Reale opened in 2003 in the ski resort of Rivisondoli, but moved to its current premises in late 2011. It is situated on the outskirts of a small city (with a population of around 6,000) called Castel Di Sangro in the region of Abruzzo in central Italy, in a valley in the Apennine mountains. It is 66 miles from Naples and 83 miles from Rome as the crow flies; the drive from Rome takes around two and a half hours, taking in some quite impressive mountain scenery en route. Reale's isolated, rather stark stone building used to be a monastery and dates back to the 16th century. As well as the restaurant there are several bedrooms. You enter the restaurant through a central passageway and then ring a bell, and are led down a flight of stone steps to the dining room. This has well-spaced tables, stone floor and whitewashed walls with little ornamentation. There is a picture window looking out on to the hills beyond. Niko Romito is the chef/owner, with his sister Christiana in charge of the front of house.
The restaurant seats up to 40 diners, with a dozen chefs working in the kitchen. The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 2007 and has had a rapid trajectory, being promoted to two stars in 2009 and to the ultimate three Michelin star level in the 2014 guide. The restaurant offered an eight course tasting menu at €150, a ten course one at €180 and a shorter one at €100. Alternatively there were a la carte choices, with starters generally priced at €25 to €35, main courses €35 to €40, desserts at €18. The wine cellar had 6,000 bottles in all, with a wide range of choices from across Italy but also from around the world: for example there were some good German Rieslings and even the excellent Chateau Musar from the Lebanon. Markups were quite kindly, especially on the grander wines. Example wines were Adriano Barbaresco Sanadaive 2008 at €45 compared to a shop price of about €18, Gravner Ribola Gialla 2003 at €80 for a wine that retails in London at around €85, and Montevertine La Pergola Torte 1995 at €200 for a wine that would set you back around €158 in a shop. We drank the lovely Antinori Tignanello 2005 at €130 compared to a retail price of about €107.
The meal began with a tray of warm nibbles: crouton of ricotta cheese with candied tomato, meatball with baby goat and potato, turnip and Pecorino croquette, a meatball stuffed with sausage meat and candied orange, and red turnip with rabbit liver pate. These were all very pleasant, the best being the meatball with goat, the flavours coming through well enough (16/20). Tartelette of black olive with extra virgin olive oil had a delicate tart and deep olive flavour, a simple but well executed dish (easily 17/20). Carte de musica bread and chestnut and honey grissini were served with smoked bacon. I liked the grissini (17/20) but the carte de musica was not a patch on the one at Pergola the night before, the thin bread not delicate enough (15/20). The final nibble was a little bread bun containing raw scampi and slightly spicy tomato sauce. I enjoyed this dish very much, the langoustine sweet and the kick of spice nicely controlled (18/20).
Beef tartare was made using local Malchiana beef, and was simply served with extra virgin oil and tarragon, with rosemary mayonnaise. The beef had good flavour, though for me the dish was under-seasoned (16/20). Artichoke glazed with rosemary and artichoke sauce was pleasant enough, but such a simple dish needed some pretty remarkable artichokes to really stand out, and these were merely good (15/20). Salt cod with black olive and basil potato was better, the balance of the flavours excellent (18/20).
Spaghetti with cuttlefish and sea urchin had al dente pasta and tender cuttlefish, but the saltiness of the sea urchin rather overpowered the rest of the dish (15/20). This was still much better than pasta with red prawns, with its undercooked pasta and oddly metallic tasting sauce. It was at best lukewarm to boot; this dish should never have left the kitchen (10/20).
My main course brought things back on track: suckling pig was simply served with an emulsion of potato and olive oil a streak of orange and caramel sauce. The pork was lovely, delicate and delicious, though a little more acidity in the dish would have been welcome given its richness - the orange in the sauce was not quite enough to cut through, but it was still a fine piece of pork (18/20).
Cheeses were all local, which was a nice touch, and were in good condition, served with grape jam and some excellent local honey. Millefeuille of chocolate with vanilla custard had good chocolate but was too dry (16/20). Better were crepes filled with vanilla and orange sauce, the pancakes delicate and the orange sauce sharp enough to balance the sweetness of the dish (1720). Coffee was good, served with petit fours: peach cream and rosemary pastry, a doughnut filled with hot chocolate, caramel chips with white chocolate, coffee and pepper, and a lemon sponge.
The bill came to €204 (£167) a head. If you went for the cheapest of the set menus and drank modest wine then your bill would come to perhaps €140 before tip. Service was excellent throughout, with water and wine topping up flawless and the staff able to answer questions about the dishes without reference to the kitchen. Overall, if I ignore the aberrant prawn pasta dish, then the cooking was mostly around 16/20 level, with some dishes a little higher than this. I fail to understand the current Michelin assessment, but that is hardly the fault of the restaurant. The cooking used good ingredients, the dishes were relatively simple and mostly pleasant, the service genuinely good. However given its remote location it is far from apparent to me that it is "worth a special journey", which is the Michelin definition of a three star restaurant.