« You mustn’t be afraid, because that’s how you grow as a person »
Brother and sister working together, she in the dining room and he in the kitchen: the type of duo you don’t often come across in the gastronomic world! Cristiana and Niko Romito masterfully captain the Reale restaurant, located in Castel di Sangro in Abruzzo, in the heart of an ancient monastery, which also houses a few stylish and refined bedrooms. Cristiana is both manager of the establishment and maître d’, and discreetly looks out for the well-being of those who come and enjoy Niko’s cuisine.
Completely self-taught, her expertise was truly recognised in 2019 when she was awarded the Mauviel 1830 Prize for the World’s Best Dining Room Manager by Les Grandes Tables du Monde. Looking back over her career, Cristiana shares her perspective on dining room service, team training and the challenges faced by women in the industry.
© Brambilla Serrani
LIKE A SPONGE
Nothing seemed to predestine Cristiana to her current profession: as a child, she imagined herself working as a translator for the European Union. But when her younger brother Niko took over their father’s business, a well-known bakery trattoria located in Rivisondoli – some fifteen kilometres from their current establishment – her plans changed: “I didn’t hesitate long before telling him I was going to do it with him. I couldn’t leave him alone!” she recalls with emotion. It was just the two of them at first.
« I handled everything that wasn’t cooking: service, of course, but also housekeeping, overseeing the wine list and accounting. »
Cristiana Romito’s path
2003: Conversion of the family trattoria of Rivisondoli into a gastronomic restaurant with her brother Niko Romito as chef.
2006: The Reale is awarded its first Michelin star.
2011: The Reale moves to Castel di Sangro, within the Casadonna establishment.
2013: The restaurant is awarded its third Michelin star.
2019: Mauviel 1830 Prize for the World’s Best Dining Room Manager awarded by Les Grandes Tables du Monde
Niko, self-taught just like her, decided to steer away from a traditional approach, cutting the number of tables and focusing on signature cuisine: “20 years ago, in a village of just 400, without social networks, it was far more complicated to stand out!”
When recognition and stars came their way, they decided to move to Casadonna, 11 years after opening.
« Moving a small restaurant to this monastery, which is ten times bigger, was particularly difficult. We had to rethink our whole organisation, get help… I realised that one of the essential qualities required in this job is a sharp sense of observation. I’m a bit like a sponge: when I do things I make them my own, which then helps me do things my way. »
“With Niko, we now have 20 years of experience as catering professionals, but we have so much more as brother and sister! I am always the first to taste a dish, because my palate is a stand in for the customer’s, but also because I remember all of Niko’s previous works.” Hints of her primary vocation as a translator remain, as she makes it her mission to share the meaning and philosophy of his brother’s cuisine with their guests, just like an interpreter would.
MANAGEMENT BASED ON TRUST
Casadonna now has 40 employees for both the restaurant and hotel, where the atmosphere is just as serene. Cristiana’s way of transmitting the establishment’s spirit to newcomers is rather unusual: “Within two months, they must understand who we are and know how to do everything. Versatility is essential here, because we don’t have a pyramidal hierarchical structure: once trained, you must be able to serve the wines, but also answer the phone and explain the other projects we are working on, be it at the bakery or one of our establishments in Rome or Milan.”
This versatility brings a sense of belonging within the team, and confers a unique fluidity to the customers’ experience.
« Even our newest trainee has to be able to do anything, from the moment I feel they’re ready. Our management style is based on trust: everyone here acts as if it were their own restaurant. »
For service, Cristiana relies on her sensitivity for observation and deduction: “In a three-star restaurant, fatigue can be more intellectual than physical because of the degree of attention we have to pay to our customers. We have to be in perfect harmony with our client, anticipate and meet all their expectations. It’s tricky to gauge who wants to chat, who would rather be left alone… Sometimes you have to understand that a person’s reserve comes from the fact that they are intimidated: in that case, a single word can liven them up, make them smile and enjoy their evening in a completely different way! For example we had a young couple here recently, and they were whispering to each other: I went over to their table and exchanged with them at a normal volume to encourage them to do the same.
Our job is not only about skills, or knowing how to put words on Niko’s cooking, but also to have an eye for everything, especially what might be hard to see…” She compares her daily work to theatre, taking part in a semi-improvised show that changes every day… because every day brings new customers! A tightrope walker’s job, which calls for flexibility every step of the way.
EXPERIENCE IS THE BEST WAY TO LEARN
Being self-taught and an expert multitasker, she is all the more able to lead by example and pass on her skills to her team: “It was while training our staff that I understood the value of what I had learned, going through all these steps on my own. I can teach them how to wash 1,000 glasses because I’ve actually done it myself! Experience is the best way to learn. There are no more or less noble tasks in hospitality: for the well-being of our customers and the smooth running of our establishments, versatility is essential, at all levels.”
From her mother, an English teacher, she has perhaps inherited great teaching skills and so much more, because for the young people she trains: “I give them a soul, I give them everything so that they can grow, but this requires great openness and a genuine willingness to learn. I am not looking for interchangeable people, like mere numbers; I am looking for souls, real people.”
A WOMAN RESTAURATEUR
After 20 years in the business, one of her great regrets is that she has only trained three other women due to a lack of female candidates.
« In the collective imagination, we see – and wrongly so – the maître d’ of a starred restaurant as a masculine figure. Even the profession’s title is masculine, which does not help women project themselves in this role! »
This is what makes her Mauviel 1830 Prize for the World’s Best Dining Room Manager awarded by Les Grandes Tables du Monde even more special.
« It is the recognition of many sacrifices, a great honour that has left me with intense emotions because as a woman, it hasn’t been easy to make a place for myself in this profession. »
She recalls people not even mentioning her first name, tersely addressing her with a “ah, you are the sister?” and she replying with a polite smile: “Hello, I am Cristiana Romito.”
While sacrifices must be made (holidays, tough schedules), they are outweighed by tremendous fulfilment. There is scarcely any woman in this profession because it represents a real lifestyle choice, with very few role models, not to mention motherhood, “which is also a team and organisational responsibility, where everyone needs to coordinate, men and fathers too, of course!”
But for things to change, Cristiana calls for “courage and curiosity” rather than following traditional pathways. “You must not be afraid to be afraid, and you absolutely need to get out of your comfort zone, because that’s how you grow as a person and find your place!”
Among her female role models, it’s no wonder to find Audrey Hepburn, who she admires for her discreet elegance and sincerity of style.
Cristiana, through her hard work and desire to build an establishment in her image, has cultivated the elegant courage of self-affirmation, putting her sensitivity at the service of others.