Tropea Onion, “Red Gold” of Calabria, Italy

Red, sweet and crispy – just a few characteristics of the Tropea onion, the famous Cipolla rossa di Tropea. What makes it so special? You might need to take a trip to Calabria to get the full sensory picture, but to whet your appetite, read on.


Cipolla rossa di Tropea

Onions for sale in Tropea

No one knows the exact origins of the Tropea onion, but it is said that the ancient Phoenicians introduced the edible bulb to the Tropea area as many as 4,000 years ago. We know for certain that the onion has been cultivated in the territory, what is today in the Province of Vibo Valentia on Calabria’s Tyrrhenian Sea, for thousands of years as it was already referenced in the writings of Aristotle and Strabo. Moreover, Pliny the Elder lauded the healthful properties of the Tropea onion as a natural remedy for various ailments and physical disturbances in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History).

Calabrian tourist port

The port of Tropea in the Province of Vibo Valentia

Cultivation intensified during the Bourbon period when the onion was introduced to northern European markets. Leaping into the present, in 2008 the Cipolla Rossa di Tropea Calabria was recognized as a PGI product (Protected geographical indication). The official agricultural zone of the Tropea onion extends along the Tyrrhenian coast from the southernmost point of Nicotera in the Province of Vibo Valentia, through various towns in the Province of Catanzaro up to Fiumefreddo in the Province of Cosenza, with major concentration between Capo Vaticano and the town of Briatico in the area surrounding Tropea. This is on Calabria’s central west coast for those unfamiliar with the geography.

Calabria coastline

Capo Vaticano on the Tyrrhenian coast


When talking about the Tropea onion, experts borrow from the vocabulary of vintners to describe the environmental factors that distinguish this particular root vegetable. The terroir in this case consists of fertile, sandy, alluvial soil in a Mediterranean microclimate with hot summers and cool, humid winters in which the sun and sea minimize temperature swings.

Onion planting is done in three ways: with the bulbs, directly from seed and by transplanting bare-root seedlings, so that the production period is able to extend from October through March. Harvesting is done by hand. Onions destined for longer shelf-life are gathered when they reach a considerable size and the necks turn a deep red color. They are then left to “cure” in the field for at least eight days. Properly drying onions prior to storage prevents the development of bacteria and mold, so that skins and roots are dry, but they are still juicy and firm inside.

Cipolla rossa di Tropea

Tropea onion field with bunches of onions just harvested (photo courtesy of M. Belsito, Wikipedia Creative Commons 3.0)

Tropea onions destined for fresh consumption, called cipollotti, are younger, winter onions that are harvested when the necks begin to turn red and the stems are still deep green. In one way or the other, fresh or dried, ranging in shape from ovoid to round, Tropea onions are available year-round.

fresh Tropea onions

Fresh “cipollotti” red onions of Tropea (photo courtesy of Mboesch, Wikimedia Creative Commons 4.0)


Tropea onions are versatile and have a pleasant taste, whether eaten fresh in a salad, preserved in vinegar or oil, or cooked in a myriad of ways. They are sweet and highly digestible. Back in the day, these onions were the basis for every nonna’s soffritto, that aromatic mix of diced onions, carrots and celery gently sauteed in oil or other fat, used as a foundation for soups, stews and sauces.

Calabrian lamb

A rich lamb stew

They were also used in folk medicine. To cure colds, coughs and sore throats, a halved onion was placed on a bedside table near one’s nose to breathe in its vapors while sleeping. For wasp bites, placing the freshly cut side of an onion on the spot prevented swelling and itching. Modern scientists tell us that they are particularly rich in antioxidants and vitamins.

For Tropea, the onion has been such an important part of its agricultural production that it has become a symbol of the town. In addition to classic recipes, chefs take the opportunity to use the onion in every way imaginable. Yes, there’s even an onion gelato, which I admit, I haven’t sampled.

Tropea, Calabria

Everywhere you look in Tropea… onions!


In Calabria, Tropea onions are often featured on appetizer plates, such as a simple chopped mixture with oregano served here with bread, cheese, olives and the area’s ‘nduja salami specialty.

Calabrian appetizers

Red onion of Tropea and ‘nduja of Spilinga on an appetizer table

The following is another image of an antipasto spread: Tropea onions, fonduta (melted cheese) and a peperoncino jelly to eat with bread.

Tropea onions

Antipasti with Tropea onions, fonduta and a peperoncino garnish

Onion marmalade is particularly delightful with its sweet, slightly tangy blend of flavors. In addition to pickled onions and those preserved in oil, Tropea onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) blend well in recipes. Here, the onion is presented on toasted bread with a spreadable cheese and a wisp of bacon for a mouthwatering savory experience.

Antipasto in Calabria

An antipasto plate with the Tropea onion

Another delicious recipe combines the cipolla rossa di Tropea with baccalà (codfish) and tomatoes.

Cipolla rossa di Tropea

Baccalà with Tropea onion

Pickled Tropea onion balances a simple plate of anchovies.

Cipolla rossa di Tropea

Anchovies with pickled Tropea onion

Grilled vegetables with a bit of fresh ricotta makes a wonderful vegetarian meal with good, local bread.

Grilled vegetables with ricotta

Plate of grilled Tropea onion, tomato, eggplant and zucchini with ricotta

Or perhaps a light meal with octopus and potatoes by the seaside.

Polpo alla griglia

Grilled octopus with potatoes and Tropea onion

These are just a few of this exceptional onion’s possibilities. And of course, there’s always pizza…

Calabrian pizza

A delicious pancetta, Tropea onion and mozzarella pizza

Would you like to taste the Tropea onion for yourself? Join me on one of my comprehensive, small group tours of Calabria, where you will experience the region’s incredible food, immerse yourself in its beauty and soak up the culture first hand! See the detailed itineraries on the Calabria Tour page.

Read all about the fascinating Calabrian region in my book Calabria: The Other Italy, described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an intoxicating blend of humor, joy, and reverence for this area in Italy’s deep south,” and explore Calabria’s northern neighbor in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.Italy books

Follow me on social media: Basilicata Facebook pageCalabria: The Other Italy’s Facebook pageKaren’s Instagram and Karen’s Twitter for beautiful pictures and information.
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Comments 5

    1. Post

      Thanks – the dishes tasted as good as they look! Someone on Facebook today commented as to the onion’s beautiful color and she was right, both raw and cooked, it’s another aspect to draw you in.

  1. Not that I needed another reason to visit Calabria, but that polpo e patate looks to die for! Yum. I have a little watercolour sketch of Tropea onions I did years ago-i will have to find it to show you! Ciao, Cristina

    1. Post

      I love your watercolors and prints – I’m sure you did the Tropea onion justice! I’m a sucker for octopus, no pun intended, and this was particularly succulent. Plus, with the Sila potatoes and Tropea onion, well, what more can I say?

  2. I juat returned from Tropea – it was fabulous. And now I’m craving the onions – I had them in some form or fashion with every meal. Can I order them directly from a source in Tropea? I see some American companies online – but would love to support a local company there. Thanks for this great article!

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