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Bittersweet beauty

It jazzes up a salad, of course, but that's not all. Just ask the radicchio king.

February 12, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

DO you remember the first time you saw the word "radicchio"? The first time you tried to say it out loud?

Now, how about the first time you cooked it? We didn't think so. Radicchio may have gone from an obscure Italian vegetable to a supermarket familiarity, but for most people it remains nothing more than a splashy colored lettuce, a bit of crimson to break up the monotony of a pale green salad mix.

In Italy, particularly around Venice, it is cooked almost as often as it is served raw. It is grilled and sauteed, used in risotto and pasta, spread on pizza and folded into pastries. There is even a radicchio cookbook with 600 recipes.

Here, that seems like a funny idea: Cook lettuce?

Plainly, Lucio Gomiero still has a lot to do. Gomiero is the radicchio king: the world's largest grower of the red-headed chicory and its tireless missionary. In the last decade his Salinas-based firm, European Vegetable Specialties, has gone from what might have seemed like a harebrained stunt to selling more than 10 million pounds of radicchio a year. He even exports it to Italy. But more than half of his harvest winds up chopped into pieces and thrown into bagged salad mixes, just to provide a little color.

"They could just as easily use flowers," Gomiero says mournfully.

Radicchio is one of those definite Italian tastes, a combination of bitter and sweet that you just don't find in other cuisines. It takes a little getting used to, but once you've bitten, you'll have a hard time letting go.

Gomiero, 49, didn't set out to be the radicchio king. After graduating from the University of Venice with a degree in architecture and going to work in his family's construction firm, he got the winemaking bug.

So, almost as a hobby, in 1980 he started a small winery in the Euganean hills just south of his hometown of Padua. This area is not particularly known for fine wine, but his Vignalta "Gemola" has won the Tre Bicchieri, Italy's highest wine honor, four years in a row. (And just as he's brought radicchio to America, he's planted the distinctly American grapes Petite Syrah and Zinfandel in the Veneto.)

Gomiero got into radicchio almost by accident. One of his construction co-workers was Carlo Boscolo, and, thrown together on a long project, the two became friends. Then Boscolo returned to his family's business in Chioggia: The Boscolos are the largest growers of radicchio in Italy.

The two continued to get together for dinner every once in a while. One night in 1987, Boscolo asked a surprising question: Had Gomiero ever thought about going to America?

"He had started getting some interest from America about importing radicchio," Gomiero says. "But he didn't think it made sense to ship radicchio to America when you could probably grow it there."

The adventure was not without missteps. Knowing little about agriculture in this country, they sent faxes to various U.S. offices of the Italian Trade Commission asking about growing areas. The only one that responded was in Atlanta, so their first American radicchio field was planted in 1987 in swampy south Georgia.

"We had never seen a pickup truck," says Gomiero. "Or an alligator."

The next year, they decided Salinas -- the famed Salad Bowl of America -- seemed like a more suitable location. They begged an appointment with an agricultural extension agent and quickly won him over.

There were still more hurdles. Unfamiliar with Salinas, they initially asked for 20 acres of prime growing area -- the farming equivalent of Bel-Air -- for their test plot. After the laughing stopped, they got one acre. It was enough.

"When the crop came in, we got $25 a box for radicchio when iceberg lettuce was getting $5," Gomiero says. "Suddenly everybody got very euphoric about radicchio."

Soon Gomiero and Boscolo teamed up with local growers John Tamagni and Dennis Johnson, who had already been experimenting with radicchio. They incorporated as European Vegetable Specialties in 1993.

A red carpet

Radicchio took to Salinas like a native, even preferring the loose soil of the cheaper land south of town to the high-priced, rich loam where most lettuces grow. Now, on the 10-mile drive from Salinas south to Chualar, there is field after field of radicchio.

"The uniqueness of this valley is that we don't have a hot summer. The fog and the breezes from the ocean mitigate the temperature," says Gomiero. "Radicchio doesn't like the heat, so this place is heaven for radicchio in the summer. In the winter it's no problem to grow it anyplace."

Of course, if growing good radicchio were that easy, it would have been done before. The real secret to the company's success is Boscolo's seed selection.

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