Niko Romito: the search for essentialness
ABRUZZO IN HIS HEART3 Michelin stars, 43rd place in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, candidate for the Basque Culinary World Prize. There are never enough numbers to define a chef, even more so in the case of Niko Romito. The only thing to do is to visit the Reale restaurant at Castel di Sangro, set between the green valleys of the Abruzzo National Reserve. In the last nine years the region has been badly shaken by a series of earthquakes which have further compromised an already difficult socio-economic situation, by accelerating the process of depopulation and damaging the tourist industry, one of the region's primary sources of income.
This is where Niko Romito was born. Aged 12, he moved to Rome with his family, while his father remained in Rivisondoli, a village of 500 inhabitants, where he opened the Reale, initially a cake shop which then became a traditional restaurant. Romito still had five exams to take on his degree course when his father passed away. So he went back to Rivisondoli and decided to stay there to take over the restaurant. He started to trace a trajectory of his own, very rapidly, which went against any logic and common sense but was driven "partly by vision, partly by ambition and, yes well, a little bit of madness".
So, this is how the boy who “didn't even know how to fry an egg” earned his first star in the space of seven years, followed by the second, two years later. In 2011 he relocated the restaurant to Castel di Sangro, by converting a former monastery of the 1500s. His third star arrived in 2013 and in 2017 he joined the ranks of the World’s 50 Best. He achieved all of this as a self-taught chef.
NIKO ROMITO: THE 'MAESTRO'Niko Romito has never had a teacher. “If I had been trained in the traditional way, I would never have done this type of cuisine, which derives from the fact that I started from zero making a lot of mistakes and doing just as many stupid things". This could be the reason why he has always nurtured the idea of a school of his own, which only materialized in 2011, when he created the Niko Romito Formazioneadvanced professional school. "In the last 3 years, the number of students enrolling at catering schools has practically doubled and the number of private schools has also soared, but I am convinced that the bubble is about to burst. However, those who do something really serious, interesting and authentic will always emerge".
In 2013 he founded Spazio, the restaurant workshop in which the students of his school do their internship at the end of the course, with branches in Rivisondoli, Rome and Milan (there are plans for the network to expand further afield to New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Oslo, Singapore and Miami).
“You are investing in yourself: none of the young people who have worked hard are unemployed. Some remain in the Spazio orbit, others open their own restaurant, while others go to work for former students: we are creating a great network. They behave like brothers and sisters". In Abruzzo alone, six youngsters from the school are about to open venues.
NIKO ROMITO: THE 'ABRUZZESE'Romito is aware of the contribution he has made to boost the region's recovery. “They see that Abruzzo is at the centre of everything I do. And that I have not been financed by either public or private entities: everything is fruit of my own sacrifice". Things have not always been like this. “They used to say I did nouvelle cuisine. For years, I used to receive more phone calls from the banks than from customers or suppliers, the restaurant was often empty on Saturday evening, only 5 or 6 customers a week. Things started to look up with the second star but I have never had a problem with overbooking. However, I no longer see this as an issue, I like to work at a slower pace".
Today, many young people have chosen to follow his example and remain. "We have given many of these boys and girls the courage to think in terms of a local career. Today, it is easier to emerge in Abruzzo. A talented youngster is immediately spotted. The inspector who first gave me a fork on the Michelin Guide, came back after thirteen years. He hugged me and was extremely moved. We both remembered the dishes he had eaten: at the time I served him orecchiette with turnip tops, potatoes and tomatoes!”.
NIKO ROMITO: THE CHEFThose orecchiette were certainly easier to describe than Niko Romito's current cuisine. Starting from the names of the dishes - Essenza, Assoluto, Verza e Patate, Carciofo - that evoke silence rather than narration. The chef himself has a scarce propensity for storytelling: “I am increasingly convinced that I want to speak of my work through its contents. Also thanks to the social media, ours has now become a cerebral system. But "ordinary" clients are becoming more mature and want to take home real recollections and emotions; they want to be affected by an experience without having to recount it".
Treccani, the prestigious Italian encyclopaedia, has included one of his dishes, the Assoluto, in the definition of this word. “It is the extraction of a liquid having the density of water from a single ingredient. There was previously no term to describe it in food literature. This was the start of an experience. Artichoke is the next step: the extract is concentrated to become a varnish for painting the vegetable". The work Romito does on the ingredients in his dish is never obvious. “My cuisine finds its point of equilibrium in the finale and not at the start. If all the ingredients were perfectly balanced, you would forget it immediately, and there would be no perfect definition".
NIKO ROMITO: THE RESEARCHERThe most revolutionary project of the entire Romito galaxy is Intelligenza Nutrizionale(Nutritional Intelligence). Conceived in collaboration with La Sapienza University and the Gruppo Giomi/Gioservice, it consists in the creation of a perfectly replicable hospital menu which may be adapted to all community catering contexts. “We are serving 400 meals a day” explains the chef “Some of them do not meet the favour of patients because they have never eaten this way: the vegetables are crisp, the pasta is al dente... but the role of community catering is also that of teaching people how to eat".
At present there are two menus, which may be varied to suit individual health requirements. “I particularly care about this work on liquid diets. Take Assoluto: 30 grams of celery, 40 grams of carrots and 50 grams of onion. A pure vegetable cup with a drop of oil: all the savoury taste stems from the pressure-cooked extraction. I am giving you mineral salts without any addition of salt or fat".
Despite the “zero margin” of error in the certified protocols, the role of the staff in applying them continues to be of fundamental importance. “We have to strengthen and valorise the figure of the cook in community catering. These people cover a very important role because of the research they do together with the medical team. Why not create a professional school just for them?”.
There are still many chapters to be written in the story which began in Castel di Sangro.