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Chicory Varieties for Italian Kitchen Gardens: Grow and Cook

Chicory Varieties for Italian Kitchen Gardens: Grow and Cook

If you love Italian cooking and are experimenting with growing your own Italian herbs and vegetables, you will want to try some chicory in your Italian kitchen garden.

This guide on growing chicory will help you decide between the best Italian chicory varieties and give you tips on growing, cooking and storing this delicious leafy green.

Flowering chicory plants.
Flowering chicory plants

Jump to: Different Types of Chicory | How to Grow | Italian Recipe Ideas

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The Importance of Chicory to Italian Cooking

La Cucina Italiana, one of the largest Italian-language websites centered around Italian cooking, describes chicory as “light, spontaneous, accessible, and somewhat vintage”. This sums up the Italians’ views towards this leafy green pretty well!

Although chicory may not be the first thing you think of when considering Italian food (that would be these Italian tomatoes for most), some types of chicory have been cultivated in Italy since at least the start of our calendar system. It became a culinary staple around the 17th century.

Chicory is a leafy green that has been referred to as a “peasant food”: easy to grow, as well as native to Italy (and much of the rest of Europe, plus North Africa). Today, it is still mostly grown in the countryside, particularly in the central regions.

French potager garden.
Italian kitchen garden.

Chicory is also significant for its use as a coffee substitute: the roots can be roasted and ground to make a vaguely similar drink.

Using chicory as a coffee substitute was particularly common when coffee was in short supply, such as during WWII.

When I am longing for the taste of coffee, but don’t want the caffeine I turn to a tea called herbal Moka Java, which is made with chicory, dandelion root, cacao nibs, honeybush and cloves. I even drink this right before bed without any sleep issues.

herbal moka java looseleaf tea on a white background.
herbal moka java tea

11 Types of Chicory for the Italian Kitchen Garden


The most famous of the Italian chicories is radicchio (aka red chicory). Radicchio is a cool-weather crop and it is known for its dark red to purple color, which it develops thanks to the fall and winter cold.

Radicchio has a bitter, spicy flavor. It’s often paired with sweeter lettuce and acidic dressings to make a salad with balanced flavors. When cooked, radicchio mellows and gains some sweetness while still retaining a little bitterness.

Radicchio is a perennial, but is commonly grown as an annual. Although is has loose-leaved heads early in the season; the heads become tighter (and redder) later in the season as the weather cools.

Fresh heads of Italian radicchio.
Heads of Italian radicchio.

You’ll notice me mentioning tardivo a few times. This refers to “late” radicchio, which has a more pronounced flavor than early radicchio (precoce) and is described as ready for harvest after two frosts.

Here are a few of the more popular varieties of radicchio to try in your garden:

  • Radicchio di Chioggia: the city of Chioggia is home to many of Italy’s best heirloom vegetables. This is the most well-known radicchio overall, recognized by its round head (like a lettuce).
  • Radicchio di Traviso: comes in precoce and tardivo versions. Longer heads than Chioggia.
  • Radicchio ‘Variegato di Castelfranco’: yes, variegated radicchio exists! This one has round heads with cream-colored leaves and is dotted with spots of pink.
  • Radicchio ‘Variegato di Lusia’: another variegated radicchio, Lusia sports a greener base color on its leaves than Castelfranco.

Catalogna Chicory

Another notable kind of Italian chicory is called Catalogna, although it’s also known as Italian dandelion for its jagged leaves (plus the fact that both dandelions and chicory form part of the Aster family Asteraceae).

Catalogna chicory is used in many traditional Italian dishes, particularly sautées and salads. It’s quite cold-hardy: in Mediterranean-like climates, you may be able to keep sowing until October. Salad-lovers especially like the tender young shoots, called puntarelle.

Catalogna Chicory leaves.
Catalogna Chicory leaves.

Favorites include:

  • ‘Catalogna Frastagliata’: perfect for winter salads. Dress it with olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, and mashed anchovies.
  • ‘Catalogna Puntarelle a Foglie Stretta’: the name means “narrow-leaf puntarelle“, a reference to the long and less jagged leaves.
  • ‘Catalogna Gigante di Chioggia’: Chioggia strikes again. This chicory has large leaves (hence “gigante”) and is not very bitter.
  • ‘Catalogna Puntarelle di Galatina’: long and rather bitter leaves, perfect for winter stews.

Lettuce Look-Alike Varieties of Chicory

  • ‘Pan di Zucchero’: also known as radicchio di Milano, or sugarloaf in English. It’s green in color and really not as sweet as its name suggests, leaning more towards bitter.
  • ‘Zuccherina di Trieste’: here’s one that is actually sweeter in flavor. It may look like lettuce, but it really is chicory! The tender leaves are perfect for salads.
  • ‘Grumolo Verde’: another lettuce impersonator, this green chicory is hardy and grows pretty much anywhere, anytime. Keep in mind that it is quite bitter.
Green chicory plant growing in soil in the garden.
Grumolo chicory plant

How To Grow Chicory

Growing your own (Italian) chicory is not difficult, and some varieties thrive almost year-round in mild climates.

Sow Indoors or Outdoors?

Chicory can be direct seeded outdoors in early spring. Optimal soil temperatures for germination are 65-70°F. Sow seeds ¼” deep in rows 20″ apart.

For starting chicory indoors, you can start seeds five to six weeks before the last expected frost date in your area.

If the plants have been indoors for very long you may have to harden off the seedlings before transplanting them outside.

Chicory likes cool weather, so opt for a location where your chicory is protected from the hottest afternoon sun to prevent bolting.

When to Harvest

It’s important not to leave chicory too long, especially if it’s hot because the plants will bolt and the chicory will become quite bitter.

garden produce growing under shade cloth.
Garden plants under shade cloth to prevent bolting.

Head-forming types like radicchio take the longest time to develop, around 80-90 days. You can harvest these when they’re softball-sized or slightly larger.

Leafy chicory types can be harvested when the foliage reaches about 6″ in length. If you’re not sure, just try a leaf! If you like the flavor, then you can feel free to harvest. If it’s overly bitter, try a little earlier next time.

When to Replant (Succession Growing)

If growing outdoors, space out plantings of the same variety every two to four weeks. The flavor of chicory diminishes after producing its initial crop, setting a heavy yield initially, then smaller and smaller yields throughout the summer.

When you harvest, take the outer leaves first and let the young, inner leaves keep growing. Cut or pull head lettuce before the heading plants get too old and big and sow more seeds every few days or weeks.

Replanting every couple of weeks will give you a continuous supply of leaves until it’s too hot or cold to keep planting.


The main issue folks tend to run into with chicory is bolting in hot weather. Keep an eye on your plants and be sure to harvest before it happens! Consider taking a break in your succession planting schedule during the height of summer.

Bolting in greens isn’t always a bad thing. The blooms can attract pollinators such as bees. and other bugs that prey on garden pests.

Flowering chicory plants.
Flowering/bolted chicory plants.

Don’t overcrowd plants, as they’ll become susceptible to mildew and pests can travel between them more easily if they’re too close together.

Keep the soil lightly moist, but prevent waterlogging, as this will cause rot.

Storing and Freezing Chicory

When it comes to storage, we can roughly divide Italian chicory into two different categories. Varieties like radicchio, most of which form tight, round heads, remain in good condition in the fridge for up to three weeks.

Other types of chicory, like Grumolo Verde and the other “lettuce lookalikes”, will unfortunately wilt more quickly. You can expect these to last up to a week in the fridge after harvest. Keep chicory in the dark to prevent it from growing bitter.

Whatever chicory variety you’ve got on your hands, you should place it in a perforated plastic bag or damp kitchen paper for the best results. Pop it in the crisper drawer and keep it away from fruit and veg that produce a lot of ethylene, like apples and tomatoes.

As for freezing chicory, this is a good way to make it last for months, particularly the sturdy types like radicchio. Although unfortunately you won’t be able to use it in salads anymore, you can still make soups, stews, and stir-fries!

To freeze chicory, slice it first. Quickly dunk it in boiling water (blanching), pat it dry, and freeze it on a baking tray. Once the chicory is frozen, you can bag it for future Italian cooking endeavors.

Italian Recipes Using Chicory#recipes

As I’ve mentioned, chicory features quite prominently in the Italian kitchen, particularly in the countryside. There are a good few iconic Italian “peasant” dishes out there that really highlight this “somewhat vintage” leafy green, as well as plenty of modern inventions.

Put your chicory harvest to good use with recipes like:

  • Fave e cicoria (beans and chicory): from Puglia, this simple dish consists of fava bean purée and boiled chicory, flavored with garlic and olive oil.
  • Pesto di cicoria (chicory pesto): usually with almonds and Parmesan cheese.
  • Cicoria ripassata (blanched and sautéed chicory): a side dish that mixes chicory with garlic, olive oil, and chile pepper.
Beans and chicory (radicchio).
Beans and chicory (radicchio).

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