Text by Luca Iaccarino
Photographs by Paolo Zerbini
After landing in Naples, I turn my back to the sea. Behind me is picture-postcard Italy – Ischia, Sorrento, Capri, Amalfi – but that’s not where I’m headed, not towards the Mediterranean, but the centre of the country. I get stuck as the roads narrow in the Campanian hinterland – Casoria, Afragola –, then here I am in Caserta, home to the royal palace and mozzarellas. After this though, the landscape changes: the further I get into the bright heart of Italy, hills swell up around me and woods appear behind the olive trees, like the figures in a pop-up book. And so, all traces of human presence gradually disappear. It’s as if man had never been here: the only trace of our passage over the planet is the strip of asphalt I’m coasting along. Not a house. Not a factory. Not a hut. Not even an electricity pylon. The world as it must have been one hundred thousand years ago. A million perhaps. That’s Abruzzo for you.
Driving along the Statale 17, I finally get where I’m going: I draw into the parking area and stop in front of the service station that’s under construction. In this precise instant the workers are putting up the sign: it’s in red letters and it says “Alt – Forno & Brace – Caffè & Dolci” (Stop – Bakehouse & Grill – Coffee & Cakes). It’s the end of summer 2018 and Alt is the latest project of Niko Romito, the staunchly Abruzzian cook who over the last 18 years has conquered the world: today he runs the restaurants in the Bulgari hotels in Beijing, Dubai, Shanghai and Milan, the Spazio bistro in Milan and Rome, the Bomba street food outlet in Milan, the “Intelligenza nutrizionale” (Nutritional Intelligence) project… Yet the heart and brains of all his work are contained in the few kilometres separating Castel di Sangro from Rivisondoli. Rivisondoli – 688 inhabitants – is where everything started, while Castel di Sangro, in what was the sixteenth-century monastery of Casadonna, today hosts the Reale restaurant – three Michelin stars – and the Niko Romito Academy which every year turns out 32 graduates in “professional Italian cuisine”.
Checking that the word “Alt” is put up straight is Romito, 44 years of age, shaven head, pointy beard, lean figure, open smile, soft voice, and control freak. “Alt” is something that didn’t exist before: a service station designed for the regional highways. “Route 17 is the backbone running between the Tyrhennian and the Adriatic seas: everyone comes through here, lorry drivers, tourists, sales reps, bikers. I’ll give them fried chicken, grilled trout, focaccia con la porchetta1, jam tarts, my Mum’s ciambellone2.” But “Alt” is also a gateway back in time that takes us to the Abruzzo of the old millennium, to country life, to the taste of childhood.
In the 1970s, Italy – and with Italy, Abruzzo and Rivisondoli – was a different place. A place of farmers. Of shepherds. Romito’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Vincenzo, was a country watchman: the “girapaese” they called him because his job was to wander around the village and check the fields, the pastures. Niko’s father, Antonio, after a life of adventure – as a surveyor he had spent 13 years in Venezuela before coming back and setting up, in order, a hotel in Roccaraso, a campsite in Teramano, a furniture store in Pescara – had opened a bar-patisserie in Rivisondoli but he, as a child, preferred going round with the “girapaese”: they went from station to station, finding the shepherds, and every time they’d be offered a piece of caciocavallo3, ricotta salata4, a hunk of bread, some pancotto5. “It seems like ancient history, but it’s only 35 years ago,” the chef says, “they used to bring loads of cows and sheep from Puglia here.”
“My absolute favourite was sausages preserved in lard. It might be memories that make everything out of the ordinary, it might be that I was just a boy, but I remember a mind-blowing taste. When my relatives asked what I wanted for my birthday, I always answered “sausages in lard”. When he talks about his childhood in Abruzzo – about when the “girapaese” used to give him VOV egg liqueur without his mother knowing – the cook-stroke-businessman’s eyes light up: “roots are roots, I could never have worked in a city”.
And yet it was about to happen: as teenagers, Niko and his sisters Cristiana, Sabrina and Debora moved with their mother to Rome to study – he did Economics – and in the meantime, things in Rivisondoli changed. In 1998 his father Antonio decided to transform his Royal Bar into a trattoria for skiers: Roccaraso, directly above here, is a famous ski resort, whose success dates from 1897 when the trainline was brought here, and with it, the hotels; the first “skiers” were already descending these pistes in 1910. Nevertheless, after a year, no one went there anymore: “They were all angry because he’d closed the cake shop”, his son recounts. “So he set up a breakfast corner and seeing as he was good at drawing, he got a sign, dyed it a champagne colour and wrote on it: “ALT – Breakfasts and restaurant.”
So that’s where the Alt sign comes from that the workers are putting up in front of Romito: it’s a quote from his father 20 years ago. Alt: stop. And then set off again. Besides, it’s what Romito’s been doing ever since: as soon as he reaches a goal, he sets off again. It’s not easy at all, it’s hard work: when his father died suddenly in 2000, he, his mother and his sisters went back to Abruzzo to decide what to do with the trattoria. They could have let it all go, but here, in Rivisondoli, one thing is important: roots. And so Niko started to become the Romito he is today: he created his own personal cooking, lean and clean, healthy and tasty. No concessions to fads, special effects or foodporn: in Romito it’s not what the eye beholds that’s important, and what might look like a simple ladle of broth or a simple slice of meat explodes with taste in the mouth. “They were tough times, the place was empty, we had no money even to pay the bills. But I was sure about what we were doing. ‘You have to believe in us, mum!’ I used to keep saying,” says the chef. And his mother – a lady with a determined air like her son – confirms: “when he got the three Michelin stars I gave him a board saying ‘Mum, you have to believe in us!’” She laughs.
Hidden behind the building hosting Alt is another of the chef’s projects. It’s called “Pane” (Bread) and it’s a workshop where they bake loaves for the group’s activities and soon for other big restaurants too. It all began in 2014, when, after years of research, the dish “bread” appeared on the Reale menu. Yes, that’s it: bread. And it wasn’t hiding anything else: all that arrived (and still arrives) at the table is a perfect, fragrant, sweet-smelling loaf. “Bread is one of the best foods that exist, for my grandfather Vincenzo it was sacred: if it fell, he kissed it.”
This bread is born here, a few hundred metres from Alt. You just have to get into the car and arrive at the Altopiano delle Cinquemiglia where the Solina wheat sways in the wind on the silent plateau, 1250 metres above sea level. Solina is an old-fashioned grain like Saragolla, and these are the cereals that Romito uses for his loaves: “they have a unique smell and less gluten”. Solina is a symbol of Abruzzo. It’s a soft grain that has grown here since the sixteenth century, but it had been replaced by others giving higher yields until agronomist Donato Silveri rediscovered it at the start of the millennium.
The hill is covered with yellow heads of grain swaying in sync, like waves. It’s one of the characteristics that led to the (near) disappearance of this soft grain: it’s easily “seduced”, that is, lain down in the bad weather, making it difficult to harvest. All the same, Romito has signed an agreement with farmer Valerio Buccicone and from this year on he’ll buy the whole crop from him. Because Solina is good. Because it’s healthy. Because it’s grown near where he was born. Because right next to here was where his grandfather Vincenzo, the “girapaese”, lived. And in life, roots count. Even if your name can be found over the door of a luxury restaurant in Shanghai.
Since 2000, Niko Romito has been running the restaurant Reale with his sister, Cristiana. A self-taught chef, deeply attached to his native Abruzzo, in just 7 years he has earned three Michelin stars. He began in the town of Rivisondoli, in the bakery that his family had turned into a trattoria, and in 2011 he moved Reale to Casadonna, a 16th-century former monastery in Castel di Sangro.
 Focaccia bread with spit-roast pork.
 A plain, ring-shaped cake, typically eaten for breakfast.
 Caciocavallo is a stretched-curd cheese typically made in southern Italy, with a distinctive sack-like shape.
 A crumbly ricotta cheese that has been salted and matured.
 Broth with eggs, bread and oil.