Reale is the restaurant of chef Niko Romito and his sister Cristiana in the mountain town of Castel di Sangro in Abruzzo. I had been curious about this restaurant with tre forchette from Gambero Rosso for a while, but it was always too far from where we were in Italy. When Reale got its third Michelin star, I decided to do it the other way around, and build our itinerary around a visit to Reale. And so I started by making a reservation at Reale and then built the rest of the itinerary for our vacation to Italy around it. It goes without saying that the expectations for our dinner were high.
The restaurant offers two degustation menus: the set menu “Essenza” (5 courses for 100 euros, 50 euros) and the mano libera menu “Ideale” (8 courses for 150 euros, 90 euros for matching wines). Ideale can be extended with two more new courses (that are not yet on the a la carte menu) for 30 euros extra. We opted for “Ideale” without the extension.
We started our degustation with a cold emulsion of beef with tarragon and mayonnaise made with raspberry vinegar (2011). The beef had a usual flavor of beef tartare, but the texture was very different. Very smooth, without being a puree. Together with the mayo it was really nice. 9/10
As a matching wine a Pecorino from Abruzzo, a very nice crispy white with great minerality and nice white fruit. Unfortunately, the crisp wine didn’t work for us in combination with the unctuous beef and mayo, and the wine also overpowered the elegant flavors of the dish.
Veal gel with dried porcini mushrooms, almonds, and black truffle (2011). We were advised to eat all the layers of the dish together, which did indeed work very well as the play of flavors on our tongues was wonderful. It was especially interesting that the truffle was not a flavor by itself as it usually is, but blended with the other flavors to create a new very deep flavor. 10/10
The same Pecorino was also served with this dish. It worked a lot better than with the beef emulsion and was actually one of the best matching wines of the evening, but I thought it was still a bit too crisp for the dish.
“Absolute” onions with parmigiano and toasted saffron (2010). The liquid is called “assoluto” as it is not onion stock but onion juice, and contains nothing but onions. It does indeed have a very deep and sweet onion flavor that went well with the parmigiano and saffron. The parmigiano was in small ‘ravioli’ that were like parmigiano bombs and imparted a very strong flavor of parmigiano. Almost too strong for the onions, but still a very nice dish. 9/10
The wine served with this dish was a blend of chardonnay and a local grape from Calabria, a nice wine with elegant use of oak. It was nice with the onion juice, but the parmigiano blew the wine away.
Again the wine was ‘recycled’ for this dish. The Calabrian white didn’t clash with this dish, but it didn’t work very well either.
Ravioli with buffalo ricotta, “distilled” buffalo, capers, and pepper (2013). If you appreciate the difference between buffalo mozzarella and cow milk’s mozzarella, you will love this dish as it is amazing how strong the ‘buffalo’ flavor is in this. 9/10
For the wine another Pecorino with an even nicer minerality than the first. Unfortunately again too ‘fresh’ for the dish.
Thick spaghetti with a tomato sauce made of three types of tomato (not on the a la carte menu). Not many three star chefs dare to serve spaghetti with tomato sauce, but this version really shows what chef Niko Romito’s cooking is all about: showing the essence of a flavor. The tomato flavor is very intense and deep, with a great play between acidity and sweetness. The spaghetti was cooked perfectly al dente. 9/10
I hate to say it, but again the wine pairing did not work. The same Pecorino as with the previous dish made the tomato sauce taste too acidic and distracted from enjoying the dish, which may very well have been 10/10 with a good matching wine.
Duck ‘painted’ with cherry syrup, served with foie gras and spinach (2010). The duck was very tender and had great depth of flavor. It didn’t actually taste very strongly of duck, but ‘better’, like an improved version. When we were taken to the kitchen to chat with the chef after dinner, he told us that he used dug legs instead of breast for this, cooked sous-vide for 24 hours, which explains why the meat didn’t taste as ‘red’. The duck was served with the skin side down, which was only slightly crispy. The cherry flavor was not separate and had blended into the meat. 10/10
The wine pairing with a red from the Etna was okay (but not the ‘miracle’ as promised by the sommelier). It was nice that the wine was served slightly chilled, as so many Italian restaurants serve their reds too warm.
Chocolate, grape must, licorice, and lemon (2010). Again the advice to taste all the layers together and again this was magical with a great play of flavors and textures. There was also a hint of mint that worked very well. 10/10
The wine pairing with an eiswein from Austria was nice. I can see why for this dish the sommelier went outside of Italy to find a wine with the right acidity.
Niko Romito is a great chef who manages to to stress the ‘essence’ of flavors. Most of his creations have only one, very deep and detailed, flavor. They are presented very elegantly without frills. All the spectacle comes from the flavor, and nothing else. Words like “absolute” and “essence” are not bragging here, as I really think that he has created the “absolute essence” of some flavors. 9.5/10
What distracted from those wonderful flavors was the service and the wine. The service was a bit impersonal, the dishes came too quickly after each other, and in a few cases the wine was served while the food was already on the table and we were waiting for the wine. When we asked to slow down, two dishes later the next dish was still coming straight after the previous one. When we complained about this, only later it was explained that our dish was already being prepared when our request reached the kitchen. What was impersonal about the service, was that most of the serving staff didn’t really seem to be interested in giving us a wonderful experience. 7.5/10
The wine pairings aren’t terrible, but not good enough compared to the quality of the food. I really wonder if the chef has tasted the wines that are served with his food himself. He puts so much effort in creating harmony on the plate, and the wine pairings distract from that. It may be a cultural thing to pay less attention to wine pairing, as we saw another table with a group of Italians ordering big red wines with all of their meal. But as we know from experience how matching the right wines can take a dinner experience to the level, that is what we have come to expect of restaurants with three Michelin stars. At 90 euros, the wines are too expensive for what is offered.