“After we earned that first star, they told us we would never achieve a second star because the place was too small.” The restaurant was born as a trattoria, you opened the door and the first thing you saw opposite the door was the toilet. Just over a year passed and when Niko and his sister clinched a second star in 2009 no one could believe it. At the time, they were the only starred restaurant in the whole of Abruzzo. “There were only 450 residents in the village, they were used to having a trattoria. We were very far from the cities, we did not know about guides or the press. We worked and even our neighbours thought we were mad. Because when they came, they did not like it and wanted something different.” Niko said.
Mention Niko Romito today and people will tell you he is one of the most influential Italian chefs if not the most influential but back in the days when he took over his father’s restaurant together with his sister after his father has passed away it was not easy.
He started cooking in 2000 when he was 26 years old. He had never gone to a cooking school or cooked in a restaurant. He was actually studying an economics degree at university with just a few exams away from graduation when he inherited the restaurant from his father and mother. “It had been open for less than two years. We had no gastronomic tradition at home. I started with a very basic type of cooking. We were serving bruschetta, meat cooked on the grill, pasta cooked with the classic sauces and extremely simple desserts,” Niko told Food and Wine Gazette.
But the Italian chef, who had been studying at university was curious and also had a hunger to learn. “I started to read books because at the time there was no internet which in a way is good because today the internet is unifying a lot of gastronomic concepts.”
“Today, you look at dishes which are the same. Whether you like it or not, a youngster entering a kitchen today will be influenced by what he sees on the internet even if he does not have any intention of copying what he sees. When you are creating a dish, constructing it, you are indirectly being influenced by social media,” Niko said.
“I had to start from zero and at the beginning it was very difficult. I had no knowledge, I had no training so I made lots of mistakes but these proved important for my growth. I slowly started to cook food that was a bit more evolved and refined. I was always looked for a clear, distinctive flavour which focused on the purity of the ingredient,” he said.
Today, Niko believes that the fact that he has no classic training or teachers means that his cuisine is very personal and also very independent. He has managed to create a unique style that is visible in practically all his dishes. “It is a type of cuisine that is more pure, that is very Italian and that takes as its starting point the cooking at home or in a trattoria. It is a cuisine which focuses on the produce but then evolves from there.”
The style of cooking is reflective and is created in a place that allows you the time to study and carry out research
Niko is not cooking traditional Abruzzo dishes in his restaurant because the products he uses come from all over Italy but there is a lot of Abruzzo in his dishes. “I use a lot of produce from Abruzzo but I do not limit myself to produce of my region. My kitchen is one which tells the story of Abruzzo, a region that is isolated from the rest of Italy. It is a style of cooking that is reflective, that is created in a place that allows you the time to study and to carry out research,” he said.
Today there are 7 restaurants with a Michelin star in Abruzzo but when Niko started he was alone. “The region is the size of Milan but six years ago there was nothing here. We’ve seen growth and this is good for the region. Through our success we have helped others to have the courage to believe in the region. Chefs no longer need to quit the region now, they have the courage to stay and do something here. Even the local clientele has grown with us. They are more curious and more ready to try something new,” he said.
Niko is not only known for his Reale restaurant which has 3 Michelin stars, has the highest scoring points of any restaurant in Italy in Italian guides and is 41st in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He has also opened a cooking school at Casadonna, the former monastery which houses the restaurant and a small hotel, a chain of restaurants called Spazio which enables students from the cooking school to get real experience of Niko’s cooking methods in cities like Milan and Rome (as well as Rivisondoli on the site of the original restaurant). He is also responsible for opening restaurants with the Bulgari chain of hotels that are distinctively Italian. And he also has a project that focuses on the nutritional aspects of food and cooking in hospitals among others.
The Italian chef believes that Reale is at the centre of his growing business. “Sometimes people tell me that with all the projects that I am working I am losing focus on Reale. But I don’t see it that way. I think that the more projects we have, the stronger we become in terms of the concepts and the ideas and even the creative process. All the work gives you a lot which you can then bring back to Reale,” he said.
Fortunes for Niko changed in November 2013 when he clinched a third Michelin star for his restaurant. “In that year, many talking about what was happening in the North of Italy, in Milan with the upcoming Expo. To get a third star south of Rome was a novelty. It was certainly a novelty for Abruzzo and in the South of Italy there was only Don Alfonso that had three stars and eventually lost them.
That recognition gave Niko the strength to push forward. “It is not the recognition but the fact that people started realising what we are doing. The cookery school and Spazio had already existed but the three stars gave them more visibility. Besides this, it gave us the strength as a group to grow and improve. When we moved to the new place in 2011 we struggled a lot for the first two years. The location is not easy, the investment was huge. The economic conditions were not even good to start a school.”
Niko said that in these conditions creativity was not easy. “When you have these distractions it is not easy to stay focused but we kept on working and retained our focus and that helped us.”
“In the last one and a half years, we start to see the results. The international press starts to visit the restaurant as well as international guests. It is like Reale is being discovered now. Abruzzo was always considered as a great place for produce but not necessarily for its cuisine. Many Italians did not even come to Abruzzo. They are starting to come now,” he said.
The problem that Niko faced, despite the recognition from Italian guides like Gambero Rosso and Guida del Espresso was that there was no reference point for his cuisine. “People questioned the type of cuisine. If you eat something and you do not recognise it, you might interpret it as negative or say it is not good. We had a critic from a renowned blog who complained that the bread was raw. But our bread is creamy because we use a large percentage of water. Today this bread is mentioned everywhere in Italy but initially people used to say that it was raw, not cooked. A few months later, the person responsible for the blog was here. We were speaking on the sofa at night after the dinner and he apologised saying his colleague had understood nothing about the bread. We continued to speak and realised that when the reference point is different, it takes time to get used to a new approach,” he said.
My cuisine is not visually appealing. To understand it you need to eat it and only when you eat it you will understand the work that goes behind it. Those who do not come to Casadonna don’t necessarily realise this.
Niko knows that his focus on the ingredient means there is no place to hide. “It is a silent type of cooking. My cuisine is not visually appealing. You need to eat it and only by eating it can you understand the work that goes behind it. Those who do not come to Casadonna don’t necessarily realise this or understand it,” he said.
The Italian chef is using ingredients that are linked to the terroir but he is always in search of one ingredient which will serve as the reference point in the dish. “I think there is a lot of Italy in my cooking. If I take my cooking abroad, someone with experience will immediately notice that I am an Italian cook. They will say that this is an evolution of the cooking you find in a trattoria. The fundamental question for me is why do we like home cooking or the cooking in a trattoria? It is because it is real, you can actually taste the ingredients, it is warm, comforting, something that we are losing today in fine dining. So for me taste and pleasure are essential. But I like to cook with new concepts, with new methods.”
Niko’s cuisine is very healthy because he cooks with very little fat (sometimes even without fat at all). He does not necessarily do it to create healthy dishes but rather because the flavour is better. “When I finish a dish and analyse it, the dish may be healthy because it is not heavy and full of fats. For me flavour is better if you eliminate ingredients. But by eliminating ingredients, the food becomes nude. It becomes so clean that it is either perfect or wrong. And if it’s wrong, it becomes stupid,” he said.
“If the mushroom or the cauliflower I serve is not perfect it is a huge risk because people have come to eat at a 3 Michelin star restaurant, have driven 400 kilometres or even travelled from elsewhere. When you remove ingredients it is very risky. Today we speak about simplicity as a philosophy but simplicity is not easy. It is not something you decide one day and within six months you can create a simple cuisine. A simple cuisine is a type of philosophy that you have been working on for years, it comes from within, you have studied it. Sometimes simplicity can be useless,” Niko said.
“It has taken me years to get to this level of simplicity. When you arrive to the point when you can just use one or two elements in a dish you need many years to get to that point. It is a bit like writing. It is more difficult to tell a story in two or three words rather than in 1,000 words. It is manic work and everything has to be perfect. If a comma is not in place you immediately notice since there are not many commas. I do not decorate my dishes because for me it is the produce that has the aesthetic qualities. If the produce is good and beautiful, the dish will be nice as well,” Niko said.
The Italian chef has been working with broths, extracts or what be calls absolutes. He serves a ‘soup’ of celery, onion and carrot or the ingredients of the traditional Italian soffrito at the restaurant. It has no water, just the extract of the vegetables. “This for me is a part of Italy and we are sometimes losing.”
He mentions the tortellini that are stuffed with chicken cooked ‘a la cacciatora’ and are served without any sauce. “I have reflected a lot on the egg pasta in Italy. The most important thing when you eat stuffed pasta are two things, the pasta and the filling. If you add a lot of sauce, you not only alter the flavour but also change this balance. What actually makes the pasta good is the contrast between the structure of the pasta and the filling. You need to understand the filling to know exactly how thick the pasta should be. When we make fresh pasta we use a rolling pin on wood for all our pasta. we let our pasta dry. The pasta in the tortellini is very thin but it is also crunchy. This is the Italian culture of pasta,” he said.
Niko said that in Abruzzo, given the fact that it was a poor region, fresh pasta was sometimes made with flour and water without adding any eggs. Dried pasta arrived later in the region.
The Italian chef said that Italy’s cuisine started at home and this was followed by the Osteria and Trattoria. Then came the restaurants and creative kitchens. “Naturally there is a lot of influence from the French kitchen, particularly in the 1980s. At the time that was the model to copy. I think that in the 1980s or 1990s no one would have imagined that it was possible to create a dish with a cabbage. It was not the model at the time and you needed to follow a model that worked,” he said.
Niko said that most books started with recipes from the French kitchen. “It is only in the last years that chefs have started to codify them and we have started to distance ourselves from the French model and put more Italian recipes to table.”
He says that the models that have influenced today’s Italy kitchen are mainly French, Ferran Adria and René Redzepi. The latter was influential not just for his pure kitchen but also for the way the restaurant is designed, the interior design and also the way the table is laid.
When it comes to creativity you need to work each day. It is not like you wake up one morning and say today I feel creative.
“In Italy, we have all the characteristics to create our own model. We have many chefs in different regions who are building a cuisine that is based on their own territory and region. We need to be aware of the huge potential we have and we need to be more courageous about the choices we have to make. In Italy, we have a food culture which is older than the Spanish or the Nordic cuisine. I think that Italy can become the model of simplicity. The model is there. We speak a lot about Italy but the reference point is still the kitchen of the 1980s and 1990s. It is not bad but we have evolved. We can create a new avant garde and contemporary model at every level,” he said.
He is aware of the differences that exist between Italy, France and Spain but adds that with the produce and the experience that the Italians have, what is required is to make it known because few people know what is happening in Italy on the gastronomic front,” he said.
We speak about his creative process. The focus as one would expect comes from the ingredient. “I do not decide that I will create a starter or a main course or dessert but work with the ingredient. That means taking the knowledge he has and testing. Sometimes the tests are completely absurd. If we normally cook an ingredient one way, why don’t we cook it the exact opposite. We make a lot of errors in the process.”
The cabbage dish that Niko created took over a year to finalise. “When we have to wait 30 days for fermentation, it is a long time and if you make a mistake you need to start from scratch.”
Niko said that observation is essential. “With the cabbage the original idea was to create a soup but I had no idea the direction it would take. I remember taking this cooked cabbage and started to cut it and asked why don’t we serve it like we would serve as a steak. The original idea was to shred it to pieces but when I saw the perfect cut and the perfect form it looked like a veal roast and had the texture of fois gras. Without knowing I had created my second vegetable dish,” he said.
“With creativity you never know where you are going. From an error you can learn something and from that error you realise that you can do something else. The important thing is to work. It is not that you wake up one morning and say that today you feel creative. You have to work every day, look at everything and try to close a circle.”
He tells me that from the menu he served me, six dishes were finished in a week. “But that week was a synthesis of a whole year of work at the hospitals, Bulgari and Spazio. These works give me a lot which I can bring back to Reale. Viceversa, sometimes I work on something and realise it does not work for Reale but could be perfect for Spazio. Reale is where everything starts. It is where everything returns back here.”