Niko Romito, always listen and learn
Niko and Cristiana Romito by Alberto Zanetti

You'd never guess it, but Niko Romito is self-taught: everything he knows he learnt by himself. Endowed with a natural talent, according to the most notable gastronomic critics, this chef from Abruzzo rapidly conquered three Michelin stars, but his ambitions certainly do not end there.

Casadonna - the hotel, restaurant and school of high cuisine that he manages together with his inseparable sister Christiana in Castel di Sangro - is the perfect synthesis of a calling he carries out with attention to every detail: a place with an ancient architecture (it used to be a female convent), immersed in the wild and fascinating nature of Abruzzo. A place you do not go to simply to eat, but to follow a precise itinerary of taste. A flavourful experience of the highest order, surrounded by woods and mountains.

Casadonna

Do you remember what you dreamt of becoming as a kid?
When I was 5-6 I wanted to become a construction worker. I liked the idea of building, I would often go to my grandfather's in the countryside and with my friends I'd make houses with sand and bricks, complete with a roof. They weren't play tents, there were made by the book, they could even shelter from the rain!

Let's get straight to business, when did your passion for cooking begin?
When I inherited the family restaurant following my father's death. It was also called Reale and was based in Rivisondoli, a small town in Abruzzo not far from Castel di Sangro, where we are now. It was a simple trattoria in the mountains and before that a pastry shop. At the time I was 25, I abandoned my studies in Economics and Commerce that I was pursuing in Rome, and took over the restaurant. My sister Christiana soon joined me, neither of us knew anything about running a restaurant, but we fell in love with this job and began two parallel paths as autodidacts. She was in the dining room and I in the kitchen.

What do you remember about your first experiences behind the stove?
I remember feeling lost. I didn't know how to do anything, I would burn pots and pans and all my creations were a mess. Yet I sensed there was something there. And that I could love it.

You've been behind numerous revolutions in the kitchen. How do you manage to always innovate and keep raising the bar?
Through constant research, based on the premise that everything I do can be perfected. By listening, both to the opinions of those I admire and to my inner voice. I always have many questions for everyone and I tend to absorb the answers.

What are the primary characteristics of your dishes?
I would say simplicity, taste, lightness. Most of all simplicity, everything else is a consequence. It's a simplicity that can be reached only through a great deal of work: my dishes are conceived, studied, fine-tuned to the utmost degree, but they don't have any superstructures to interpret. In the end what matters is the good and reassuring result.

Watermelon and tomato by Brambilla Serrani Photographers

Can you tell us about your menu?
We're always in the kitchen trying out new dishes, so something new could make it into the menu at any moment. Generally big changes to the menu occur 2-3 times a year, based on the seasonality of ingredients. For example, two of my key dishes are the Artichoke with rosemary and the Glazed eggplant, and obviously one is available in winter-spring and the other in summer. Another classic is the Watermelon and tomato. While we manage to serve the Savoy cabbage and potatoes, one of the most recent additions and perhaps the dish that represents me the most right now, well beyond the typical season for picking that vegetable, thanks to a mix of kitchen technique (the cabbage is fermented which prolongs its conservation) and agricultural method (we have farmers that cultivate a summer variety, which is softer, at high altitudes).

What do you teach the kids that come to study at your school?
To reason with curiosity, to be humble and serious. I like good people to be in the kitchen.

What do you consider your biggest talent?
The obsessive need to understand: I consider it a talent.

Is there a chef you admire above all others?
I admire all the chefs who are coherent in their work, independently from whether they manage a trattoria or a starred restaurant.

Spicy infusion of mushrooms by Brambilla Serrani Photographers

What do you owe your homeland, Abruzzo?
Everything. Isolation, respect, honesty. Local products. Everything.

Is there anybody who changed your life and career?
Valeria Piccini from restaurant Da Caino in Montemerano: she was a great teacher, the only one with whom I did an apprenticeship.

Can you describe a typical day of work?
It starts with a double espresso and then it takes different directions based on the moment. I try to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen of the Reale: I have two service shifts, between one and the other I go out for a run along the river and then with my team I dedicate myself to researching and developing new dishes for Reale and Spazio and to all the other projects we're developing as a group. When there are courses in our professional school, the Niko Romito Formazion, I go to follow (or teach) lessons, I spend time with the students and teachers. In the days we're closed, I travel and try out restaurants, or take care of all the things we're behind on, often a lot. We have a whole system to keep up with: apart from Reale and the school in Casamadonna there's a hotel, and then we have Spazio Rivisondoli, Spazio Roma and Spazio Milano (a chain of restaurant-labs managed by the students and graduates of the Niko Romito school - editor's note*), as well as Bomba Napoli. My sister Sabrina manages Spazio Roma. And there are two big projects we are about to launch. We'll present the first on October 19th at La Sapienza University in Roma: it's called "IN-Intelligenza Nutrizionale", it's an interdisciplinary protocal in collaboration with La Sapienza, GioService group and e hospital Cristo Re and it revolutionizes hospital catering services with potential applications in any collective catering service.

Onion, parmesan and toasted saffron by Brambilla Serrani Photographers

What do you enjoy doing when you're not cooking?
Studying materials. I like construction sites and interesting buildings. I like to watch movies and find some time for myself. Driving a beautiful car.

What's the most touching compliment you have ever received for your dishes?
What I most appreciate hearing is that my cuisine is unlike any other. Or when the kids of the school tell me I've passed down something important to them.

Photos via: casadonna.it and nikoromitoformazione.it

Spazio Roma
Spazio Roma
Spazio Milano
Spazio Milano
Bacon, celery and turnip by Brambilla Serrani Photographers
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