The world of Niko Romito is so variegated that it would take a book to narrate all its facets: he is known more as an entrepreneur than as a chef, but what is essentially at work here is a creative vision in constant ferment, made of food and extensive research, haute cuisine and initiatives for the community, ethics and aesthetics, places, spaces and objects, all with a love for art and beauty in all things.
Alongside the Reale restaurant in Reale di Castel di Sangro, the only three-star venue in all of Abruzzo, opened in 2011 together with his sister Cristiana, Romito has now created a true system of activities: the hospitality of Casadonna, a monastery from the 1500s offering 10 guestrooms; the supervision of all the restaurants of the Bulgari Hotels & Resorts chain around the world; the dining format for travelers ALT Stazione del gusto, an unusual Italian version of the American diner, which thanks to a new partnership with Eni now focuses on 100 new openings over a span of four years; the Accademia Niko Romito, an advanced school of training and professional specialization; Spazio Niko Romito, an urban bistro formula, already functioning in Rome and Milan; the Laboratorio Niko Romito, a center of experimentation and development of new bakery and pastry products.
Last but not least, there is the activity of research on nutrition and health, where Romito puts the accent on the community, leading since 2017 to the project of Nutritional Intelligence for dining in hospitals, soon to also converge in a project for school dining halls in Abruzzo.
“I’m better at doing things than in talking about myself,” says chef Niko. But the words come flooding in when he narrates the history, method and values that have enabled him to create a model that has become a reference point for contemporary cuisine.
“In 2000, when I was 24 years old and studying economics, I had to take charge of my family’s trattoria, though I had never cooked before. This led me to formulate a cognitive approach to food.
I was interested in understanding the processes of transformation of ingredients in the construction of taste: the way a steak shifts from being raw to being cooked, or the reasons why a vegetable, when cooked, changes its structure and consistency.
I always asked lots of questions, because I knew nothing. Even today I have this attitude, which has prompted me to build a very personal, identifying gastronomic model.”
What are the ingredients of the Romito method?
Those of ethical, healthy cooking, represented for example by the vegetable menu Reale has been offering for two years now. From the outset, I have concentrated on the selection of certain ingredients and their transformation with an eye on healthy eating.
I immediately developed a passion for vegetables, which are harder to work with than fish or meat: each one is different, and requires specific techniques.
This approach has stimulated my creativity; at the same time, it has directed me towards clear, precise contents, in relation to health and sustainability.
Choosing what you eat today is a political act. And I believe chefs should use their media force to educate consumers: communicating strong values and socially useful messages, to orient consumption along new paths.
From a three-star restaurant to your involvement with collective dining facilities… what do these activities have in common?
With Reale I make fine dining into a laboratory of innovation, which is then interpreted in simpler gastronomic models, shifting the research to bigger numbers.
The relationship between the art of restaurants and industry is one of my cherished themes. Industry is the only tool that allows us to democratize quality, to project it onto a larger economic scale. The problem is often a lack of innovative thinking: industry has very advanced technologies, but it does not grasp their revolutionary potential in practice.
In my workshop I have equipment that in miniature, and with a minimal investment, can perform the same processes as very costly industrial machines; I experiment with these processes, and I obtain incredible results.
My goal is to transfer those results to the industry, to let innovation be applied to large numbers. The idea is to change the approach to the transformation of foods. And to do it in a healthier logic: this could truly lead to a real revolution.
How does one innovate in the kitchen?
Innovation with food is much harder than innovation in other sectors, especially in a country like Italy, with such a cumbersome culinary tradition: when we eat we tend to make reference to things we already know.
Today people think innovation lies in the use of a new product, perhaps from another gastronomic culture.
In my view, instead it comes from common foods that are transformed by the ability of the chef into something novel, moving it towards structures, consistencies and tastes we have not yet experienced.
In such a complex vision of cuisine, where does the aesthetic component come into play?
It is fundamental. But it is also fundamental for the aesthetic vision to jibe with ethics. Take the example of Casadonna: with my sister Cristiana, we have personally worked on every detail of the refurbishing of this former monastery, from the layout of the spaces to the materials, the furnishings to the finishes.
We have operated with a logic of recovery and extreme simplicity, to respect the nature of these places, which were originally very humble. The luxury of Casadonna is not ostentation, but space, silence, light, dialogue with nature.
All the elements of this experience have a clearly recognizable consistency, from the old rusty gate to the linen tablecloths at breakfast. Arriving, of course, at the gastronomic offerings: they seem to be very essential and simple, but they conceal great complexity of preparation and construction.
For six years you have supervised the restaurants of the Bulgari hotels around the world, all designed by the studio ACPV Architects Antonio
Citterio Patricia Viel. Can you tell us more about this collaboration?
Every restaurant comes from interaction between me and the architects, to set the identity in relation to the host context.
In Tokyo, for example, we have used only a few materials, and the space has the clean look typical of Japanese culture. The restaurant in Rome, on the other hand, is richer: marble, paneling and large chests suggest the monumental flair of the Eternal City.
Our creative contribution covers the set-up of the tables: in each city, we use the same type of china, a classical look that goes perfectly with both Japanese minimalism and Roman opulence.
The food is based on a single menu developed in one year of work, offering iconic Italian cuisine creations, updated to match the principles of healthiness I always put at the center of my work. We have developed a unique protocol: all the kitchens rely on the same manual of procedures, all the techniques, measurements, cooking and finishing times have been encoded.
In this way, it is possible to have a constant range of offerings, monitored closely for each location. One of the main topics of our interaction with Patricia Viel has been the study of the layouts of the kitchens: first comes the menu, then the kitchen, which has to be functional for the preparation of the chosen foods. Before moving into the design phase, Patricia has to know about my way of cooking.
Projects for the near future?
We are working on opening restaurants in three new Bulgari hotels, in Miami, Los Angeles and the Maldives, in 2025 and 2026.
But the project that excites me most is the creation of a campus to bring together professional expertise in many different sectors.
A place of creativity and research, where architects, designers and fashion creators work alongside chefs, nutritionists and scientists. The objective is to democratized quality food, but also to create new dining facility models that make food become the stimulus for a wider-ranging sensorial and cultural experience.
Foto di copertina: la sala del Reale dotata di 30 coperti, con opere di Ettore Spalletti. Ph. Helenio Barbetta