Nestled in the hills of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, above the commune of Castel di Sangro in the province of L’Aquila, lies Casadonna, a 16th-century monastery that has become the heart of the brilliant mind of chef Niko Romito. It is here, inside the walls of this ancient building, that Romito and his sister Cristiana run the Michelin three-star, globally acclaimed Reale Restaurant, currently ranked 16th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
The estate is also home to a boutique hotel and the Accademia Niko Romito — a vocational cooking academy founded by Romito. The former monastery is a truly magnificent space, one that has been a labour of love for the Romito siblings. The duo brought the beautiful building back to life, restoring and preserving it, after buying it in 2011.
Whereas many older Italian buildings are boldly coloured, ornate, and gilded, Casadonna is the antithesis of this with its raw plastered walls and vaulted ceilings. The Romitos juxtapose the simplicity of the design with works of art, photography, and statement furniture. These include pops of colour in the form of works by Italian artist Ettore Spalletti and neon signage by US conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. Complementing rather than contrasting, photojournalist Mario Giacomelli’s black-and-white works are displayed to remarkable effect.
It is this eye for detail that no doubt makes Romito the remarkable chef he is. Part scientist, part artist, and part eternal student, he is a man who is seemingly constantly thinking about why things are as they are, and perhaps what they could become. Nowhere is this more evident than within the walls of Reale Restaurant. The double-volume, cubic dining room, situated below the repurposed monastery, is where Romito’s culinary vision comes to life. He is a self-taught chef, and his kitchen’s philosophy is to emphasise flavours while respecting the nature of each ingredient.
Thanks to this ethos, his tasting menu is now entirely dedicated to vegetables, which he believes best express this philosophy. It is truly remarkable cooking — each dish, deceptively simple, is in reality a complex, constant study of an ingredient, of its flavours and textures. In a never-ending experiment of sorts, he works to elevate the humblest of ingredients to the extraordinary, extracting as much as he can while maintaining its integrity.
Perhaps the best expression of this is his dish simply titled “Carrot”, where this simple ingredient is transformed into a glorious exploration of textures and flavours through grilling, extracting, fermenting, and more. It is incredibly clever cooking. The same is true for the warm mushroom salad, with the layers of sliced fungi delivering a deep, rich umami with every bite — meaty yet not, savoury yet sweet.
Another standout is the cazzarieli pasta with Swiss chard and lemon, which sees two usually bitter components transformed into an elegant dish of intense comfort, complex flavours, and utmost balance. Each of the dishes on the 13-course tasting menu displays a sense of elegance, beauty, and purity, while showcasing the technical prowess and ingenuity of the chef. Everything here has been considered and thought through, from temperature to texture, portion size, and plating — it is a masterclass in fine cuisine.
This is matched by an exceptional service team led by Cristiana and sommelier Gianni Sinesi, who complements each of the dishes with wine and cocktail pairings, and takes place in an elegant, minimalist dining room with a spectacular view of the valley below.
The tables are illuminated by curved floor lamps, ensuring that, from the moment the first course arrives, your focus is solely on the plate before you, and it remains so till the very end.
• From the September edition of Wanted, 2023.