Niko’s cooking philosophy follows a unique way of combining surprising ingredients, techniques, textures and a purity of flavours into dishes that resonate with a distinct familiarity to their guests.
The Reale restaurant was housed in a 16th century monastery with rooms in the mountains of Abruzzo and is ran with his sister Cristiana, who oversees the front of house operation. The former Casadonna monastery is also home to different culinary laboratories for researching techniques in baking, fermentation and pressure cooking and is the foundation for Accademia Niko Romito – a certified higher education cookery school.
1. The Best Contemporary Italian Restaurant in Abruzzo
2. The Best Contemporary Italian Restaurant in Italy
3. The Best Italian Chef in Europe
In this exclusive interview Niko talks to Love Italian Life about the importance and biodiversity of contemporary Italian gastronomy.
Love Italian Life:What are the ingredients that make an Italian restaurant truly contemporary in the Italy of today?
Niko Romito:More than ingredients the key point is what exactly “contemporary” means to a chef. First of all in Italy being contemporary is an issue when comparing to tradition. Our country has a long culinary history and a natural affection for gastronomy: every Italian eating well is an almost an obvious concept.
Traditional Italian cuisine is amazing: it is tasty, healthy, rich and contains so much variety. It originates from a country made by many little villages and small towns, each one with an amazing biodiversity.
My cuisine at the Reale restaurant has evolved significantly although the italian gastronomic tradition has always been the reference point. We combine techniques, textures, lightness and purity of flavors, but at the same time it resonates with something that is uniquely familiar to our guests.
I work on our ingredients, enhancing them to their maximum which comes from Italian heritage. I like working with common materials, modifying the perception people have of them. That’s why my cuisine is both surprising and familiar while everyone can understand it without explanations. Being contemporary also means making a cuisine that matches people’s expectations today. To be truly contemporary a chef today has to consider that people want to know what they are eating and how sustainable food is in terms of the environment, health and the ethics behind the production. I think food is a blend of memories connected to a territory and to the people who produce the ingredients we use. A contemporary chef should always take into account these concepts.
Love Italian Life: What exactly inspired Niko Romito to be passionate about food and become a chef?
Niko Romito:My father had a historical pastry shop from 1970 to 2000, until it was converted into a restaurant. It was open during high season (my region Rivisondoli is a tourist resort) and was an institution in the district.
For me it has always been a place of the soul as I spent so many years of my childhood there. This is where my passion for leavened products and sourdough comes from: every morning I ate the “bomba”, a krapfen like pastry, which was the only thing I was happy to eat every morning (Bomba has now become a street food format: the flagship store is in Milan).
When my father died I realized that I had to make a choice where life was putting me in front of a challenge which I decided to face and together with my sister Cristiana I took over the family restaurant which started by my father.
To be quite honest, I was not so sure that I had made the right decision back then. I studied economics and lived in Rome and had no idea that I would soon be a cook in a small mountain village, spending hours and hours in the kitchen. I was kind of driven by an inner instinct. Maybe there isn’t a rational answer, I just felt that I had to seize the opportunity at that time which is exactly what I did.
“People want to know what they are eating and how sustainable food is in terms of the environment, health and the ethics behind the production”.
Love Italian Life:What do you think it is about Italian food that has such an enduring appeal?
Niko Romito:Italian food has hundreds of reasons that justify its enduring appeal. We have extraordinary raw materials, an ancient knowledge of home cooking and the tradition of the Mediterranean diet. But more than this, food is part of an ecosystem that originates from the earth to arrive on our plates involving people, companies, technology and entrepreneurial development.
I think the appeal of Italian food is not only related to food – which is amazing nonetheless. When eating even a simple dish like Spaghetti and tomatoes, or when drinking a glass of wine, people are not just eating or drinking: they are experiencing all of our history, culture, way of life, landscapes, literature, music and creativity.
With its huge evocative power, food increasingly plays the role as a major ambassador of our country. A single bite, a single sip of wine may evoke territories, producers, centuries of history and an attitude towards taste and beauty in a timeless language that everyone can understand.
Love Italian Life:In your opinion what are the store-cupboard essentials that all great Italian chefs should make sure they have in their kitchen?
Niko Romito: Curiosity, passion, excellent raw materials and devoted staff.
Love Italian Life:What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of coming into the industry as a chef?
Niko Romito:I would say that being a chef is together a beautiful and hard job: you must be strongly motivated and very passionate to do it. I would also say that it is a terrific responsibility: with your cuisine you will transmit to people your representation of reality, your memory, your tradition, and also your idea of what it is to eat in a contemporary way.
Food is a powerful vehicle to help educate people to eat better, respect the environment; to make them aware of their history, their conscience and their rights. A relevant example can be seen in Latin-America or Australia where indigenous people are recovering their cultural dignity through the food.
Otherwise you can try to help improve the socio – economic situation like my project ‘Intelligenza nutrizionale’ known as Nutritional Intelligence which is a gastronomic-scientific protocol that aims to help people eat healthier and tastier food in hospitals, school and canteens.
A chef can also support local producers and can give importance to their forgotten products which contributes to saving biodiversity.
There are many issues related to food, I think it is very important to be aware of the incredible power that food has when anyone is thinking to enter the food industry.
“A single sip of wine may evoke territories, producers, centuries of history and an attitude towards taste and beauty in a timeless language that everyone can understand”.
Love Italian Life: For anyone who hasn’t eaten in Reale before, how would you sum up the dining experience?
Niko Romito:Eating at Reale restaurant is an enveloping experience. Casadonna is a conceptual place: the materials, the light, the silence and the mountains all around, everything prepares you to eat at Reale, the gem that best represents my philosophy.
The dominant color is white; tableware is essential, the food is bare on the plates and it’s at the center of the customer’s experience. The big windows in the dining room let you look out at the surroundings: the nature is almost uncontaminated and with its colors evokes the ingredients on the table.
My dishes sometimes floor the guests because they are deceptively simple: in fact very few ingredients come directly from the earth and surprise the diner.
One of the most revolutionary things I did was in 2015 when I decided to serve bread as a main course in the tasting menus. For me it has been a programmatic choice, part of a bigger project that aims to bring back bread as a major importance in Italian gastronomy.
Love Italian Life: What should Italian food lovers expect from your exciting new projects with Bulgari and Pane?
Niko Romito:Eating We will shortly open the 4th Il Ristorante Niko Romito inside a Bulgari Hotel (after Beijing, Dubai and Shanghai). I am particularly excited because it’s in my home country, and of course the perception of the menu will be different for an Italian when compared to an international guest outside Italy.
For the Bulgari concept we worked to create an anthology of ‘standards’: great classics – not just in terms of ingredients and recipes, but concepts tied to presentation and service.
It follows our tradition which is a gastronomic grand tour of the best Italian food where we offer an exclusive and absolute experience of what Italian cuisine is today for me.
I think the experience for an Italian guest is a journey into the past with the lens of a sharp contemporary focus: it’s something extremely new and at the same time familiar.
PANE is going to be launched quite soon. I am particularly fond of this project because I have been working with bread for the last 15 years. It took a long journey to develop the recipe of my bread, that’s why it is so special. For me PANE is not only a product, it’s a project and a philosophy that aims to give back bread its importance and allow the wider public to try my bread.
Niko Romito is a nominee for the Love Italian Life ‘Best Italian Chef in Europe Awards 2018’. His restaurant ‘Reale’ is also nominated for the ‘Best Contemporary Italian Restaurant in Abruzzo Award 2018’ which is the first regional round of the national ‘Best Contemporary Italian Restaurant in Italy Awards 2018’.