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How This Duo Are Building A Gastronomical Empire From An Ex Monastery In Abruzzo

Abruzzo is a land of contrasts. Its geography dictates this. From the coastline of the Adriatic sea to the foreboding Apennine Mountain range that cuts through the region, keeping it largely isolated for centuries, preserving its identity. It is rustic and at the same time elegant in its simplicity. It is the land, mountains, and sea of this varied region that has influenced generations of locals to adapt to the tough land, building villages right into the mountains that remain practically untouched to this day. 

In these mountains of Abruzzo, over the past couple of decades, a gastronomic philosophy was quietly being created. Chef Niko Romito together with Cristiana Romito, manager of the three Michelin star restaurant Reale, had a vision that began in their hometown of Rivisondoli and afterward to neighboring Castel di Sangro within the National Park of Abruzzo.

The setting of this gastronomic hub is within an ex 16th-century Monastery that also holds the culinary academy, gastronomic laboratory, and experimental vineyard. A stunningly minimal yet warm setting that uses the local materials of Majella stone, the walls treated with an old technique of slaked lime paste that had to be hand-polished with wax and woolen cloth, that Niko rediscovered. It is a place of immense elegance, but with unfussy character that can be seen with the reclaimed wood floors and antique local flagstones. An example of the imperfect perfection the Romito’s capture consistently through their food and esthetics. 

“Abruzzo has always been my comfort zone. The idea of being at home facing difficulties. When you are at home you feel more secure in overcoming and resolving difficulties. Today the vision I had has been verified, a vision I didn’t have the certainty of. But when you imagine something, you search for it, you see it from a distance, you are never sure if it will happen. I wanted the business to be central in Italy, to be central in Europe, central in the world,” Niko says.

 It was here in their home that they chose to stay. Despite the buzz that lived in the big cities. It was here that they had the vision to elevate the paired back essence of their region through their restaurant Reale and began to build a global-reaching gastronomic empire that has spanned wider than the restaurant alone.

Cristiana’s role is to accompany the guests through the philosophy behind all of the dishes so that both gourmands and people new to Reale can fully understand the meaning behind what they eat. The food that comes out of their restaurant, one of the top 50 best restaurants in the world, is so much more than just delicious. Each dish drives to have a purpose. She breaks down the nuance and ethos of everything that goes into the laborious work of creating the final plates and the reason why they matter. Explaining the soul of their cuisine that represents a region that has had a history of isolation but has in recent years become open to the world. These dishes that when served present simply, minimally even. But on the palate and by way of learning the philosophy behind the dish, each bite begins to hold meaning. Cristiana is the figure that reveals this information conveying the dishes’ meaning, giving context in the dining room. “The role of the dining room is very psychological. The ability to understand every client, who of course are each different. But when you begin to speak with them you enter in symphony,” Cristiana says. As general manager, she has won countless accolades, but most recently, the Mauviel 1830 Prize for the 2019 World’s Best Dining Room Manager by Les Grandes Tables du Monde.

The excitement of Abruzzo is that it preserves a promise of discovery. Chef Niko does this in his kitchen, by studying ingredients in incredible detail, experimenting with cooking methods to transform even the humble onion into his ‘Absolute onion with saffron and Parmigiano filled pasta ‘buttons’”, a dish that is so representative of his kitchen. It is an extraction of a deeply roasted onion that is a concentration of all the onion offers: the sweet, the bitter, the umami. The saffron from Navelli, L’Aquila, Abruzzo considered among the best in the world, isn’t added to alter the chromaticity, but rather for the flavor. The Parmigiano’s role is essential for sapidity inside the pasta ‘buttons’. For Niko, putting his energy into creating the perfect symphony of flavors cleanly is the ultimate achievement. “The client must taste the onion, the Parmigiano and saffron, the truest notes of flavor, the familiarity of it,  the incredible amount of work that went into creating that flavor can be perceived yet  never overshadowing the power of the flavor .” 

The dishes produced at Reale fiercely honor the culture, flavor, ingredients, and heritage of local producers, a big part of Niko’s philosophy is to help invest in the local economy, use sustainable seasonal and local ingredients, rediscovering, and reinterpreting traditional dishes making them fresher and lighter. Niko and Cristiana are deeply devoted to their region, and it’s their passion and authenticity that has made their iconic restaurant a global destination. Amidst a global pandemic, when social distancing and isolation were the ultimate luxuries, Abruzzo became even more appealing.

“Many Italians who couldn’t travel abroad last summer came to Abruzzo because Reale is a destination, they remained enthusiastic because they didn’t expect an Abruzzo that is so small to offer so much. We try to connect our guests to other places here in Abruzzo, like local producers we work with and other small businesses,” says Cristiana.

In 2000, Cristiana and Niko took over Reale. This was always a family business, at the time it was their father’s pastry shop turned trattoria originally in the village of Rivisondoli. When their father turned ill, they decided to take over the business, and so they left the big city and pushed their original plans aside. Their father received notoriety for the fragrant bomba, or bomb he created. Traditionally, this is an Italian fried doughnut filled with cream served as street food. Niko has reinterpreted this iconic treat in both sweet and savory versions even lightening the traditional recipe by swapping traditional lard with extra virgin olive oil and cocoa butter, this is another of his countless culinary offshoots. “During the pandemic, we opened a pop-up Bomba  store in Pescara, which had incredible success. It had a line outside, it seemed like we were in New York, the line began from 9 am until the evening. So many young people and families would come to us just to buy a warm bomba and drink a hot chocolate outside,” Niko says. 

In 2020, when the restaurant industry globally took a major hit due to the pandemic, restaurants around the globe were forced to close their doors. Amidst the difficulty, Niko saw a glimmer of light and ran with the opportunity he saw was possible. “In my bread baking and pastry laboratory, where we produce bread and a range of oven baked products, traditional italian pastries as well as fruit preserves and juices, which entered as a primary activity, we were able to continue to work. Having this possibility and even having more time to concentrate on this activity, we decided to deepen the research and studies that were already ongoing, to conceive new products, that besides being good, also bring nutritional value in a moment where health and nutrition are at the center of a worldwide debate and more people are being careful with their diet,” says Niko.

Within the gastronomic laboratory during the global pandemic, Niko and his team of young chefs, many of whom studied in his culinary academy, worked from morning until night on recipe tests creating new products. “So many ideas were born. The organic and vegan cookies, the pandolce which is  an oven baked product that now turns 1 year old, born in the pandemic,” he says. The chocolate cookies taste incredibly decadent, they have the texture of a deeply rich buttery cookie – yet are vegan.

Since restaurants and many shops across Italy were closed and many people feared leaving their homes in the beginning phase of the pandemic, he saw this as an opportunity to improve the e-commerce side of the business. “We began to emphasize our e-commerce side. We always had it but never dedicated a lot of attention to it. It was the only instrument to sell and introduce ourselves. And this brought us into so many new homes that didn’t know us before. And we were able to keep many of our staff members employed because they began to work in our laboratory and this allowed for the energy and creativity to continue to move forward,” said Niko. Despite the restaurant sector being hit hard – refocusing his business model allowed for more staff to be hired, mostly students that trained in his culinary academy. 

Both Niko and Cristiana have an incredible knack for reading the room, both literally and figuratively. Cristiana reads the dining room, she enters into a symphony with the clients almost anticipating their desires. Niko does it by predicting the needs and shifts in how people consume food. Perhaps it’s because they continuously have their feet firmly planted on the ground and speak with the locals, the people they have always known but also the global audience that now knows them. They know how to observe and take information in like sponges. Both largely self-trained except for a few classes, they were able to define and even adapt their business model to the global shifts that have come and gone but they have always remained fiercely authentic because this vision is uniquely theirs.

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