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PHILADELPHIA -- In the specialty produce business, certain exotic commodities -- figurative bricks in the road to success -- sometimes may not be huge-volume sellers. They may be so expensive that the distributor is unable to convert them to large-profit items. But such items give customers - - and customers' customers -- a big reason to keep buying from the supplier, according to John Vena.

Toward the goal of introducing super-select new products, the week of Dec. 7 became a "Radicchio Festival" for Mr. Vena's specialty produce house, John Vena Inc. The firm dedicated the week to introducing three specialty radicchio varieties sourced from Italy's Veneto region, located about 30 miles west of Venice, Mr. Vena told The Produce News.

John Vena Inc., a distributor on the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, received its first shipment of these radicchio varieties Dec. 1. These particular items are Radicchio Rosso Precoce di Treviso IGP, Radicchio Rosso Tardivo di Treviso IGP and Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco IGP. The "IGP," or Indicazione Geografica Protetta, reference is to the growing area and verification that the varieties are authentically produced.

"California growers cultivate several varieties of radicchio but cannot produce Tardivo, the most sought-after variety of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso IGP," a Dec. 2 company press release said. "Radicchio Rosso Tardivo di Treviso IGP is a beautiful vegetable with wine-red leaves intertwined with pure white ribs. Because Radicchio Rosso di Treviso and Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco have received IGP status, they can only be sold as such if they are produced in the Italian region of the Veneto, in the provinces of Treviso, Padua and Venice under the supervision of the Consorzio Radicchio di Treviso."

Vena is the sole Philadelphia supplier of these unique Italian delicacies. On Dec. 7, Vena kicked off its marketing promotion, Sagra del Radicchio di Treviso (Radicchio Festival), at a dinner hosted by the Caterina de Medici Gastronomic Society at La Famiglia Ristorante in Philadelphia. The event's menu featured Radicchio Rosso Tardivo di Treviso. Mr. Vena said that the society is a group in the Philadelphia area that has a special interest in preparing Italian foods. Members are mostly -- but not exclusively -- chefs.

Mr. Vena's Radicchio Festival was slated to continue Dec. 11 with an event in downtown Philadelphia at the retail-sales-oriented Reading Terminal Market. Three local celebrity chefs originally from Italy - Nunzio Patruno (Nunzio Ristorante Rustico), Andrea Luca Rossi (Academia Restaurant Group) and Luciana Spurio (Le Virt?) - were to participate in "a friendly [chef] competition," Mr. Vena said, using Radicchio Rosso Tardivo di Treviso and Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco as the key ingredients. The Reading Terminal's Iovine Bros. will offer samples of the gourmet vegetable Dec. 11 and 12, and area restaurants will feature the product on their menus.

Mr. Vena said that this is his first effort to market new products in this fashion, though he often goes with his customers to broadline foodservice shows to explain his firm's specialty products to foodservice buyers. While Mr. Vena was front and center during the Radicchio Festival, he emphasized throughout the promotion that his firm is not a direct supplier to restaurants and makes no such deliveries. Foodservice -- and produce -- buyers were directed to contact Mr. Vena's jobbing customers to buy the products.

Mr. Vena said that the high cost of the products limits their primarily market to the upscale foodservice trade, though a few high-end specialty retailers will be handling the items.

Mr. Vena, who spent three days in Italy this September with growers Lino and Paolo Franchetto, said that Italians have strong cooking traditions based on produce grown in their immediate area. These specialty radicchio varieties have been produced in Veneto for hundreds of years, and the local population has such a demand for the growers' specialty products that there is no particular surplus for export. Thus prices, especially after airfreight costs, are very high by the time the product reaches Vena's warehouse.

The specialty radicchio production process begins in the field and ends with the vegetables being relocated into shallow pools of cool water. The shipping season runs from late November through early spring.

All three of the radicchio types are, to varying degrees, very bitter. According to the Vena press release, "The bitterness of the vegetable comes from intybin, which is a stimulant for the appetite and digestive system, and acts as a tonic for the blood and liver. Radicchio is low in calories and can be served raw or cooked in a variety of ways."

Mr. Vena said that the Franchettos export to Paganini Foods LLC in Swedesboro, NJ. Paganini, then, is the supplier to Vena.

Mr. Vena handles a variety of other products sourced in Italy including Tarocco blood oranges, kiwifruit, lemons and seeded grapes. "I feel there are a lot of Italian products that have an underdeveloped market in the U.S.," he said.