Have I Made Myself Unclear?

September 30, 2011 / Food & Wine
If there is one thing that really has my knickers in a twist, it’s that after 50 years in Italy there’s something that continues to cause confusion as time flies by. So I’ve decided, with your help, to solve the broccoli/broccoletti dilemma once and for all.

First up are broccoletti aka cime di rapa, rapini and broccoli di rape (broccoli raab or rabe in english). This vegetable is actually the top tender leaves and buds of a wild yellow flower that is picked before it blossoms. I am told they are a member of the Chicory Family. In Naples they are called friarielli – not to be confused with friggiarelli, which are those scrumptious little green peppers that are fried in garlic and oil.

Then an American couple told me that broccoletti in America (aka broccolini) are a different plant altogether; a cross between broccoli and Gai Lan or Asian Broccoli. Oh Lord!

Chaos sets in when I try to confront the broccoli enigma.

When I was a little girl in America, I remember broccoli as a vegetable that looked like a tiny green tree.

But when I came to Rome and was sent to the market to buy broccoli, the vendor handed me a fascinating, alien-green cauliflower (cavolfiore) with fractal spires that looked like something that had been revisited by Max Escher. He called it broccolo.

Now broccolo, or cavolo, is actually a cabbage, which is part of the Brassicaceae Family. Other members include: cavolo cappuccio (used to make sauerkraut), cavolo nero, cavolo cinese, broccolo cinese, cavolo portoghese, cavolo rosso, cavoletti di Bruxelles (Bruxelles sprouts) and even CAVOLO BROCCOLO!

MA CHE CAVOLO! (lit., “What the.. cabbage?!”) or as the Romans say, “SO’ CAVOLI VOSTRI”, (lit., “They’re your cabbages”, i.e. “It’s your problem/You’re in deep trouble now.”).

And so be it!

Broccoli and broccolo romano images courtesy of Gloria Chang and whologwhy. Many thanks!

Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”, www.savourthesannio.com, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

28 Responses to “Have I Made Myself Unclear?”

  1. The broccoli you knew as a little girl that looks like tiny green trees I think is referred to as “broccoli siciliani” here. Kind of ties it all together in a non-sense way, wouldn’t you say?

  2. I bet that’s why George and Ira didn’t use it in their song… “you say broccoli, I say cavolfiore”??? hmmm – just pass the tomatoes and call the whole thing off. Brava Barb

  3. Whoever told you it is chicory needs to have his brain checked, there is nothing like that in the chicory family, it is Brassica, to be more precise Brassica rapa (he!) Sylvestris. Brocco means sprout or top from Latin Brachium. In English they are turnip tops and there are more than 10 varieties, a lot more in th eSouth of Italy. Lot of differences have got to do with growing speed and size and/or type of foliage. They have lots of stuff like this in Asia to btw and they are easy to interbreed.

  4. Btw bassicaly you could call it all cauliflower, some grown for the heads and other for leafs and tops…..

  5. what a great little story. I too have found myself in a quandry over such things here in Italy. Thoroughly enjoyed this read. thank you

  6. Thanks Barbara,for setting us straight. I never realized there were
    so many aka’s for Broccoli. Our Webster Dictionary describes it as
    —a plant (Brassica oleaca italica) related to the cauliflower but bearing tender shoots with greenish buds cooked as a vegetable; any of several strains of cauliflower.
    thanks, Lenore-U.S.

  7. I enjoy your clarification of broccoli and I’m as much confused as I was before. I like broccoli rabe …like they say in America but I also like Cime di rape….like they say in Molfetta, Puglia where I’m originally from. In my family we have broccoli di rabe at least once a week.
    Enjoy reading your articles each day.


  8. i find this irritating too. I think what the Italians call clime di rape is what the English call purple or green sprouting broccoli (available in spring in the Uk). The beautiful green cauliflower-type is really Romanesco even here in Italy it’s called that by plant and seed sellers, its just the frutii vendoli that don’t seem to have different names for all the different produce they sell. Christina

  9. Linda Boccia

    What a fascinating, but confusing, bit of information. Pictures of all mentioned would also be interesting. Thank you for your research of cabbages and broccoli wannabees!

  10. Lena Lonigro

    I am so pleased to have read your article today. Now I know I am not alone as the only one confused about broccoli and all the other variations. We are lucky to have so many choices. Thanks.

  11. Christiana Cagnoni

    I don’t care if I am confused about the whole broccoli thing, I loved your article and I love broccoli so you can’t go wrong. There you have it!

  12. carol dunn

    loved the humor of your article, as well as all the comments! thoroughly, and delightfully confusing.

  13. Jill Ackerman

    I am chuckling, this was cleverly written, thank you! (“che cavolo!”)
    Ciao :)

  14. Fidelma Giancone

    I come from Naples, Italy, but live in Virginia, USA now.
    How to cook Broccolini like a Neapolitan.

    Remove the hard part of the stem. In a frying pan add some olive oil, chopped garlic (generous), add the washed (but not dry) broccolini, add salt and pepper to taste. Cook at medium heat till “al dente”. Have a nice Italian bread roll rosted on the grill, add some Italian sausage, and top with some broccolini on top. A nice cold beer is a great to finish it off. Buon Appetito

  15. Virginia C. Mars

    As a child in CT, I have fond memories of my parents, grandparents cutting Broccoli di rape along the sides of the road (lived in the country) in the springtime where it grew wild. It was always a favorite even though it has somewhat of a bitter taste for a child. To now be able to buy it in grocery stores here in VA is great. I steam it with just a little water, when tender, drain throughly, add olive oil and garlic and just reheat. I also love plain old broccoli! And then there is broccolini (just to confuse matters) that looks like broccoli di rape but it just broccoli in disguise. I was under the impression that the ‘broccoli’ that looks like green fancy cauliflower (and tastes like cauliflower) was just that, not broccoli at all. Anyone a botanist?

  16. Mairin O'Mahony

    To quote the old NEW YORKER cartoon: I say it’s spinach and the hell with it!

    Thanks for the info!

  17. Grazie tanti for sharing!! I’ve been here for 3 years and always wondered about this broccoli conundrum too! This is great — just shared with my mom and sisters, who so enjoyed it too!

  18. Karen Hebel

    Loved this article!! Let’s see…I think it’s clear?
    I enjoy all the articles of the Italian Notebook!

  19. John Cowley

    Great story, certainly confused me more than ever, but great fun nonetheless.
    Thank you!!


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