Niko Romito from Ristorante Reale – Take II

If I were to use one-line to describe my experience at Ristorante Reale in Italy last summer, I’d say “worth the 7-hour drive”. So when I first learnt that Chef Niko Romito was going to be a guest chef at Tosca in Ritz Carlton (reads: 20 minutes drive), imagine how excited I was! The 6-course menu at Tosca was mostly vegetarian, with only 2 of the dishes from the full tasting menu at Reale. The Chef told us he has gotten a bit bored of cooking meat and seafood and had been focusing more on vegetables in the past few months. But whether it was vegetable, seafood or meat, the core principle was  consistent – the focus is always on the ingredient itself,  the presentation is on the flavour, not the look.

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Starting with the table’s favourite dish of the night – Woodland. The combination of black truffle and crushed earl gray tea leaves worked well in both the taste and the fragrance as a refreshing dish after the mains.

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This one was the most peculiar dish out of all – it was savoy cabbage on potato mousse. You are probably thinking, this does not look at all like cabbage; which was quite exactly what I thought when I first saw this dish. The cabbage had been prepared and slow-cooked for 10 days prior to serving and the leaves were layered to give texture. It reminded me of Chinese preserved mustard greens (mui choi). This was… interesting but to be honest, a little beyond my threshold for creativity.

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Overall, I felt like we enjoyed the desserts from the Tosca meal the most. This was Essence – horseradish icecream, hazelnut and almond paste and coffee crunches. It was like eating natural Nutella with ice-cream guilt-free because there was no sugar in the nut cream!

I felt that if my review of Niko Romito’s cooking ended here, it would really not do the talented chef justice. The young Italian chef used to be a stock broker until 1999 when he took over his late father’s restaurant. Perhaps because he was self taught, his cooking was very original. I like how simple the dishes look but that the contemporary culinary techniques create fresh innovations and accentuate the flavours of the ingredients. Chef Romito was awarded his first Michelin star only 8 years after he took over the restaurant. Ristorante Reale is a three-star Michelin restaurant now, run by the siblings Niko and his sister Cristiana.

The restaurant is on the mountains in the Abruzzo region, 2.5 hours south-east from Rome. Driving to the restaurant itself was not easy at all – it went through winding roads, unpaved grounds by a river – at one point, we really thought the GPS was broken. When we finally got here, we found an elegant all-white 17th century monastery by a vineyard and a huge garden.

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The complex itself is a restaurant, a boutique hotel and a culinary school (with a food lab). The whole complex is now run by the two Romito siblings. The decor inside the restaurant is simple but very chic, much like the food.

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Lunch started with pea ice-cream coupled with bacon and parmesan. This was like eating green pea soup, but a frozen one to cool off the summer heat. Refreshing start to the meal by cleansing our palettes and preparing us for the big meal ahead!

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 The beef tartare, emulsioned with olive oil and raspberry vinegar mayonnaise. This is one of the two dishes which was brought to Tosca in Hong Kong, so I guess this must be one of the signatures. The mayonnaise was just tart enough to not be too heavy on the meat, but the texture of the tartare is a bit too minced/mushy for my liking.

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Cold linguine with oysters and potatoes. A rather simple dish, but executed perfectly. Al dente pasta with just enough creamy potato sauce and a fresh half-cooked oyster on top. All in my mouth in one go! Good stuff!

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Ending the meal review on the high note here – this one is by far my favourite dish by Niko Romito. Pigeon and pistachio. Yes, that’s it – simple but delicious. The skin was crisp and crunchy, the meat tender and succulent pink, and of course, pistachio sauce – who does nut sauces better than the Italians?

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One more thing – if you ever go – order this wine! They had it by glass and said it’s from a small production vineyard in the region. It is buttery, complex, a little savoury with mineral notes. Just perfect for a summer afternoon!

I’m not sure when I would have the chance to come back again but if you are in the nearby region (Rome/ Naples/ Amalfi), this place is worth a day trip by car. The price point is reasonable for the quality of food. I would recommend coming for lunch because you get a spectacular view of the garden and the mountains. If you come for dinner, perhaps consider staying for the evening in the estate. I’m sure that would be just as memorable as the meal itself! I’ll be looking forward to more innovations by this talented chef when I go visit next time!

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Ristorante Reale
Address: Piana Santa Liberata, Castel di Sangro AQ, Italy
Tel:+39 0864 69382
Hours: 12:30pm – 10pm, Wed – Sun
Price: HKD 1,500 – 2,500
Best for: Foodies who like the original taste of quality ingredients

Favourite dish:  Pigeon and Pistachio, and all the desserts

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