De gustibus non est disputandum
3 Michelin stars is a big deal, isn’t it? I have only had the pleasure of dining at such an establishment once, and it was one of the most memorable food related experiences of my life.
So when Niko Romito received a coveted 3rd star in November 2013, I thought it was about time I went back to Ristorante Reale, particularly given the fact that it is located within walking distance from where we spend our Xmas holidays since childhood, in much loved Castel di Sangro. Not many people have heard of it! The town is located about 2 hours drive from Napoli and 20 minutes’ drive from the more famous, ski resort of Aremogna – Roccaraso. The fact that Castel di Sangro boasts a 3 Michelin stars venue is a reason of pride for me, somehow – I have been telling so many people about the place yet now that Niko is famous, people are beginning to notice.
I love the area. Its heritage, its food, its nature. I make the effort of going every year at least once. Food here is genuine, flavoursome, rustic: think plenty of sausages, salami, cheeses and river trout. Mainly, food here is inexpensive. Most places would feed you a couple of courses, dessert and wine for under 15 euros… but of course, Reale is head and shoulders above the rest. When he moved to Castel di Sangro from nearby Rivisondoli, Niko refurbished a 16thcentury monastery with style and elegance. The place is simply stunning. White stone floors, whitewashed walls and a fantastic terrace overlooking the Sangro valley and beyond, the old church and houses of the old village. Behind the main structure, its vineyards roll across the hillside. The structure is divided into a school (niko romito formazione), a number of boutique hotel rooms and the restaurant and bar. Floor to ceiling glass windows overlook the valley. From the outside, below, they are not so pretty to be fair… they just look enormous and out of place, but from the inside, one can simply take in the whole Sangro valley and relax, in a feeling of immense calmness. Luxury, elegance, beauty, these words come to mind when thinking of Casadonna Reale.
We opted for a la carte instead of tasting menus. First, we were served a delicious little morsel of crunchy thin pastry with olive oil and black olives filling. Called ‘crostatina’, it was really very intense and for those who like olives, excellent.
Smoked lard arrived next, with the bread basket… I don’t like to eat pure fat, but I had to try it and it was so good, beautifully flavoured and went perfectly with the long, gnarly and crunchy chestnut honey grissini, of which I could have eaten a ton of. This was followed by a small panino with scampi. The bun was a fairly hefty size but the bread was fresh and delicious. The filling a little strange: a (raw?) langoustine, its texture not entirely enjoyable to eat, for me at least. @bmcboy did not eat it as he cannot eat crustaceans (especially raw) and he got it promptly replaced by a bun with salt cod which was good.The menus we ordered from had no prices (but great to have a fully translated English menu too) and it was a little hard to differentiate between starters, pasta dishes and mains. I could only guess. I chose ‘The artichoke’ because I love artichokes and hardly ever eat them. There it is, an artichoke.
Accompanied by an intense but tiny drop of rosemary reduction, it was, really, an artichoke. @bmcboy ordered Fried baby squid with vinegar emulsion which were also good, and really, fried squid with a delicate egg white mayo with vinegar.
We both ordered pastas as mains. I had a Squid ink spaghetti, named ‘Spaghetti with cuttlefish extract, cuttlefish and sea’. Here it is. Slightly too al dente for my liking, it was a good example of squid ink pasta dish for sure.
We had three glasses of wine and, while I thought Gianni (the sommelier) was really professional and very friendly, I could not figure our from the extensive wine list which wines were available by the glass and at what price. When I then asked to pay for our pre-dinner aperitifs separately, I was told it was 50Euros; I was not given a receipt or itemised bill for it, which frankly I thought was not quite right.
Niko’s dishes seem to be as minimalistic as the dining room. I admire him for what he has achieved, for how he has brought his region, Abruzzo, in the gourmet limelight. For how he has transformed Casadonna into what it is today. His, is certainly food of high standard, yet personally I cannot say we had a great night. It was not fun, there was no wow factor. I am no food critic, but having read professional articles, blog posts and even Trip Advisor’s reviews I sure find myself in the minority in thinking that our experience was that of a very good but fairly regular Italian restaurant. I really wanted to be blown away and wax lyrical about Reale’s dishes, but unfortunately it did not happen. I have been told I did not choose his signature dishes. I have been told with my views I nullify 50 years of Italian culinary tradition. But I trust my own taste: I have had just as good squid ink pasta elsewhere, without a doubt.
Of our meal at Reale, I take away the gorgeous olives crostatina, the smoked lard and the amazing chestnut honey grissini, which I ate all and could have kept eating.
Is this enough to make a meal a positively memorable meal? Not really.
I am hoping that people who come all this way to try it, also give a go to some of the fantastic, genuine, rustic restaurants the area has to offer. It would be a huge shame not to.