Despite the improbable promise I made to myself to stay on a diet for at least a month, when my wife had a business meeting in Sulmona, I couldn't help but take advantage of the situation to attend a gastronomic event in nearby Rivisondoli. We're in the Abruzzo, close to a mile high, in what is known as the Cinque Miglia High Plains, but the road to reach the town, which serves as a base camp for many skiing enthusiasts, isn't at all difficult, except for the last stretch coming into town, if there is fresh snow on the ground.
I had long wanted to sample Niko Romito's cooking: he is one of the new generation of chefs that are attracting considerable attention (we mentioned him in Identitá Golose 2007). The Ristorante Reale is quite easy to find, but should you miss it, simply ask a local. Even the cats can give clear directions.
The restaurant is small, with a few tables, in a fairly sober modern setting enlivened by beautiful paintings that are an integral part of the décor, bringing warmth and reassurance. A young, well prepared team led by Cristiana, Niko's sister, will set you at ease, allowing you to relax and open your senses to an array of aromas and flavors you will never forget.
I don't want to take the time to list the awards and recognitions received by one of the luminaries of our cuisine (if you don't have a guidebook handy you will find many articles on the restaurant's site), also because I generally don't let them influence me, but rather think the direct approach is the only way to verify, in person, every aspect of something that, in cases like this, is certainly a "global" event.
In these occasions my wife and I agree to taste different dishes so to increase our understanding of the restaurant, an understanding enhanced in this case by several entrees Niko proposed that enough by themselves to reveal his talent and gastronomic sensitivity. His cooking, while drawing from and working with the traditional local ingredients, follows paths whose borders are dictated exclusively by the measure, elegance, and taste of the pairings, and by the richness in flavor typical of the Abruzzo.
Thus he reaches extraordinary heights with dishes that, in the past, would have found no place in the haute, let us call it that, bourgeois cuisine. For example, the incredible Assoluto di Cipolle, Parmigiano e Zafferano, a revelation for the senses, which is almost deceptive in its simple presentation and monochromatic appearance, but displays an extraordinary mixture of aromas and flavors. And what to say of Torcinello di Agnello Arrosto con Cime di Rapa? A splendid interpretation of a dish rooted, in various interpretations, in the Abruzzo, Molise, and the Foggiano, and whose composition (it's stuffed lamb's intestine) might raise doubts in those bothered by offal, doubts, let me assure you, that are completely unfounded because the dish offers a unique and satisfying experience.
For want of space I must forgo descriptions of all the delights we enjoyed, but cannot not mention Cannelloncini Gratinati con Crema , Manarino and Vanilla, a dessert with a superb combination of flavors superbly prepared, that was enough to make me forget my dependence upon chocolate (a dependence assuaged by the confectionary that brought the meal to a close).
The wine cellar is well managed, keeping the dishes featured on the menu in mind, with honest pricing that allows one to be more adventuresome in exploring the many local, national, and foreign wines.
The Ristorante Reale will, I believe, be closing its doors in Rivisondoli within the end of the year, to reopen at a distance of 6 km, in Castel di Sangro, where for the past year they have been working on an ambitious project, Casadonna (the name of the facility), which will feature, in addition to the restaurant, a hotel and an ample center for gastronomic experimentation and research, a school of haute cuisine where Niko will help new talents to develop and shine. Each year he will select and work with 12 students, who will study the practical, cultural, scientific and creative aspects of cooking.
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.