Chef Niko Romito’s culinary project Grand Tour at Il Ristorante – Niko Romito has toured Beijing, Shanghai and Milan, and its journey to Dubai offered a taste of Italy that brings its history to the present. We sent leading food writer Katrina Kufer to find out more.
Italian food bears strong connotations but Il Ristorante – Niko Romito takes those expectations and reframes them within a more sophisticated, and delicate context.
Chef Romito, whose Abruzzo restaurant Reale boasts three Michelin stars, has an approach that elevates tradition through elegant minimalism, redefining the canons of Italian cuisine. This resonates equally throughout the restaurant, which features seductive metallic accents, a striking black marble wall and gently curbed oversized bar counter which reads luxurious and masculine, and bespoke dark leather and warm wood furnishings in unusual but inviting proportions. Every element of the outlet down to the glassware is custom-made and exclusive, creating a luxurious ambiance that is sleek, robust and intimate – not unlike the dishes which soon appear. The tone whisks diners into a headspace of city chic with resort cool – a zone where laid-back indulgence doesn’t compete with urban verve, rather, existing hand-in-hand.
With tastefulness resonating from the venue through to the food, Il Ristorante is immediately seamless, the service is impressively immaculate, and the largely Italian team reveal just enough charming explanation that merge anecdotes with the restaurant’s offerings to inspire the diner without overwhelming them. The experience begins with a crisp palate-opening drink on the terrace, which comes with a generous selection of nibbles – olives, mozzarella, ham, focaccia – that complement the signature Bvlgari cocktail offerings or Italian classics, such as the Negroni Sbagliato, which, our server informs us, originates from a happy bartender error where champagne accidentally made it into the aperitivo.
The Grand Tour tasting menu continues the authenticity, featuring a selection of deeply rooted Italian dishes, of which any of the knowledgeable servers can recount personal histories with, whether revealing their grandmother’s similar take or their town’s celebratory version, a genuine touch that grounds the full sensory experience, removing any and all possibilities of Il Ristorante being positioned as an eatery of regurgitated culinary clichés.
Inspired by the physical journey of young European intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries as they explored the cultural scope of Italy, Chef Romito’s version not only captures the essence of Italy, it reintroduces diner’s palates to it. The menu, accompanied by Bulgari or Sardinian wine pairings, reads simple but it is the humblest dishes that offer the richest foray into the heart of a culture.
It begins with a Florentine soup – Pappa al pomodoro – unexpectedly delicate and unctuous, speaking to the often-overlooked beauty of a flavorsome tomato that engages some textural play due to the bread. It initiates a tongue-led journey that reminds diners that true Italian cuisine isn’t complicated, rather, grounded by a vast terrain of high-quality produce that with just a touch of the right slightly bitter olive oil, sings. It doesn’t need, and shouldn’t be weighed down by copious spices and too many touches. This is embodied by the antipasti from Naples and Parma of Mozzarella in carrozza (deep fried, crusted bread with mozzarella and anchovy), melon with ham, and the presentation of a lengthily fermented bread after the dishes arrive, rather than before, as Chef Romito believes is a course on its own.
Diners next visit Venice with a deceptively simple (in appearance) Scampi al vapore, steamed langoustines with their sweetness revitalized by subtle heat from chili, tempered with freshness from the lettuce atop the crustacean-infused mayonnaise. Typically eaten for special occasions, it is then followed by a step up in flavour intensity and textural play with a creamed potato dish with crunchy bread, turnip tops, egg yolk, caciocavallo cheese and celeriac. The historical dish, which necessitates a big spoonful to ensure each element is consumed together to reveal a rich, warm harmony, is velvety smooth and marks the transition into the mains.
The Tyrrhenian coast is represented by a Spaghetti aglio olio, which is not for the faint of heart given the generous showcase of Bluefin bottarga. Despite the powerful flavour, it undeniably transports diners to the sea and is a testament to the incredibly evocative nature of ingredients that are allowed to maintain their integrity. The following round, Stufato di agnello all’aceto, a Roman dish, tempers the impact of the previous by featuring the sweet taste of exclusively carrot-fed lamb with turnip tops and aged balsamic vinegar. Its rustic roots are payed homage to with roasted potatoes and marinated radicchio, which offers a pleasantly sharp contrast to the gentle flavour of the meat, but more critically, illustrates how a meal should be a gradual, engaging journey through the peaks and lows of flavour profiles, rather than an all-out assault.
But no meal is complete without dessert, and the clean taste of the Affogato all’amarena, a Sicilian soaked cherry and ice-cream-based delight that is neither too sweet nor too heavy, marks a deliciously textural finish. Closed with a traditional smooth and oaky grappa digestif, Chef Romito’s nuanced, intelligent takes on traditional Italian fare proves well-paced, balanced and diverse, showing diners that the humble history of traditional dishes can, and should, be brought to today’s tables.
Il Ristorante – Niko Romito at The Bvlgari Resort Dubai is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Address: Jumeira Bay Island, Jumeira 2, Dubai, UAE
Phone: +971 4 7775555