Niko Romito never thought of becoming a chef. He had never even cooked before opening his restaurant and did not even know how to cook an egg. He cooked for the first time at Reale in Rivisondoli, Abruzzo, a village of less than 450 inhabitants. His father had opened it as a pastry shop in 1970 converting it into a restaurant 30 years later as the original Reale. He was neither passionate about cooking nor food and did not even come from a family of restauranteurs because the restaurant had only been open for 2 years.
But as fate had it, while he was completing a degree in Economics and Commerce his father fell ill. He still needed to take 5 exams to complete the degree but when his father passed away he and his sister Cristiana took over the operation of the restaurant. The idea was to keep the operation going until they find a buyer. But they fell in love with the restaurant trade and the rest is history.
Cristiana took over the front of house, something she still does exceptionally well at Reale in Castel di Sangro where the new 3 Michelin star restaurant is located. Niko is in charge of the kitchen where he developed a style that is unique in the food world.
This is the intriguing story of Niko, one of the most interesting and inspiring persons working in the restaurant business worldwide today. Niko is today not only the chef of Reale but he has also developed a cooking school, Niko Romito Formazione, three laboratory restaurants in Rivisondoli, Milan and Rome, has a collaboration with Bulgari hotels and is working with hospitals on nutrition among others.
With no time for him to get a hospitality diploma or to apprentice with a famous chef he had to teach himself and get guidance where he could find it. Without any background or knowledge of cooking, Niko started to read books. Not those of top chefs but rather classics and especially books about meat, fish and vegetables. He wanted to understand these ingredients, he wanted to understand their essence. He has been breaking conventions and traditions and his lack of a culinary background is the reason for this.
He went away for 20 days to Girona, Spain at El Celler de Can Roca (at the time two Michelin stars) though it was not enough to absorb all the techniques and protocols. However, it was enough to realise he needed to change direction.
His background as a university student and his love of books (which he read in every minute of spare time he could find) made him who he is today.
Andrea Petrini, the founder of GELINAZ! and a food writer, said that it was Michelin who had the courage in Italy to give him recognition. The restaurant was awarded a first star in 2007 although he had already been included as one of the best emerging chefs by the Gambero Rosso guide and was named Young Chef of the Year by the Espresso Guide in 2006. “His cuisine caught the eye of MIchelin who awarded him a first star despite the fact that few in the area could believe it.”
How was it possible that a chef without any training working in a village that was so inaccessible could get such attention. And what was special about him?
When Michelin awarded the restaurant its second star it looked so unlikely that it was unbelievable despite the fact that now Niko had changed his cuisine and his philosophy focusing on what would increasingly be called the ‘cuisine of the ingredient’.
It even caught Niko and his sister Cristiana by surprise because the space was getting tight and the space was an unlikely one for a fine dining restaurant.
They had no option but to invest in a new location. They spotted Casadonna, a former monastery built in 1512 which overlooks the valley of Castel di Sangro. When they bought it, it was was little more than a ruin but today it is his general headquarters, the place where he has his fine dining restaurant, his culinary school, a permanent laboratory and a hotel with six rooms. It is here that he develops concepts like Spazio or conceives the menus for the the Bulgari chain of restaurants where the menu expresses the culture, elegance and what it means to be ‘Made in Italy’.
I had read a lot about what to expect particularly since I was going to interview Niko but nothing really prepares you for dinner at Reale. Normally, I prefer not to read too much before such a visit and rather let the food do the talking but in this case, given it was a work trip, research was necessary. I wanted to discover who was the chef who was breaking away from conventions and traditions, the only Italian south of Rome to have a three Michelin star restaurant and who was making those who sample his cuisine rethink everything they know about food.
Who was this chef who single handedly had placed Abruzzo on the world gastronomic map and is slowly starting a tourism revival in what is sometimes considered a forgotten region of Italy.
Martina Liverani, the founder of Dispensa magazine and a food writer told me he will make you rethink all you know about food. Paolo Visarri, another Italian food writer explained to me how Niko cooks his pigeon dish. It will blow your mind, he said. It will later go on to win the dish of the year in the Guida dell’ Espresso. “You will fall in love with the place,” he said.
Are they exaggerating? Can it be true?
Take one of his signature dishes. It is a cabbage which he serves solitary on a plate. It is the essence of minimalism and is deceptively simple. But that’s the crux of the matter. The simplicity can be deceiving because Niko works with prime material to extract the best possible flavours and create perfect textures.
Few chefs today have the courage to serve just a cauliflower on a plate. It is cooked without fat but is served like a gratinee. There is no cheese, there is no bechamel, no butter or milk to lift the flavours of this humble and bland vegetable. Instead, using three preparations over a period of time, he manages to create a sum that is much larger than its numbers.
Was it what you were expecting, Niko asked me? No, I said. “It is way beyond what I was expecting.” They say a photo is the equivalent of a 1000 words. In this case, neither photos nor words can describe the sensations you get when you try his food. Maybe it is because it looks comforting, healthy and has no fat but this is cooking that is stunning.
A pigeon that looks undercooked but which is perfectly cooked oozes not even a single drop of blood, calamari which melt in your mouth but with the structure and texture of grilled squid, tortellini stuffed with chicken alla cacciatora that are so good that they require no sauce. Then there is the intensity of the classic soffritto of onion, carrot and celery served as a broth but with no added water, just extractions from the vegetables or a cacio e pepe so good that you want to return back there and then (more about all this in a forthcoming article about the dinner at Reale).
He writes in his autobiography that cooking today is his great passion to which he dedicates his energy, time and mind. “I’m always thinking about cooking, whether it be greeting the guests at Casadonna for breakfast, jogging past the fly fishermen, even in my sleep. I put a lifetime of experience into my food and I cook food that I like. I don’t cook to please others or to follow a trend. I don’t think I would know how to work any other way. My cooking comes so natural to me that I only realise its distinctiveness when others point it out.”
He teaches his students the futility of shortcuts. And they teach him hope. He is slowly starting to see a revival around him in Abruzzo and that is something the region needs.
So do you need to be an expert or need to have read up to understand him and his food? Not at all. What we can say is book a trip to Italy, if you are going to Abruzzo via Rome stop at Spazio in the Parioli district to get a hint of what Niko Romito is all about and then drive down to Abruzzo. Immerse yourself in his cooking, in his philosophy and absorb the beauty of his restaurant and region. Ask him about his cheese supplier in Scanno and then visit this cheese maker, Gregario Rotolo in the Abruzzo mountains (story soon).
After this experience, you will never look at food in the same way again.
Don’t miss our interview with Niko Romito, a visit to the cheese maker Gregario Rotolo and a reportage on a spectacular dinner coming soon on Food and Wine Gazette. All photos by Ivan Brincat