DISCOVERING THE ESSENTIALITY
| ICONIC GOURMAND| Chiara Melani
He has been running the Reale restaurant since 2000 with his sister Cristiana. A self-taught cook with deep ties to his native Abruzzo, Niko Romito has earned 3 Michelin stars in just 7 years. He started in Rivisondoli at his family’s bakery-turned-trattoria, and then in 2011 he moved Reale to Casadonna, a 16th-century former monastery in Castel di Sangro. Always in search of simplicity, balance, and taste, he tells us more in the following interview.
What are your rst memories of food?
I grew up in Rivisondoli, surrounded by nature and in the setting of a small mountain village in Abruzzo. If I think back to my childhood, I remember the taste of bread with cheese that I used to eat together with my grandfather after coming back from a walk in the mountains, or orapi – wild spinach that you gather in spring in the Majella, or also broth at the holidays: an elegant and comforting broth, for me the symbol of Christmas with the family. They are memories of simple avors that are pure and authentic, and that even now greatly distinguish my cooking.
How would you de ne your cuisine? Which dish offers the most avors from Abruzzo?
My cuisine is seemingly simple. The dishes are made up a few, sometimes very few ingredients (sometimes only one) but hide a considerable complexity. It has been de ned as ingredient cuisine, in the sense that it focuses on ingredients to maximize the full potential. It is a cuisine that draws inspiration from Abruzzo although it can’t be de ned as traditionally Abruzzian. A dish like Onion reduction, parmesan and toasted saffron is a tribute to one of the most famous and valuable products of the region, Navelli saffron. In Roasted lamb “torcinello” with friggitelli sweet peppers and must I tried my hand at cooking lamb interiors – a typical dish from Abruzzian shepherding traditions, while with “Scarpetta”, Montepulciano wine and lamb paté I revisit three elements that are very characteristic of Abruzzo: bread (made with solina wheat our typical of the central southern mountains), lamb meat, and Montepulciano wine, an extraordinary symbol of the region. In Lentils, hazelnuts and garlic I use lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio in the province of Aquila, rare and precious legumes. I feel tied to Abruzzo today especially from an identifying point of view: I use its extraordinary ingredients and I use my cooking to evoke its silent and powerful atmosphere, its purity of nature and the beauty of its landscapes.
How do you create a new dish and where do you draw inspiration from?
Creating a new dish is a long and elaborate process. My team and I go through countless attempts before reaching the nal version, and we continue to modify dishes over time in light of any new knowledge we gain. At Reale, we carry out constant research on ingredients and preparation techniques: sometimes I start from an ingredient, other times from reasoning on the structures, and often the research leads me to take a different path from what I had imagined at the beginning. I never start with a de nite idea: I start working with the ingredient, I study it and get to know it over time and multiple attempts, before arriving at my de nitive version of the dish. In any case, my creativity is never an end in itself but it always answers the initial question I ask myself: how can a dish be good, healthy, aesthetically beautiful, sustainable, repeatable, and new?
Innovation or tradition – which one does your cooking identify with?
With both. Because innovation is only possible by starting with a tradition.
What is the experience like for someone who comes to Casadonna?
When Cristiana and I decided to take over this 16th-century former monastery, we weren’t only looking for a new location for our restaurant Reale but a place where we could fully express our ideas of hospitality, me in the kitchen and her in the dining room. So we created 9 charming rooms for the restaurant’s guests, and a 6-hectar estate that includes an experimental vineyard, an orchard, six vegetable gardens, a garden of aromatic and wild herbs, and an apiary for Casadonna honey. Next to the Reale restaurant, there is the Niko Romito Academy, a professional cooking school I founded in 2011 where 32 students come from all over Italy each year. The building’s renovation was geared towards conserving the existing structure to the max, the architecture is essential, elegant, and majestic: antique bricks, Maiella stone, wood, walls treated with beeswax as was done long ago. It is de ned by its quiet atmosphere, ample space, light, and green – a continuation between inside and outside. Coming to Casadonna is an all-encompassing experience, that involves all the senses and moves visitors. It is a special place, dedicated to the worship of taste and beauty.
How important was and is your sister Cristiana in the dining room and why?
Cristiana is the maître D’ at Reale and general manager of Casadonna, and she is my other half. Like me, she embraced this project with joy and a little fear when, young with no previous experience, we decided to take over the family trattoria and transform it into the restaurant Reale. The dining room comes before the kitchen in perception and contact with our guests, and it is essential that our staff is able to transmit the important concepts in my dishes and guide our guests in the experience they are about to have. Cristiana was able to create a dining room style that was both welcoming and rigorous, a discreet and attentive model of hospitality that mirrors our identity, respects our guests, and is perfectly consistent with the spirit of the place.
What do the Michelin stars mean to you?
Michelin stars are the most coveted culinary award. It was a great thrill for me to receive them and it remains an honor and a demanding task to keep them.
Who was your mentor?
I am self-taught, I have had few mentors but some people have been a source of inspiration for me. In particular, Valeria Piccini and Maurizio Menichetti from the restaurant Da Caino, who taught me to respect ingredients, and the Roca brothers who taught me about the in nite possibilities that technology can offer in the kitchen.
What advice do you give to the students at your academy?
It is important that young cooks understand the link to their roots and the lands they come from. I always recommend to rst learn the basics of traditional Italian cooking and then try to create your own culinary language.