Real Food Encyclopedia | Rapini (Broccoli Rabe)

With its deep green color and pleasantly bitter flavor, rapini (Brassica rapa var. ruvo) is a star vegetable during colder months of the year when other greens are less available. Despite what its other name, broccoli rabe, might suggest, rapini isn’t just another kind of broccoli, which belongs to another closely related species, Brassica oleracea, along with the similar-looking (though less leafy) broccolini. However, rapini is even more versatile in the kitchen than broccoli, with a greater proportion of edible leaves and stems than the standard broccoli head.

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Did you know?

  • Andy Boy, the largest US manufacturer of rapini, actually holds the trademark for the name “broccoli rabe.” This means that other growers must refer to the vegetable as “rapini” or one of its other myriad names (rapini, cima di rapa etc.).
  • Writer and satirist Anthony Di Renzo, in his book “Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics, and Ethnicity,” explains that the first wave of Italian immigrants, estranged from their home country (many to never return), often treated miserably by their adopted country, longed for a taste of home. Rapini, sautéed with garlic, olive oil and chile flakes, gave it to them.


What to look for when buying rapini

Rapini has dark green, almost serrated leaves with thick stems and broccoli-like heads, some of which may be flowering (the flowers are also edible). The vegetable is usually sold in thick bunches.

Look for rapini with no yellow, wilted, black or mushy spots on either the leaves or the broccoli-like clusters. If possible, choose those with smaller stems; thicker stems can be used but tend to be tough and stringy.

Sustainability of rapini


The largest grower of rapini in the U.S., Andy Boy, is not organically designated, but the company does say that it practices integrated pest management (IPM), a cultivation technique designed to minimize the use of pesticides. Despite this, according to the USDA, a number of pesticides are still used on rapini plants in California.

Labor Issues

The Andy Boy company, under the umbrella of D’Arrigo Brothers, has been plagued with farm worker labor issues for decades. Until recently, D’Arrigo farm workers went 30 years without a contract. Accounts of the company’s labor problems and troubles with the United Farm Workers (the union famously co-founded by Cesar Chavez) can be found in Anthony DiRenzo’s book, “Bitter Greens,” and also in the LA Times.


Rapini generally has two seasons — late fall and winter, for varieties planted in the late summer/early fall; and late spring/early summer, for varieties planted in the early spring. Cool weather, especially after a first frost, just makes it more delicious. Rapini grown in hot weather is more likely to bolt and to be extra bitter.


Rapini is widely cultivated in Southern Italy, especially in Puglia (Apulia), and is most closely associated with Southern Italian cuisine. In the U.S.,  California produces about 90 percent of rapini.

Smaller farms and farmers grow it in other places around the country and you can find it at many farmers’ markets at the right time of year.

Eating rapini/broccoli rabe


Rapini is highly perishable — it gets more pungent and bitter the longer you keep it in the fridge. Its broccoli-like heads may turn yellow and mushy the longer it is kept. (This is due to chlorophyll loss. Not yummy.) Therefore, it is best to use it within two or three days of purchase.


Pro tips:

  • Trim the bases of each stalk by about an inch. Then, grab a vegetable peeler, and starting at the base of the stalk, peel until the first few layers are removed. Repeat this technique with any other large stems, then cook as your recipe specifies.
  • Temper the rapini’s bitterness by blanching first: prior to cooking blanch the rapini in boiling, salted water for two to three minutes (or longer, if necessary). Remove from the water, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking and thoroughly pat dry. Proceed with your chosen recipe.

Rapini can be sautéed, boiled, steamed, grilled and even roasted. It is classically paired with all manner of pork products — pork sausage is especially common, as is the Roman roast pork delicacy porchetta and pancetta, Italian unsmoked bacon. It is also commonly sautéed in copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil, with garlic and chili peppers (the juices sopped up with crusty bread, of course), or added to pasta, especially the cup-like shapes called orecchiette (“little ears”). It pairs well with creamy cheese, like ricotta and mozzarella, and also with white beans and anchovies (see recipe below). As its popularity increases in the U.S., rapini is even being given consideration as a topping for American favorites hotdogs and pizza (the latter common in the veggie’s Italian homeland). Salt, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, chiles, and cheese all serve to temper rapini’s pungent bite.


Check out this awesome recipe for lacto-fermented rapini, in the style of kimchi, that will keep for up to two months in the fridge. The veggie can also be frozen successfully.


Rapini is high in Vitamin K, necessary for blood clotting and bone health. It is also high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fiber, and is a good source of calcium, folate, iron and manganese. It even has a bit of protein. Brassicas in general have been purported to have anti-cancer properties due to the glucosinolates found in most varieties.

Top photo by Michele Ursi/Adobe Stock.