domestically bred burgundy Chioggia radicchio, known for its often mediocre contributions to supermarket bagged salads. But now, because of a wider movement to promote heirloom and specialty produce, stateside growers can easily access high-quality, certified organic seeds, and the vegetable’s many iterations have become sought-after seasonal fixtures of farmers’ markets and restaurant menus. Since its first chicory harvest, Campo Rosso has “never been able to keep up with the demand,” says Okamoto, 36, who started the farm with her husband, Chris Field, 35, in 2014. “It was the right place, right time, right crop.”
CreditCredit…Video by Kyoko Hamada. Set design by Leilin Lopez-Toledo
The winter salad at the Italian restaurant Jupiter, opened last year in New York’s Rockefeller Center by the chefs Jess Shadbolt, 40, and Clare de Boer, 34, and the beverage director Annie Shi, 33, celebrates this homegrown bounty. The dish functions as a chicory primer: It’s composed of alternately bitter and bittersweet bites of Treviso Tardivo, tender Castelfranco and crisp, blushing Rosa del Veneto, topped with shavings of salty Ubriaco cheese. “They’re the soldiers of the salad world,” says Shadbolt of radicchios, which she loves for the hardiness of their structure and taste — a buttress against the softness of ricotta and an equal match for the deep brine of anchovies. As an off-menu appetizer at Shadbolt and de Boer’s other restaurant, King, in New York’s Greenwich Village, the then-head chef Sade Zimmerman-Feeley served bottarga-dusted Treviso Tardivo, its tendrils resembling the petals of a giant pollen-stained lily.
Other chefs and food artists have played up radicchio’s blossomesque appearance even more, with trompe l’oeil arrangements that partly satisfy the transgressive, childlike impulse to consume an entire freshly picked flower. In late January, the international produce supplier Natoora promoted radicchio as a sustainable alternative to Valentine’s Day roses with a candlelit tablescape at the Sessions Arts Club in London decorated with cascading heads of dusty pastel Rosa del Veneto and Tardivo. And at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Tarrytown, N.Y., the boutonniere-like Grumolo Rosso — a petite, subtly astringent radicchio grown by Campo Rosso — is presented atop a long rose stem in a glass vase; dewy with olive oil, the imitation bloom can be eaten in two bites. The restaurant’s chef, Dan Barber, 54, prizes such heirloom varieties “because our great-grandparents thought they were delicious,” he says — but also because “they found them really beautiful.”
Indeed, though it can be labor-intensive to produce, once harvested, radicchio requires little more than a quick fluffing of its leaves to impress on a plate, appealing to our current desire for visually striking, photogenic dishes. Brian Campbell, 48, a farmer and co-founder of Uprising Seeds (with his partner, Crystine Goldberg) — a Washington-based company whose collaborative Gusto Italiano Project, launched in 2021, makes available in the United States the seeds for 20-plus varieties of regional Italian radicchio — says that he would still grow the romantically shaped Rosa di Gorizia radicchio even if it tasted of “liver and onions.” Typically sown in July, the plant reaches maturity six months later in an array of exuberant colors. “It’s a reminder of the beauty of summer,” says Campbell, “at the darkest, most introspective time of year.”
Set design by Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Digital tech: Sarah Gardner. Florist’s assistant: Tate Obayashi. Set designer’s assistant: Rachel Mannello