Reale: Why Italy’s Best Restaurant Has Embraced Vegetarianism

Castel di Sangro, Italy (CNN) — It has been voted Italy’s best restaurant, but if customers think this means they’re being served upscale versions of the country’s classic meat and fish dishes, they’re in for a surprise.

In a striking space that redefines what Italian food is, the tasting menu at the Reale restaurant, located in a former monastery in Castel di Sangro, a town surrounded by the Apennines in Italy’s eastern Abruzzo region, is vegetarian.

But that hasn’t hindered its rise to the top. Reale’s three Michelin star chef Niko Romito recently accepted the award for being named Italy’s number one restaurant by Gambero Rosso, the country’s most historic dining guide.

It’s an accolade he’s delighted to receive, as his fine dining establishment has transitioned to a meat-free menu.

“We made a radical choice to have a vegetarian tasting menu,” he tells CNN. “Receiving this award while having a vegetarian menu means that a critic understands our work and the scope of our research.”

“It’s like we’re writing a new page right now; our dishes and our work don’t exist in gastronomic literature. It’s new adrenaline, new energy.”

Reale’s location between the sea and the mountains has allowed the restaurant to take advantage of the fascinating culinary traditions of the isolated region, such as foraging for mushrooms in autumn and growing saffron in Navelli.

Simple, healthy, local

The broccoli leaf is a star ingredient at Reale.

Andrea Straccini

Reale’s kitchen also reinterprets Italian fine dining. The chefs are cleaning broccoli, stripping the outer leaves and, rather than throwing them away, use them as the star of one of the main dishes of the new vegetarian menu.

Pushing the boundaries doesn’t stop there. In addition to a boutique hotel and culinary school, an experimental pecorino vineyard is located on the grounds of the restaurant.

It’s the perfect location, says Romito.

“We are in Castel di Sangro, Abruzzo, the greenest region in Europe, surrounded by nature. Vegetables represent all of this,” he says. “I thought, if I didn’t do this, who else would do it? It’s more natural for me to do this in an environment like this than someone in the center of Milan. It reflects everything we have around us.”

Reale is not the first Michelin-starred restaurant to offer a vegetarian menu. In 2020, Eleven Madison Park in New York City announced it would go vegan—a striking departure from a lavish lineup featuring suckling pig and whole roast duck with daikon and prunes.

The pandemic has intensified controls on animal-based diets for social and environmental reasons.

Yet Reale is the first in Italy where strong gastronomic identities define food, and fine dining in particular — with a heavy emphasis on meat, fish and rich sauces.

Romito says his vegetarian shift is also a way to influence and encourage restaurants of all kinds in Italy to use simple, healthy ingredients grown locally.

“When I think of legumes in Abruzzo, chickpeas, lentils and beans, they are not often used in fine dining. So if fine dining starts using these ingredients, it will affect everyday restaurants,” he says.

“I’m interested in changing the paradigm for chefs, but also for the customer who comes to eat and realizes that vegetables can be even more exciting than meat or fish.”

A new story

Niko Romito says he wants to democratize the gastronomic experience.

Niko Romito says he wants to democratize the gastronomic experience.

Andrea Straccini

When he received his Gambero Rosso award for best restaurant in Italy at a ceremony in Rome on October 24, Romito took his fourth-generation greengrocer, Alessandro La Valle, on stage.

“Without him, certain dishes wouldn’t be possible,” says Romito. La Valle’s encyclopedic knowledge of produce and where to buy it year-round helped him craft his menu, he adds.

Romito says his food philosophy has always been deeply rooted in Abruzzo and its local producers.

“Today, a customer has to eat in a place that thinks about good food and uses ingredients that cause less damage to the environment, and cook with ingredients that until recently were considered boring and banal,” says the chef.

“But the real difference is when a chef can create an ingredient we all know well and tell a new story.

“A chef’s creativity is to appreciate these ingredients and research — that’s the difference. If someone eats the dish and says, ‘wow, a broccoli leaf can be so tasty’, you’re making a difference and changing the way ingredients and the creativity behind cooking is understood.”

Romito, who has given his name to a range of upscale eateries such as Il Ristorante Niko Romito at Bvlgari hotels in Milan, Shanghai, Beijing, Dubai and Paris, says he also wanted to make the restaurant more accessible and democratize fine dining by cutting costs of its tasting menu to attract customers who would not normally go to a three-star Michelin restaurant.

“It’s a younger, more gourmet-educated crowd; they want to get the full experience and understand the philosophy behind the menu,” he says.

“The price helps a lot. Today I had a 26-year-old at the kitchen table; I never went at that age; it’s amazing!” says Romito.

Reale’s 14-course tasting menu currently costs about 170 euros (about $176). Meat and fish dishes are still available on the à la carte menu.

Romito and his sister Cristiana Romito, who manages the front of the house, both took the gamble of returning to their hometown of Rivisondoli in Abruzzo after the loss of their father to take over the family’s bakery and trattoria.

Fall and rise

01_Reale 4 by Alberto Zanetti

Reale’s 14-course tasting menu costs around 170 euros.

Alberto Zanetti

Niko Romito was studying economics at the time. His mother, Giovanna, tells CNN: “I just wasn’t sure at first if I was going to leave Rome, where we lived, where there are more options, but he said to me, ‘Mom, you have to believe!’

“He was right.”

Within seven years they had their first Michelin star, quickly followed by a second. They then decided to move their restaurant to the former monastery in Castel di Sangro, about 14 kilometers from their original location.

Cristiana Romito’s work as the restaurant and dining room manager earned her the 2019 title of World’s Best Dining Room Manager, awarded by Les Grandes Tables du Monde.

Like her brother, she had no previous experience in the restaurant industry and shared the philosophy of democratizing the fine dining experience, including efforts to accommodate guests with other disabilities.

“I asked the kitchen to cut the food for our guests who couldn’t use their hand to cut with a knife and fork in a discreet way that wouldn’t be noticed,” she tells CNN. “At the end of the meal, the guest said, ‘No one has ever done that for me.'”

Self-taught, obsessed with research and the transformation of ingredients that are easily accessible even to the home cook, Niko Romito credits the pandemic and extended lockdowns for giving him time to understand the concept of good food and his subsequent pursuit of sustainability, not waste, reassess and invest in human capital.

“I’ve worked with vegetables for years, so it was very natural to create a vegetarian menu.” he says.

“I work in a very special way when researching a new ingredient. I never know where I will end up.

“In the process of working, experimenting and testing something goes wrong, I try again, then the ingredients transform – and you start chipping away, and the ingredient starts revealing things. You learn from the process. All the trial and error. ​leads to knowledge that sometimes applies to completely different applications — so you take it all in.”

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