His cuisine is not influenced by Spain, Denmark, not by French sauces, nor by the teachings of Gualtiero Marchesi, the master of Italian Haute-Cuisine. Niko Romito, Italian three-Michelin-star chef, is the inventor of dishes he makes up on the Abruzzo mountains, a region in the center of Italy that has yet to be on the gourmet radar. Rough mountains and sea that lays East of Rome. A land of the poor, the shepherds and immigrants, a difficult land that is both austere and stubborn.
The dishes at Niko Romito’s Ristorante Reale are the consequence of an original way of thinking, especially in Europe, that has survived food trends and flourished in its isolation. The chef went at the heart of the ingredients and managed to extract their essence. The result is a very simple presentation, easy to grasp, that is also the conclusion of a very elaborate preparation. Local onions, cheese, garlic, and lamb, inspired the elegant, unforgettable dishes.
The Casadonna setting is absolutely coherent with the dishes: it’s an old 17th century convent in the countryside that has been restructured with stones, steel and wood. It’s an hour drive from Naples airport and 2 and a half hours from Rome. A natural and sophisticated place, such is Niko Romito’s concept.
Did you decide to use poor ingredients to create a style?
Not at the beginning. This was never a rich region, but it helped me form my ideas on cooking. I had onions, pecorino cheese, and wanted to create unique emotions. My work on offal – tongue, sweetbread, and tripe – started because I only had low-cost, primary ingredients at my disposal. The onion became my foie gras.
You did the best with what you had.
Exactly. I like to play with ingredients we all know: carrots, almonds, and eggplants. It’s with these so-called “common” ingredients that I try to seduce the customer. And myself. I love Asian food, but prefer to work with garlic because it’s an ingredient I know well. My DNA and my territory, located at the heart of the Abruzzo region, play a big part on it. I try to revisit Italian cuisine by adding my own vision: sincere, pure, low fat, and amazing primary ingredients.
Your cuisine can be defined as territorial or is it something else?
At the beginning there was a touch of Abruzzo in all my dishes. Nowadays, it starts here and goes on to explore different things. For example the idea behind smoked lamb starts here, but conveys a modern taste, clean, essential. I try to explain what I think of lamb. I am inspired by territory, but I try to do something of my own.
How important is technique in your kitchen?
You can always learn technique. I think after a certain point it’s the head that matters. What your mind tells you. The difference is in your experience, culture, instinct, and each chef is unique. It adds that 10% that makes a dish stand out. I don’t understand when people say: we have to change to meet market expectations. I never did that. I’ve only cooked what I liked. We are going back to simple things and ingredients, and it’s easy for me because I’ve been doing that from the beginning.
Could you explain?
My cuisine plays with nuances and balances. “L’assoluto di cipolle” (“The Absolute Onion”) consists in vegetable onion broth and ascorbic acid and vinegar, a meeting point between sweet and sour. You add Parmesan cheese and you create balance. If the ingredients are out of balance, even just a little, there is no emotion. You have to be careful. Each day is different, each onion is different. We live with a timer. If my tortello of bufala is not made in exactly a minute and six seconds, it ruins the whole dish.
Do you share your knowledge?
We have already prepared a course for chefs who already have a diploma and those who are following their dream at Casadonna. The selection will close on July 19th, 2014. There will be 15 spots available with some scholarships or financial aid available. You can find the info on nikoromitoformazione.it.
A school within a 3 Michelin star restaurant?
Not only. We’ve also launched the ‘Spazio’ project, a restaurant-laboratory managed by student chefs. It’s where I had my first restaurant, in Rivisondoli. ‘Spazio’ is becoming a temporary format that we want to bring around Italy. Now it’s in Salina. (capofaro.it). It’s the best way to help students transition from school to action.