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Chef Niko Romito

Interview by Alessandro Casagrande
Photography by Alberto Zanetti, Brambilla Serrani, Roberto Sammartini

Originally published in Issue No. 2 / SS2018

Niko Romito is the celebrated Italian Chef and founder of the Ristorante Reale in Castel di Sangro, L’Aquila, Italy. For the past 18 years, he and his sister Cristiana have managed and grown this prestigious and now 3 Michelin Starred restaurant into a business with many creative branches.

Reale’s original home was in their family’s pastry shop in the village of nearby Rivisondoli, but now resides in Castel di Sangro a 16th-Century Monastery on over 6 hectares within the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo. The structure was completely restored with refined, modern and minimalist decor, all while preserving the integrity of the original structure. The property (Reale-Casadonna) rests at an altitude of 860 meters and includes an experimental vineyard, a grove of fruit trees and a garden of aromatic, wild herbs. This is the home of the restaurant Reale***, 9 charming guest rooms, and the culinary academy Niko Romito Formazione, a vocational cooking school for professional training. Romito’s dishes focus on quality regional ingredients prepared using modern techniques and artistically presented in a minimalist style. 

Romito has also been asked to curate the cuisine at The Bulgari Hotels & Resorts of Beijing, Dubai and Shanghai starting in the Fall of 2017. 

In 2007, Reale was awarded its first Michelin star, and in just two short years (2009), he was awarded a second. In November 2013 (2014 edition), a third Michelin star was achieved by this passionate and talented son of Abruzzo, ensuring this little village of only 684 inhabitants, its rightful place on the gastronomic map.

Alessandro Casagrande (AC) — In your dishes, there’s meticulous background research that leads to something new and unique. But, at the same time, tradition is also ever-present in your food. What does innovation mean to you?

Niko Romito (NR) — Innovation is the ability to create and develop new cooking procedures that compel to the highest technological innovation and consider the application of new techniques aimed at improving and enhancing the results compared to the past. Sometimes innovation is simplifying, and not complicating: one of the pillars and a fundamental value of my approach, is the search for the “apparent simplicity” which is becoming one with the pursuit of lightness and health. I rely on an extremely limited number of ingredients in order to focus on radical essentiality, the slightest misalignment will emphasize eventual mistakes. When there’s no overabundance of flavors on the plate, all is laid bare. My dishes are the result of tireless research in a millimetric balance.

AC — Abruzzese, self-taught, in just seven years you managed to conquer the three Michelin Stars. How tied are you to Abruzzo and how do your origins influence your culinary creations? 

NR — Abruzzo runs deep in my work but what used to be a quite literal “presence” (through an updating of the local gastronomic tradition, with early dishes that were at the same time contemporary and reassuring) has gradually shifted, an emancipation of sorts. I still draw from my territory for the best products but today for me Abruzzo mostly represents an ideal: it stands for focus, respect and truth — applied to the ingredient. 

I’ve always seen tradition as a source of inspiration in a very wide way. People like my cuisine but I believe that the only way to truly understand it is when you come to Casadonna, a 500-year-old monastery renewed by my sister Cristiana and I which is now the center of all my projects and hosts my restaurant Reale. My cuisine comes from the lonesome Abruzzo land, the local producers, the mountains and its silence. And, moreover, it comes from my solitary experimentations when I took over my dad’s restaurant when he died in 1999.The Reale adventure began in 2000: we had a great, fast career but the truth is that we learned by ourselves how to run a restaurant. All of our achievements are the result of a self-taught path that only in the late stage has been fed by an exchange with the gastronomic worldwide community. It’s been a very personal and independent growth from a little “trattoria” to Michelin-starred cuisine.

AC — Niko Romito Formazione is considered as one of the best cooking schools in Italy. How was Niko Romito Formazione born and what’s your relationship with teaching the art of cooking? 

NR — Niko Romito Formazione is the school I would have loved to attend when I first started my journey as a young chef in the world of gastronomy. So when I relocated my restaurant Reale to Casadonna in 2011 it was natural to me to create my ideal of cooking school.

Niko Romito Formazione focuses on a few principles that I believe in and that I practice in my cooking style: respect for the ingredients, simplicity, balance, lightness, food as expression of a territory and food as expression of the cook’s personal identity. I teach my students the fundamentals of Italian cuisine but also to find a personal way to express themselves through food rather than being influenced by current trends or external factors. Our educational program is run together with UNISG — The Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, with whom we agree on a concept of gastronomy as a multidisciplinary science that protects biodiversity and builds an organic relationship with agriculture. We teach them about modern Italian cuisine which includes tradition while at the same time using the most advanced technologies in order to respect both the ingredients and the diner. 

The school program lasts one year: one month of theory, five months of practical lessons in our laboratories and another six months of internship in one of our Spazio restaurants. Spazio is a project born from the school that embodies its soul: a restaurant-lab run by our students and graduates under the supervision of a head chef who works closely with the mother-kitchen of restaurant Reale. The proximity with Reale and its laboratories and the location at Casadonna, in the middle of Abruzzo, make Niko Romito Formazione a perfect place to study and to develop a personal cooking philosophy.tion small and our production close so we can grow in an organic way that we’re proud of. For now, that’s the best path and allows us to have the most control. Yes, it’s exciting to imagine ways to make things that are more accessible to more people in the future but that growth must happen with integrity and quality in mind.

AC — Baccalà is a traditional Abruzzese food. How much does this ingredient define your current kitchen?

NR — Baccalà is part of our tradition as, along with anchovies, it was one of the very few fish that could be kept under salt and therefore preserved in the mountain areas of our region.

Salt cod embodies most of the distinguishing traits of my cooking philosophy, it has a simple, straightforward taste and a very interesting structure. Nevertheless, it lends itself to personal interpretation resulting in a variety of different textures represented in many dishes.

Baccalà is one of the first ingredients I started working with in a new approach to transformation aimed at awakening the ingredients intrinsic power that explodes on the palate with all its vitality. 

One example is my “Baccalà tortelli with baccalà milk” which takes salt cod to its maximum potency. The “milk” comes from the fish scraps — including the skin and bones — toasted with oil, garlic, celery, bay leaf, water and fresh milk, then cooked for about 40 minutes until reduced by 50 percent. After filtering and blending, the fat component of the salt cod ensures that the resulting liquid, initially unbound, amalgamates and acquires a silky consistency, a richly fragrant glaze at once bitter and sweet. The filling for the tortelli is creamed salt cod, both meaty and velvety smooth. The calibration of the pasta is essential here — it must be thin but not too thin (I roll it by hand on wooden boards which gives it a porous surface that’s much different than the “plastified” impermeability you get from steel rollers), so as not to be overwhelmed by the texture of the salt cod filling: both must stand out equally. It’s the only way to achieve a substantial, reassuring dish that’s also exceptionally elegant.

Tortelli con Baccalà ed Emulsione di Baccalà

For Fresh Pasta
Flour 00 1kg 
Whole eggs 8

For The Stuffing
1 baffa of baccalà 
1 spring onion 
Olive oil 
4 potatoes 
200 g of milk 
½ onion

For The Seasoning
300 g bones and baccalà skin 
500 g of fresh milk 
200 g of water 
1 carrot 
1 celery 
Oil 
Rosemary and laurel

Preparation
Pasta: On the pastry board sift the flour, forming the classic fountain. In the center create a dimple, introduce the whole eggs, beat them with a fork and enter them, little by little, to the flour. Then knead with your hands until you get a homogeneous, elastic mixture; wrap it in the kitchen foil and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Filling: Take the already desalted baccalà, skin it, debone it and then cut it into cubes. Take the spring onion and let it stew in a little oil until browned. Dip the baccalà and let it cook until the water that appears evaporates. Then mix with the mixer adding the olive oil. 

Sauce: Fry the carrot and celery in oil, add the bones and the discarded baccalà skin, together with milk and water and reduce by 2/3. Finally, add a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf. Filter everything. 

After the rest, with a rolling pin, roll out the dough as thin as possible: make strips of 8 cm width and with a smooth pastry ring, with a diameter of equal size, cut out of the discs. At the center of each one, with a little pastry with a fine opening, place a walnut stuffed with baccalà. Rest on top of the other disc, seal well and add the ends forming tortelli. As soon as they are made, cook them immediately for a few moments in boiling salted water. Spread them on a plate and use a spoon to pour over each tortello the emulsion of hot baccalà and drops of extra virgin olive oil.

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