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Bunches of Tuscan kale on display in a plastic market basket.

Cavolo Nero – What it Is and How My Italian Family Eats It

Last updated on February 22nd, 2024

Have you ever wondered what cavolo nero is? Are you confused about the difference between cavolo nero, black cabbage and kale?

Italians love their cavolo nero and so does my Tuscan-based family. We even grow it eight months out of the year! That is a lot of cavolo nero to eat so let me share my favorite ways to use it. 

In this article, I will answer all your questions about cavolo nero, including:

  • how it compares to other leafy green vegetable varieties and names
  • how to prepare and cook cavolo nero
  • which Italian recipes use it

Cavolo Nero In English

Cavolo nero is kale in English.

The word cavolo in Italian refers to all kinds of cabbage, not just kale. Cavolo and nero together, cavolo nero, refers to the specific variety of Tuscan kale. 

How To Pronounce Cavolo Nero

Cavolo nero is pronounced cah-voh-loh- neh-roh in Italian. 

Listen to the pronunciation of cavolo nero here:

What Is Cavolo Nero?

Hand holds bunch of cavolo nero.

Cavolo nero is a cruciferous green from the mustard family, meaning it’s a relative of broccoli, brussel sprouts and all sorts of cabbages. 

Cavolo nero is a dark green leafy vegetable characterized by its bumpy, tough leaves with a very fibrous and stringy vein. Its taste is bitter and is tenderized upon cooking. 

Cavolo Nero Vs Black Cabagge

A bunch of cavolo. nero sitting on a white marble surface.

Cavolo nero and black cabbage are the same thing. 

Although cavolo nero means kale in English, the name literally translates to “black cabbage” because it’s in the cabbage family and is dark green, almost black looking. 

Many people use the term ‘black cabbage’ to refer to the specific variety of Tuscan kale (Dinosaur kale). 

Health Benefits Of Cavolo Nero

Cavolo nero is know to be a very healthy and vitamin rich vegetable. There are so many reasons to include cavolo nero into your diet, starting here:

  • Cavolo nero is rich in vitamin A
  • Cavolo nero has calcium
  • Cavolo nero is a great source of vitamin C
  • Cavolo nero is linked to heart health and cancer prevention

Different Types Of Cavolo Nero In Italy

Bunch of leaves of Tuscan kale.
Cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) growing in my garden

There are several different types of kale in the world but here in Italy, I really only see Tuscan Kale. That is to say other types don’t exist but the Tuscan variety of cavolo nero is certainly the most widespread. 

Curly Cavolo Nero

Curly cavolo nero is the most popular type of kale in the US but not in Italy. The leaves are curly and the stalk is fibrous. 

Tuscan Cavolo Nero

Also called dinosaur kale, Tuscan cavolo nero is also very popular in the US and remains the most popular variety in Italy. 

If you are reading an Italian recipe that calls for cavolo nero, it’s calling for this variety. 

Good To Know: You can substitute curly cavolo nero with Tuscan cavolo nero for most recipes. 

Other Varieties Of Cavolo Nero

  • Chinese cavolo nero: Most popular in Asian cooking and best enjoyed cooked. Unlike other types of cavolo nero, the stems are actually very good to eat. 
  • Red Russian cavolo nero: Characterized by its purple stems and leafy green and purple leaves. 
  • Baby cavolo nero: Baby cavolo nero is the most ‘fashionable’ of all and are usually eaten raw in salads. 

When Does Cavolo Nero Grow In Italy?

Cavolo nero is one of the hardiest vegetables ever. It can withstand extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, making it a good vegetable to grow year-round.

In Italy, however, cavolo nero is cultivated from the Fall through the Spring. This is because in the summer, there is so much other wonderful produce to grow, so cavolo nero takes a back seat to vegetables like tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini, and peppers. 

Where To Buy Cavolo Nero In Italy

market stand with lots of fresh produce including lots of greens and lettuce

The best place to buy cavolo nero in Italy is at open air markets from  local farmers selling their homegrown cavolo nero. 

You will also find cavolo nero sold throughout supermarkets, alimentari (small grocers) and any other store selling produce. 

How To Clean Cavolo Nero

Cavolo nero needs to be cleaned and the leaves need to be removed from the woody stalk before consuming. 

I like to remove the leaves from the stalks and then wash the leaves. To do so, take one stalk of cavolo nero and hold the stem in one hand, grab the top of the leaf with your fingertips and pull downwards along the stem towards the base. The leaves should come off. It’s ok if the cavolo nero leaves break and rip as you do this. 

I fill my sink with water, add the cavolo nero leaves, let soak for 5-10 min, and then spin with a salad spinner. You can also gently pat the leaves dry with a towel. 

How To Eat Cavolo Nero

Toasted Tuscan bread with cooked Tuscan kale (cavolo nero) on top.

There are three main ways to enjoy cavolo nero:

  1. Eat it raw: Cavolo nero salads are popular because it’s the best way to benefit from all the vitamins (cooking reduces the health benefits of cavolo nero). Be sure to massage the cavolo nero well with olive oil, salt, and some form of acidity (lemon juice or vinegar to tenderize the leaves). 
  2. Cook it: Cooking cavolo nero is the most popular way to eat it in Italy. Many regional and Italian recipes call for cavolo nero but it’s always cooked. 
  3. Juice it: Extracting the juice of cavolo nero is the absolute best way to take in all the health benefits. Remove the stems and stalks and clean well before juicing. 

Bonus Cooking Tip: Kale chips that are popular in the US work best with curly kale. 

How To Cook Cavolo Nero

Pile of chopped cavolo nero on marble counter.
Chopping up cavolo nero helps to tenderize it and break down the tough leaves

The most popular way to eat cavolo nero in Italy is when it’s cooked. Italians are huge fans of boiling leafy greens such as cavolo nero before sautéing them in a pan with garlic, hot chili and other flavorings. 

Kitchen utensil holds cooked cavolo nero above pot of water.

I find that flash boiling the cavolo nero does help to tenderize it but it’s not necessary. Roughly chop the cavolo nero into bite size pieces before cooking, as it will help it break down. 

Italian Recipes With Cavolo Nero

Hand holding blue bowl of farinata con cavolo nero. There is a spoon in the bowl and the bowl is held over a white marble counter.
A bowl of my farinata with cannellini beans and kale

There are several Italian recipes that call for cavolo nero. 

Here are my family’s favorites:

  • Ribollita: vegetable and bread soup
  • Minestrone: hearty vegetable soup
  • Cavolo nero crostini: small toasts topped with cavolo nero, olive oil and salt 
  • Cavolo nero pesto
  • Sautéed cavolo nero with garlic and hot pepper
  • Farinata: Polenta stew with cannellini beans and cavolo nero
top view of white bowl of minestrone soup on marble table

Looking for kale recipes? Check out:
Polenta with Cannellini Beans and Kale
Creamy Italian Kale Soup
Italian Kale Salad with Gorgonzola
Tuscan Kale Crostini
Popular Tuscan Kale Recipes

Cavolo Nero FAQ

What is cavolo nero in English?

Cavolo nero in English is kale. In Italy, it refers to Tuscan kale (sometimes called dinosaur kale), which is the most common variety you will see. It’s grown throughout the Italian peninsula, not just in Tuscany

What is the difference between cavolo nero and black cabbage? 

Black cabbage is cavolo nero. Cavolo nero in Italian translates literally into black cabbage but refers to a specific variety of kale, Tuscan kale, sometimes called dinosaur kale. 

What is the difference between cavolo nero and kale?

Kale refers to a general category of cabbages, including curly, Chinese, Russian and Tuscan kale. Cavolo nero is the specific variety of Tuscan kale. 

Is kale and cavolo nero the same thing?

Yes, cavolo nero is a type of kale: Tuscan kale, as defined in English, characterized by bumpy, dark , bitter leaves and a very woody, fibrous stalk or vein. 

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