Bitter Is Better: A Puntarelle Primer

plate of puntarelle Maybe you were expecting a box of chocolates or a dozen roses. Don’t worry. I have something better.

Something bitter. Because bitter is better. I’m talking about puntarelle (cicoria catalogna), a member of the big, beautiful, bitter family of chicories that also includes endive, escarole and all those lovely varieties of radicchio, such as Castelfranco, Verona, Treviso and Tardivo. We Italians love our chicories, many of which have been cultivated in the Veneto region since the 15th century. You could say we have a taste for the bitter.

puntarelle Puntarelle, named for the core of fat, pointy-tipped stems hidden within spiky outer leaves, thrive a little farther south. They are cultivated in the countryside around Rome, and right now they are everywhere ~ that is if you happen to be in Rome, which I am not (not that I’m bitter). The Romans revere puntarelle and serve them as a salad, aptly called puntarelle alla romana, dressed with a simple anchovy vinaigrette. A puntarelle salad brightens the stodgiest stew; it adds star power to a plain roast chicken. It will roust you from the deepest winter doldrums.

puntarelle core What’s not so simple is a) finding puntarelle, and b) prepping them. They’re not yet available in most supermarkets, or even at most farmers’ markets. But I keep hearing more and more about them, and as our interest in this, and other more obscure vegetables ~ hello cardoons! ~ grows I’m hoping availability will follow.

I found these through a California company called Royal Rose. Or, I should say, they found me. They emailed asking for permission to post my recipe for Chicory Salad with Anchovy Dressing from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy on their Facebook page. When I said yes (of course!), they graciously offered to send along some samples. Royal Rose, which also cultivates several types several types of radicchio, sells mainly to chefs and retailers. But they’re getting a growing number of requests from individuals, so they’ve created this card, which allows you to request their products from your grocer. It’s a step.

Also, if you happen to be a gardener, Seeds from Italy has several different varieties of puntarelle. They also sell seeds for dozens of other chicories with fabulous names like Pan di Zucchero (sugar loaf) and Cuor d’Oro (gold heart), and more than a dozen types of radicchio.

Now for the prepping, which takes a little time and some elbow grease, but isn’t difficult and is certainly worth the bit of effort required. Produce vendors in Rome use this clever wire grid gadget to make quick work of it. But we just have our knife and cutting board so that’s what we’re going to use.

puntarelle A First, remove the skinny outer leaves (top image), which you won’t need for the salad ~ you can sauté those with garlic in olive oil or save them for soup. Pull or cut apart the fat, hollow stems at the core of the head (shown in the second photo). These are white on the bottom, with pale green asparagus-like tips.

puntarelle C Now cut off the tough bottom part of the stem.

puntarelle B Slice those stems in half lengthwise, and then slice each half into long, thin strips. They don’t have to be perfect.

puntarelle E Here’s another shot of the sliced stems.

puntarelle ice bath Fill a large bowl with ice water and plunge your sliced puntarelle stems into it. Let them soak for a good hour. After about 30 minutes, you’ll see them begin to curl.

puntarelle colander When they’re done soaking, drain them in a colander; then pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. At this point you can either dress them with your anchovy vinaigrette or put them in a bag and store them in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

puntarelle dressing

By the way, don’t wring your hands if you can’t find puntarelle. You can make this salad with other types of chicory, including frisée, radicchio, or leaves of Belgian endive, which you can slice into long strips (a tip I learned from Marcella Hazan). Whichever greens (or reds) you use, be sure to soak them in ice water, which will give them extra crunch and curl.

You can read more (in Italian) on the cultivation of puntarelle here.

* * * * *

Looking for a Valentine’s Day gift? Why not give the soup lover in your life my online class on authentic, heartwarming Italian soups? Details and a $10 discount here.

* * * * *

And now for something sweet. There are lots of Valentine’s Day treats floating around the web. Here are a few that set my heart beating faster.

* French Pudding au Chocolat from Jamie at Life’s a Feast

* Tortino al Cioccolato from Carolina at Semplicemente Pepe Rosa

* Salted Chocolate Ganache and Jam Bars from Laura at Tutti Dolci

* Dark Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Rose Cream from Maureen Abood at Rosewater and Orange Blossoms

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Puntarelle alla Romana

This appealingly bitter and crunchy winter salad is made from a particular variety of chicory that grows in the countryside around Rome. If you can't find puntarelle, substitute curly endive (frisee), Belgian endive or radicchio.

Ingredients

  • 2 (1 lb) heads puntarelle or other chicory
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • Pinch of coarse sea salt
  • 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets (see Note)
  • 2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons really good extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Clean, trim and cut the puntarelle according to the instructions in this post. If using radicchio or a different chicory, tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Soak the puntarelle in a bowl of ice water for at least 1 hour, until they curl. Drain and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Place the puntarelle in a salad bowl.

Mash together the garlic and sea salt ~ I use a small marble mortar and pestle. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle you can do this on a cutting board using the flat side of a chef's knife.)

Add the anchovy fillets and pound until coarsely mashed. (If you're doing this on the cutting board, transfer the garlic-anchovy paste to a small bowl.) Stir in the vinegar and mix well. Dribble in the oil and stir until well combined.

Drizzle the dressing over the puntarelle and season with a generous grinding of black pepper. Toss to combine, and serve.

NOTE This recipe depends on the integrity of its ingredients. Be sure to use a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and good anchovies. My favorite anchovies (as you may already know) are Rizzoli alici in salsa piccante.

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44 Responses to Bitter Is Better: A Puntarelle Primer

  1. Frank Fariello February 10, 2014 at 9:04 am #

    I *lurve* puntarelle! Alas, the last time I had them was when we were living in Rome. I’ve never seen them in these parts, have you? I’m definitely going to sign that card.

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

      Frank, I have not seen them around here. I’m thinking about hitting up some of the farmers at the local markets to see if I can persuade them to grow puntarelle for next year.

    • Janice Faulstich December 19, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

      Lunardi’s Market in San Jose CA has had puntarelle for the past few weeks.
      There is a vendor at both the annual San Francisco and Seattle Flower shows in March that sells Franchi seeds, which offers seeds for many unusual vegetables including puntarelle. They are importd from Italy. I bought the seeds and plated them outdoors in early October here n Northern California. It has come up but not much is happening yet-a few leaves is it so far.

      • Domenica Marchetti December 19, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

        Lucky you, Janice. It’s still hard to find chicories beyond radicchio di Chioggia and escarole around here. I’m a big fan of Franchi seeds. You can buy them online at Seeds From Italy (growitalian.com). Such a wonderful array of vegetables. Hope your garden does well. Cheers and thanks for writing.

    • Maria Rial December 31, 2014 at 2:05 am #

      You can find them in the Bronx, Arthur Avenue Market. Right Now Dec. 31. 2014

      • Domenica Marchetti December 31, 2014 at 10:15 am #

        Maria, thank you for writing. One of these days I will make it to Arthur Avenue. Can you believe I’ve never been? Or if I have it was many years ago as a child. I’m afraid puntarelle are still hard to find here in Virginia and around D.C. We don’t have a big Italian population, alas!

  2. Rosa Mayland February 10, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    I love bitter vegetables. This salad must taste really good.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

      Thanks Rosa. I especially like them in winter because they are such a welcome contrast to all the rich foods.

  3. paninigirl February 10, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    I am lucky to have a Sicilian man at my farmers’ market who grows puntarelle. I’ve been checking every week and so far it hasn’t made its appearance. Can’t wait!

    • olio2go February 10, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

      Paninigirl, where is your farmers market?

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

      Janie, you are lucky. I need to find a farmer who will grow them for me.

  4. elisa February 10, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    As a born Roman I ate a lot of puntarelle, but my father used the “taglia puntarelle” gadget, which makes the job easier. When you go to Rome, buy one or two, You’ll love them.

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

      Elisa ~ I’ll have to remember to pick a couple up when I am next in Rome (soon, I hope). Grazie.

  5. Paola February 10, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    Bitter certainly is better! Thanks for the great tips on cleaning puntarelle. Don’t think I have seen them at any farmer’s markets in Melbourne – will definitely keep an eye out for them. I remember 20+ years back when all you could find was silverbeet and iceberg lettuce. That was it for green leafy vegetables. My father brought some seeds back from Italy and we started growing them at home – though none of our Austrian friends understood why we would eat something so bitter. How times have changed!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

      Things are definitely headed in the right direction, Paola. It used to be hard to find rapini, fennel, squash blossoms and all other sorts of vegetables that we now get at our local farmers’ market. I do hope we start to see more varieties of chicory (especially all the lovely radicchios).

  6. Laney February 10, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Great info and I’ll look out for puntarelle but thanks for the relatives which will also be nice to play around with…so would roses and chocolates…and perhaps a glass of Prosecco-happy early Valentine’s Day!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

      Thanks Laney. I guess i wouldn’t say no to chocolate either.

  7. Ciao Chow Linda February 10, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    I remember seeing ladies in Rome markets, sitting on stools, preparing these puntarelle for sale. Unfortunately, they’re not available here, but I’ll check your source now. Maybe we’ll start seeing these – and agretti – for sale locally. It wasn’t that long ago when even arugula was unheard of in local markets.

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 11:04 pm #

      Exactly, Linda. I remember your post on agretti. I have yet to come across those in a market. When I was writing Glorious Vegetables I debated whether to include these more obscure vegetables. In the end I think I made a passing reference to puntarelle in the chicories section. But even in the year since I worked on that book I think that things have changed and that we will start to see more of these. At least I hope so.

  8. Phyllis @ Oracibo February 10, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Yes, I too remember seeing them already prepared for sale at the Campo in Rome…how much I wish I liked anchovies…and how much I look forward to returning to Rome…time to start counting the days I think!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 10, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

      I’m already counting…though puntarelle won’t be in season!

      • Phyllis @ Oracibo February 11, 2014 at 9:05 pm #

        I know it won’t but….yeah…artichokes will be! Drooling just thinking about all the ways I am going to have them! I’ll make it my quest, an artichoke a day!

  9. Miranda February 11, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    Great article on puntarelle Domenica. I live in Melbourne and I have not seen them anywhere. I will try Seeds of Italy for a packet of seeds to buy. Also, does any one know where I can buy that gadget?

  10. Adri February 11, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Domenica, for all of these things it is just a matter of time before they come to the big brand supermarkets. Just Saturday I bumped into Micki Harvey of Melissa’s Vegetables (purveyor of lesser known, some might say, exotic veg.) I asked Micki if Melissa’s supplied Castelfranco Radicchio, and she said no, although they can get it. She said that currently there is just not enough call for it. So, of course, I went home and called all my friends and asked them to ask the greengrocer for it. Color me relentless. We just all have to keep yakking and writing about these things. I remember the days when shallots were a “specialty ” item. For the gardeners among us. there are now many options, but not everyone has the space, time or inclination to dig in the dirt.

    After I finished making my calls about asking the greengrocer for the Castelfranco Radicchio, I ordered some seeds for it. It is such a glorious variety, and you can grow it in Spring and get some nice small ones. Would you like some seeds? I will surely have many more seeds than I can grow, and it would be my pleasure to send some your way.

    I love seeing that you are still on the veg path, especially these lesser known varieties with so much character and flavor. As much as I love sweets, and everyone knows I do, I found this piece incredibly tantalizing and a welcome respite from all the candies and cakes I am seeing right now.

  11. Adri February 11, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Oh heavens – I meant Miki Hackney from Melissa’s!

  12. ilva beretta February 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    I have been thinking of you all day, Domenica because I bought some puntarelle today! Tomorrow I’m going to make some kind of dish with them, can’t wait…

    • Domenica Marchetti February 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

      Ilva I’d love to know what you make with your puntarelle. I’m sure you will take gorgeous pictures of them, too! Thanks for stopping by. Un abbraccio!

  13. Laura (Tutti Dolci) February 12, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Such a fresh salad, perfect to awaken the palate! Thank you for linking to my jam bars :).

  14. sippitysup February 14, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    I went with the bitter chicories is a red salad for Valentines Day myself. I used red radicchio to keep to the Valentine theme, but I could have chosen other Italian chicories as well. My Farmers Market in Hollywood is leading the way with some of the less known (in the US) Italian greens. I hope they find buyers enough to keep these veggies coming. GREG

    • Domenica Marchetti February 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

      Greg, a bitter red salad sounds perfect for Valentine’s Day. I wish we had the selection of radicchios that I’ve seen in the Veneto. You Californians are always at the forefront of such trends. One day (year) those lesser known varieties will make their way over to this side of the country. Goodness knows there are enough Italians who would welcome them. Demand, of course, is the big issue. That’s one reason I wrote about puntarelle, even if they’re not widely available. The more people know, the more they’ll ask. Cheers, D.

  15. duespaghetti February 16, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    This brought back memories of Stefano’s dad Andrea sitting in their kitchen slicing puntarelle into curly strips for puntarelle con le alici. I’d never heard of them before and Andrea guaranteed that that they were the most delicious thing ever. How exciting to have hope of finding them here in the States!

    • Domenica Marchetti February 17, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Ciao Due! Yes, I must say I truly enjoyed every last bite of them while they lasted.

  16. Nuts about food April 3, 2014 at 6:07 am #

    I always used to order puntarelle lunch and dinner when visiting Rome, I was obsessed with them. Luckily we can even get them at the supermarket here in Milan now… and I often stuff myself with them!

  17. Leslie October 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Love the blog, I just discovered it! And I just picked up your book about vegetables, can’t wait to dive in!

    I’m starting a fall winter garden and looking to plant many Italian items! Radicchio and leaf broccoli, maybe some cauliflowers… Trying to figure out which radicchios and chicories to plant that will give me the most mileage. I would like to try cooking them as well as salads!

    I’ve seen Catalogna Galatina that was called the asparagus chicory, does it really taste like asparagus?

    I am definitely following the link in the last comment… hoping to find advice on fall and winter gardens in addition to summer!

    • Domenica Marchetti October 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

      There are so many members of the chicory family, including all the varieties of radicchio. It’s hard to pick. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted Catalogna Gatalina so I’m not sure whether its comparison to asparagus is one of physical appearance or taste. The website Seeds from Italy has tons of good info on Italian vegetables, including all of the chicories. Enjoy your winter garden!

  18. Aaron Turpin November 5, 2015 at 7:18 am #

    I’ve never seen puntarelle for sale here in the UK, but (having eaten it in Rome) tried growing it this year. I found it grew very well in my sheltered garden in southern England, and we have been enjoying punterelle salads for several weeks.

    • Domenica Marchetti November 5, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      Welcome, Aaron, and thank you for your comment. Lucky you! I have not been able to find puntarelle at any of my local farmers’ markets ~ it’s hard enough just to find regular radicchio. Planting my own might be the solution. Cheers, D

    • Phyllis@Oracibo November 6, 2015 at 12:14 am #

      My husband had his very first puntarelle with anchovies in Rome a few weeks ago…loved, loved, loved it! Too much anchovy for me! I should try making it with my anchovy-less Caesar dressing…Joe can sprinkle his newly purchased (Volpetti) Colatura to his hearts content!

  19. Carolyn Hance-Hilbert November 15, 2016 at 8:37 am #

    I was so happy to find puntarelle this morning at my local organic co-op in Germany. After living in Montreal for so many years, I was spoiled with all of the wonderful produce at the Italian markets. Here we can’t even get rapini. I’ve tried growing it on my balcony, but just when it starts to get beautiful, the aphids come in and ruin everything. I’m vegan, so I didn’t make the puntarelle with anchovies. I simply roughly chopped it on the diagonal and coated it with some lemon juice, olive oil, and pink salt and served t as part of a quinoa bowl with roasted tempeh, beets, radish sprouts, and a maple-tahini sauce. I’m going to try the soaking technique with a few pieces to see the difference. Looove bitter greens!

    • Domenica Marchetti November 15, 2016 at 10:49 am #

      Lucky you, Carolyn! It is almost impossible to find puntarelle where I live in the U.S. Your vegan version sounds delicious; thanks for sharing it here. And your description of the Italian markets in Montreal makes me think I need to plan a visit there. Cheers, D

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Plan Your Italian Garden! – Adri Barr Crocetti - February 11, 2014

    […] are popping up in restaurants and on home tables everywhere. Read Ciao Chow Linda on Agretti and DomenicaCooks on Puntarelle for a taste of Italy’s unique […]

  2. Mudjoy Week 6 | mudjoyfarm - February 14, 2015

    […] often dress it with a simple Ceasar-style dressing. You can read much more about this approach here.  I would also encourage you to combine sliced chicory (drained after soaking in the ice water) […]

  3. May 2015 Newsletter | Synergy Restaurant Consultants, Food Service Consulting - May 26, 2015

    […] craft cocktail bars—as-is or in cocktails like the Negroni—or vegetables like broccoli rabe and puntarelle, a beloved chicory that signals the coming of spring in Rome. The Chinese prize the bitterness of […]

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