Chef Niko Romito has managed to set-up one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in Italy, in the heart of the Apennines. His restaurant Reale managed to put Abruzzo on the map, as it now is one of the few three Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy.
Reaching Castel di Sangro, where Reale is located, is easier said than done. Halfway between the Adriatic and Naples, it is in one of the more remote corners of Abruzzo. From either part of the coast it takes a couple of hours by car, and the drive is mostly dominated by desolate, untouched nature.
Once you find the restaurant, however, you are rewarded with a place of arresting beauty. Set in an old convent that has been lovingly restored to house the restaurant, hotel, and cooking school, it is a sight for sore eyes. The owners have done a great job at keeping the old structures in place, whilst giving it a decidedly contemporary feel.
With the scene set, it is down to the food to impress. The first bites are indeed promising: bread here is remarkable: rustic, with plenty of flavour, and a crust that makes it difficult to stop eating. Especially by Italian standards this is bread of rarely found quality. The amuse-bouches are also good. Perhaps not particularly exciting, but a pea ice cream with pancetta crisps is full of flavour, and refreshing at the same time.
Romito’s cooking has-as is often the case in Italian top restaurants-the ambition of being extremely modern, and innovative. Nonetheless, a first course of squid with lettuce shows neither innovation nor modernity. Instead, you are served squid of poor quality next to a single lettuce leaf, dressed with a lettuce-based sauce. There is nothing wrong with the cooking of the squid, but a product of this quality should not find its way onto the table of any restaurant; let alone a three Michelin-starred one. It is mushy, fishy, and has an actively unpleasant texture. The lettuce and sauce seem completely detached from the squid, and essentially taste like the remainder of the lettuce had been blended, and poured over the leaf. The lack of seasoning makes this a very vegetal, bitter, and problematic garnish.
Another dish is announced as tortellini in brodo leggero di vitello, i.e. torellini in veal broth. This is one of the most classical dishes, featured on menus of simple trattorie all over Italy. This is genuine comfort food, but the version served at Reale will most likely leave you cold. The broth does not taste of anything but water and salt, and no veal-flavour can be detected here. Similarly, the tortellini are well made, but lack flavour. This is shockingly pedestrian, and poorly executed cooking.
A silver lining appears with umido di vitello con misticanza alcolica. The slow-cooked piece of veal is garnished with gin-marinated herbs, and salad leaves, sat atop a cream. The intense gin-flavour comes through beautifully, and cuts the meat’s richness. Additionally, the gin botanicals work well with the herbs’ bitterness, and make this a highly interesting and unique dish.
Disregarding the extremely generous rating of the Michelin guide for Reale in Castel di Sangro, this is a restaurant that is emblematic of the current state of Italian gastronomy.
Whilst at the level of the simple trattoria this country can offer some of the best food, and produce in the world, a large share of its fine-dining restaurants seem to be primarily concerned with ideas, theories, philosophies. Instead of using the phenomenal produce available around them, and simply cooking it carefully, there is a fascination for odd combinations, post-modern dishes that often result in disaster. The problems at Reale seem to touch upon this to the extent that a dish such as the squid suffers from poor conception. All the more, the quality of products used here really is nowhere near that of other top restaurants in the country. The failure to produce convincing renditions of even the most basic classics of Italian cooking makes us seriously question the praise bestowed upon Romito’s cooking.
With its remote location in one of the least civilised parts of Italy, Reale has the potential to become the Michel Bras, or Faviken of Italy. Instead, the cooking here seems half-hearted, and negligent, and we have trouble understanding what justifies such generous ratings.