On our last full day in Rome, searching in the medieval quarter near the Campo de’ Fiori, through the tangle of narrow streets that still bear the names of the tradesmen who once populated each – carpenters, cobblers, chair makers, basket weavers – my wife and I found on the street of the locksmiths the leather shop we had been seeking. Not very far, as well, from the Via delle Botteghe Oscure, this bottega was as dark and confining as many of the other shops we had been browsing through that afternoon – the second-hand bookstores (not much deeper than the stalls on the Piazza della Repubblica), the stationers (selling custom pens and hand-made paper), the dealers in cheap antiques and old prints – in fact, a store barely spacious enough, it seemed, to contain the dusky aroma of the incised and burnished leather, let alone the shelves loaded with wallets and cases (for toiletries, jewelry, cigars), the clusters of purses and belts, the storewide counter, the young girl behind it. Her English was far more fluent than my small Italian, but since we were then her only customers on a rather slow day and obviously intent on purchasing, she was willing to humor me, speaking slowly and clearly in simple, unidiomatic sentences, patiently satisfying a curiosity about her and the store that in other circumstances might have been considered intrusive. No, she had not been working there very long, but the business had been in that location for some time, for thirty-six years, in fact, and although that seemed like an eternity to her, to us (who on the previous day had walked in the footsteps of the Emperors on the Palatine) it was hardly a sliver in time. Not so deeply rooted, I was thinking as I studied the insignia embossed on my new wallet, when we were joined by an older man, bearded and balding like me, who had entered the property with neither ceremony nor deference, but casually, as if he owned it, and from the vaguely paternal, distinctly authoritative tone with which he addressed the shop girl, and from the seamless ease with which he entered our conversation after eyeing our packages, I surmised, correctly, that he did.
Although we had already settled our account, he was reluctant to let us go with a simple handshake, and in consideration of our substantial purchases and, perhaps, my own personal investment in things Italian (its language, its food, its history) which we had been lightly discussing, he offered to show us his workshop, just down the street, he said, almost next door, and although we had scheduled much for our waning hours in Rome (Sant’Andrea della Valle, Caffè Sant’Eustachio, Galleria Doria-Pamphili), my wife, always interested in the making of things, eagerly accepted.
We followed him outside, further up the street of the locksmiths, and then into another small chamber, this one low and brick-lined like a cellar, although still at street level, and suffused, too, with the perfume of leather (much denser though than that of the store), rising directly from the slabs of tan, mahogany, chestnut, and ebony skins draped over wooden rods or piled high like rugs in an Eastern bazaar. Several workers sat on benches in front of small appliances, cutting, sewing, polishing, embossing, although rather than their crafts, their employer seemed more interested in revealing the secrets of the building, its masonry, he said, dating back to the sixteenth century, and the low brick arch through which we passed into the courtyard led to a cloister, gone for several hundred years. The walls to the buildings encircling the courtyard were standing when Michelangelo was designing the Campidoglio, and I was sure that from the upper balconies above us, unless my sense of direction had failed me, where the smoke rising from the pyre that had consumed Giordano Bruno could once be seen. All constructed, he said — the workshop, the low brick arch, the buildings in the courtyard — on the foundations and occasionally from the very bricks of Pompey’s ancient theatre, built two thousand years before.
“Sí, il teatro di Pompey,” and we followed him further down the street and through a narrow alleyway into a piazza, semi-surrounded by a semi-circle of Renaissance apartment blocks raised on and from, and simulating the curvature of the stone seats, the cavea, which once led monumentally up to the temple of Venus Victrix, added to the structure by Pompey to circumvent the injunction against permanent theaters (associated by the Roman Senate with an effeminate and manipulable citizenry) and to curry favor with that same volatile public, shortly thereafter to bow their heads to his rival, Julius Caesar, who would himself be assassinated in an extension of that same theater complex, not far from where we were standing. “It held almost 20,000. There,” he said, pointing to the curving facades across from us, and then from what must have been the stage, we followed him over what once had been the orchestra into another narrow alley and through the terrace and into the foyer of a restaurant. After nodding to the waiters eating their late lunch at a nearby table, he led us down into an empty dining room – arched low and somber like the grottoed fish houses along the Bay of Naples – sweeping his palm across the rough, whitewashed walls which he identified as the original foundations of the theater, and then we traveled further down into a vacant cellar of hanging light bulbs and vaulted passageways that had been the underground substructure where the 20,000 patrons flowed through from the Roman streets to find (or exit from) their seats to view, not the plays of Plautus or the tragedies of the earlier Greeks, but animal hunts and erotic pantomimes and staged combats and real executions. “Look. Opus reticulatum,” he said, again sweeping his hand across the wall, this one bare, the exposed rectilinear bricks laid diagonally across the facing, slanting downward and upward in ascending and descending diagonal rows, the first recognized time, I later learned, the facing (as opposed to the earlier opus incertum and later opus testaceum) was used to cover the rubble fill with which the Romans raised their monumental walls.
As we passed into another vaulted passage, I wondered if we would be descending even lower, down perhaps to visit a shrine to Mythra (like the one below the basilica of San Clemente) or to some other obscure pagan god, but we climbed instead back into the restaurant where he found the proprietor, and after thanking him for his indulgence, he pulled him aside for a moment to analyze the night’s specialty chalked onto the board, a braciola stuffed with porcini and prosciutto (Are all overheard conversations in Italy about either food or money?), and once we were outside, he informed us that the restaurant we had just explored was famous not only for its foundations but also its food.
“Even in New York City,” he said, and after explaining that cooking was a passion of his, he asked my opinion of Roman cuisine, and I mentioned the names of the trattorie, pizzerie, enoteche we had frequented adding that we were saving the best for last, and when I told him that we had reservations for our final Roman meal at a celebrated restaurant on the Esquiline, he raised his eyebrows and informed me that he had not only studied cooking under that restaurant’s chef, but he had reserved a table there that very same night for his wife’s birthday. (This is a true story; these things happen.) Surprised and pleased but recognizing that our time was running short, I took this as an opportunity to part, and after expressing our hopes to see him again – in this case, a likely occurrence – I asked him his name.
“Mi chiamo Fulvio. Et tu?”
Flattered by his use of the informal “tu” for the first time, I told him our names, and as we shook hands and parted — my wife pulling me northward to seek the scent of coffee that would lead us to Caffè Sant’Eustachio — he shouted after us, “A stasera, i miei amici.”
With a wakeup call for 4:30 a.m. to catch our nine-o’clock outbound flight from Fiumicino (where, in the early morning hours, the crowds were sure to be thick and the attendants at the counters few), we had reserved a table at a shamefully early hour for a weekend dinner engagement, yet since we were ordering the tasting menu — five courses with four wines and introductory amuse-bouches, palette-cleaning sorbets, and post-dolce petit-fours – it was still destined to be a long night. Dressed in appropriately trendy black (through no premeditation of ours, simply a color chosen to camouflage the gradual wrinkling and shabbiness of clothes subjected to the wear and transport of two weeks abroad), we blended in well with the post-modern ambience — cool light, mirrors reflecting mirrors (expanding space yet preserving intimacy), glass armoires displaying crystal and silver, stainless steel fixtures, white marble surfaces – and with the other diners who gradually occupied the tables around us. He was one of the last to arrive, appearing just as we were finishing our second course (truffled quail eggs and cauliflower soufflés), dressed in black, greeting the owner by name as he entered, then heading toward the one empty seat remaining at the crowded table in the far corner of the room, smiling at the group awaiting him there, but still noticing us as he crossed in front of our table, where he paused and turned in our direction.
“Ciao, Fulvio!” I announced, rising slightly, extending my hand to meet his, in a voice certainly not so loud as to disturb, like the shattering of porcelain, the tranquility of the place, but still clearly enough to be overheard at several neighboring tables, and after a nod and a shake of my wife’s hand, he continued on toward his wife and friends where the greeting of “Ciao, Fulvio!” was repeated several times over, and toward eleven, as we were leaving, a single wave of the hand, answered cheerfully, was sufficient as we drifted into the night and our last few hours in Italy, hurrying back to our hotel to pack, still giddy with the several wines and the complimentary grappa, and with the pleasure of greeting, loudly enough to be overheard, a resident of the city whose associations stretched back to the Caesars, and then being recognized in return in a restaurant, not far from Via Veneto, a few blocks west of the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
BIO: J. Weintraub has published fiction, essays, translations, and poetry in all sorts of literary reviews and periodicals, from The Massachusetts Review to New Criterion, from Prairie Schooner to Midwestern Gothic. Many of his pieces have been anthologized, and he has received awards for fiction and creative nonfiction from, among others, the Illinois Arts Council, the Barrington Arts Council, and Holy Names University. He is currently a member of the Dramatists Guild, and he has had radio plays, staged readings, and one-act plays produced throughout the USA and in Australia, New Zealand, and India. In Spring 2018 his annotated translation of Eugène Briffault’s Paris à table: 1846 will be published by Oxford University Press. More at http:/jweintraub.weebly.com