As I sat taking in the dining room’s stunning view, I couldn’t help but to be slightly perplexed by the dish the waiter just had put in front of me. It was a giant mushroom sitting on a large plate by itself, lonely and with no partners in crime in sight. Considering I was at a three-Michelin star restaurant in Italy, this serving struck me as remarkably reduced. But then this was, of course, no ordinary Italian three-star, I was at was at Casadonna Reale, the flagship restaurant of contemporary Italian chef icon Niko Romito. As I watched my fellow diners stare at the mushroom with the same astonishing look in their eyes as myself, a line from Niko’s book 10 lezioni di cucina echoed in my head. “Not everybody understands my food” it said, “often people think it’s just simplistic”. Looking at the faces around the table, I could tell we were all more than eager to understand.
“Not everybody understands my food. Often people think it’s just simplistic”.
We’d arrived with Niko at the Casadonna estate a couple of hours earlier after an excessive 24-hour eating frenzy in Rome during which our wine-induced conversations had focused largely on the (in our perspective) unsung merits of the legendary Roman pasta dish Cacio e pepe. Our discussions ranged from acceptable cheeses (Pecorino, Parmigiano; both?) to where we had had the best version (Spazio or Salumeria Roscioli?).
Our breathtaking arrival at Casadonna prompted a rare interlude where we didn’t speak about pasta. The old monastery, located on a gentle slope above the village of Castel di Sangro and enveloped from all four corners by vineyards and snow-covered mountain tops, silenced us. We were witnessing Niko’s impressive kingdom. The former business student, turned three-star chef, was thrown into the world of cooking in his late 30’s after the his father’s early passing. Niko recalls “I started cooking in the restaurant merely to save the family business and then quickly sell it, but it turned out to be so much more.” Destiny had placed Niko exactly where he needed to be and with every day he spent in the restaurant, he realized he couldn’t just get up and leave again. “This was where I belonged”, he concluded.
His father’s restaurant was eventually exchanged for a 16th century monastery, located 860m above sea level on a six-hectare estate, to provide space for the Romito sibling’s ambitious vision. Before dinner, Romito took us on a tour. “As well as my living quarters, it’s also home to a small hotel, an experimental vineyard, our garden, my Formazione cooking school and, of course, the restaurant” he explained, as we watched a group of his students engaged in a butchering workshop.
“A lonely piece of cauliflower served? A tray of lentils? Most of the food looked alarmingly basic”
An hour later, we sat down for dinner in the spacious and minimalistic dining room with stone floors and magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows. During our tour we’d asked Romito if we stood any chance of experiencing his version of Cacio e Pepe pasta and although his answer had come back as a stern “no”, I retained a tiny sliver of hope, based entirely on a mischievous look on Niko’s face.
It turned out Niko wasn’t joking about his understated cooking. The whole mushroom had just been the beginning. A piece of cauliflower? A tray of lentils? Most of the food looked alarmingly basic. But with every spoonful that we ate of the food, it became clear, that this cooking was anything but simple. The mushroom – a whole, roasted Cardoncello – had been dressed with herbs, garlic, chili, tarragon and oil then slow-baked and aged for seven whole days, merely to supercharge the flavor. Just before plating, it was roasted and lightly smoked and then served on liquid parsley where it lay in all its natural beauty. It appeared wholly untouched, but this stunning testament to the culinary capacity of a humble fungi was complex and as mouthwateringly meaty as any piece of roasted meat.
Vegetables take up a large part of Niko’s menu, but his interpretations of classical, Italian dishes that night led to minds being blown in real time all around the dining room. His “Ravioli in Brodo” featured tortellini pasta filled with an almond cream so smooth it transcended my very understanding of the texture. The pasta came submerged in a staggeringly intense porcini and veal broth and the two components unleashed unparalleled magic on my palate. This brilliance was matched in the next dish, a pigeon breast served with nothing but roasted pistachio cream. The preparation of the pigeon commanded diners attention. It appeared raw, suggesting elements of blood and iron, but on the palate it unfolded to reveal a texture and flavour profile as tantalizing as it was harmonious.
“…the two components unleashed unparalleled magic on my palate.”
The meal continued with Niko’s unique and forward-thinking cooking captivating us to such a degree we forgot about our Cacio e Pepe longing altogether. For the closing act we received a granita made with white vinegar, liquorice, apple, and white chocolate ganache doused in balsamic vinegar and served with shortbread wafers and cream.
“that night we all went to bed soothed with the soothing knowledge that we had reached Cacio e Pepe perfection.”
But suddenly, Niko appeared from the kitchen with a grin on his face and bowls of steaming hot food in his hands. It was his finishing move, his nail in the coffin for a group of guests who had challenged the Italian in him when we begged to know about his preparation of iconic Roman pasta. Sometimes you get what you ask for, and despite the protests of my oversaturated body, I couldn’t help but finish the entire bowl of this third “dessert”. In awe of this perfectly creamy Cacio e Pepe with an unprecedented cheese-to-pepper ratio balance, that night we all went to bed soothed with the soothing knowledge that we had reached Cacio e Pepe perfection.
The next day, Niko took us for lunch at the farm of famous cheese maker Giorgio. During the whole trip, I never saw chef happier than the moment when he tucked into a giant ravioli filled with Giorgio’s homemade ricotta and bathed in a stunning tomato sauce, all handmade by one of the nonnas at the farm. “This ravioli right here, this is perfect simplicity”, he said. “My food is not simple. I just believe that all dishes are improved by eliminating ingredients as opposed to adding too many. The complexity in my food comes from building layers that intensify the original essence of an ingredient” he added. Words that truly summarized his cooking for me.
Months later, I feel I understand his cooking as much as I long for it, but I needed a new reference point to do so. When asked what made his Cacio e Pepe the best we had tried all week he grinned. “The best Pecorino. Water. And just a few mint leafs.” Loud laughter followed. We had found it: Mint leaves. The addition in Niko’s elimination process.