Arrival on the Island

Trattoria sora lella


In the suitcase, along with some military clothing I had kept as a memento, there were many future plans, but they were shapeless, without identity.

I didn't know what I wanted for my future, yet I was confident.

At almost 24 years old, one is convinced that the world awaits you to be conquered.

Stepping off the train, amidst the crowd heading towards the station's exit, I truly realized that my military service was really over. Eighteen months of gatherings, flag raisings, high-and-tight haircuts had conditioned me; it felt like I was born a soldier. It was as if I had always been a soldier and that I had to be one for the rest of my life, so ingrained were certain habits.

Especially the last days, they never seemed to pass, as Pietro Micca used to say, to use a historical phrase: "They were longer than a day without bread."

I was so happy that I didn't even realize I had already boarded the bus that would take me home.

Actually, to the Tiber Island.

In November 1957, when I was called to serve in the military, I left my father and mother who ran a tavern in Via dei Balestrari. They had resumed the restaurant business after my father's stint working in the cinema. In September 1958, after completing my service, I found them in Piazza dei Campani, in the San Lorenzo district.

Now discharged, I was heading towards the Tiber Island.

I felt disoriented, like a country person arriving for the first time from the village to the big city.

The grandeur of Piazza dei Cinquecento, brightly illuminated, seemed larger than I had remembered.

The car moved on, arriving at Piazza della Repubblica, once Piazza Esedra, with the Fountain of the Naiads. The water jets, illuminated, looked like thick silver ribbons.

It was a feast for the eyes; you always have to step back a bit to appreciate certain things that are close at hand.

And to think that when it was inaugurated, the respectable people cried scandal because of the statues of women with exposed breasts. Then down Via Nazionale, with the shop windows, sparkling and colorful.

Arriving at Piazza Venezia, the inevitable platform, with the inevitable traffic controller above, which was not as chaotic then as it is now.

All of this was causing me great excitement.

Arriving at Ponte Garibaldi, I saw the island, right in the middle of the river; staring at it, it seemed to be moving backward, against the current. There are legends about how it was formed. It was a leper colony, where monks cared for lepers, turning it into a place of care and worship.

Then, the Order of St. John Calibita built a hospital, the Fatebenefratelli, which now has hospitals in almost every corner of the world.

It is connected by two bridges: the one on the right bank is Ponte Cestio, and the one on the left, which I was about to cross, is Ponte Fabricio, called by us Romans, Ponte Quattro Capi (Bridge of Four Heads).

At the beginning of the bridge, built of tuff and travertine in 62 BC, on the two parapets, there are two square-sectioned columns now worn away by time.

On the four sides of these columns, there are bas-relief carvings of four heads. Hence the nickname "Ponte Quattro Capi" (Bridge of Four Heads).

Legend has it that Pope Sixtus V, Felice Perretti, commissioned four architects to restore this bridge, which was in a state of disrepair.

He gave the gentlemen a maximum time to do the work. After a few months of planning what to do, the four responsible architects still couldn't agree. Each was opposed to the other's idea.

The bridge deteriorated further, and consequently, the expenses increased. This was not pleasing to the Pope.

The deadline for the work had expired a few weeks earlier, and a frustrated Pope Sixtus V cornered the architects, granting an extension and setting a new deadline. If the restoration had not been completed by that date, serious measures would have been taken.

At that point, amid controversies and discussions, the work was finished and well done.

The Holy Father was satisfied but at the same time very indignant about the irresponsible behavior of those four bunglers. So, as a reward, he sentenced them to the guillotine.

He had their faces carved on the columns and erected them at the beginning of the bridge as a warning to all the people who would cross the bridge.

I, too, was preparing to cross that bridge and stopped for a moment to look at the columns. Although I was born and lived a few hundred meters from the Tiber Island, it was only the second time I had set foot there. Arriving at the "Trattoria dell'Isola," as it was called, I entered. My parents were waiting for me.

It was almost eight o'clock in the evening on April 18, 1959; as they say, "there was not a living soul," it was completely empty. It was dinner time, and beyond the trattoria, the island was also deserted.

After all my joy and happiness about returning home, I felt a great sense of dejection.

There was a waiter, quite advanced in age, certainly over 65 years old, with a bald head and as usual, a crown of graying hair. He wore a jacket that must have once been white, with stains that now appeared gray through transparency. The napkin tucked under his armpit and what struck me were his two enormous ears, so large that due to this physical defect, if it could be called that, he had earned the nickname "Airplane." When later, working with him, I asked him, his name was Nazareno:

"Tell me, Nazareno, is it true they call you Airplane because you have those two big ears?" And he replied:

"It's all nonsense; they call me that because I'm agile. I can carry twelve soup plates with one arm... yes, but inside a bucket!"

And he laughed about it.

He stood there, straight up, near the table where my mom and dad were sitting.

A woman, still under forty, was helping my mother in the kitchen. Tall, sturdy, with the physique of a shot putter, she wore an apron and a white chef's hat.

With her arms crossed, leaning against the kitchen door frame, she waited for any potential customers.

My mom and dad greeted me with great affection and some inevitable tears from my mother.

I think my return home, after a year and a half, was a new source of energy and hope for them to face the present moment and the future. My mother turned to the woman, named Elia but called Lella like my mother, saying:

"Hey Lella, make my son a dish of 'Fettuccine all'Isolana'."

I asked how they were made, and Lella replied:

"They're made with tomato, sautéed mushrooms, peas, and guanciale."

The waiter with the large ears bent over backward to set the table for me, then asked:

"Would the young gentleman like some wine?"

I looked into his small, moist eyes; we in Rome call them "whiny."

I said:

"What's your name?"

and he replied:

"Nazareno." So I retorted:

"Well, Nazareno, I'm Amleto, and we're not 'young gentlemen' here! Please bring me a quarter liter."

I noticed that he was missing most of his front teeth, and the only incisor left was also shaky.

To top it off, as if that weren't enough, he had a tremendously heavy breath.

Later, when I worked with him for a while, when we were about to start service, my father would call him:

"Nazareno, do you have it?"

He would open his mouth, stick out his tongue, and show the mint. It would keep his breath fresh for two or three hours, and as it dissolved completely, he had to replace it immediately.

After struggling through that huge plate of pasta, my parents briefed me on the current situation, which was not very promising. We were deep in debt, as they say, up to our eyeballs. We had borrowed money from loan sharks, suppliers to pay, and the work was very scarce. We discussed my plans, or rather a plan, which involved immediately finding a good job as a bartender.

At the end of the conversation, I went home, where my sister was waiting for me with coffee ready.

Over the next ten days, I visited relatives and friends I hadn't seen in a long time, wandering around here and there.

Meanwhile, my parents proposed the idea of working with them in the trattoria as a waiter. Where else could I find something better than working in the family?

But I didn't want to. I had been a bartender from 1950 to 1957, and I was used to that job, which I knew fairly well, even if it was a bit demanding. It wasn't so bad, and besides, now I was a bank teller and I managed quite well with cocktails.

I was very shy; I would have found myself in great difficulty in front of a table of demanding customers. What would I have told them? I knew nothing about cooking, let alone wine, although customers back then weren't as knowledgeable about food and wine as they are now.

Now they know how to pair wine with the food they eat.

Once, just to talk about my gastronomic ignorance, the actress Lea Massari asked me for a "piccatina," and I replied:


Desperate, I then went to Lella in the kitchen and said:

"She wants a 'piccatina,' what is that?"

Lella reassured me, telling me not to worry; she knew what to do—it was just a simple veal scaloppine with lemon.

I contacted a friend, a coffee salesman, and told him that I had been discharged and needed work.

He assured me that within a week, he would arrange for me to work in a downtown bar.

Meanwhile, I reflected:

"I have no educational qualifications; I couldn't even aspire to a job as an usher in some state institution. It would have required a middle school diploma, and I had only attended up to the fifth year of elementary school. Where would I have found such a job?"

And I kept thinking:

"Do I want to work as a bartender? But it's almost like being a waiter. There's always the risk with a boss; if you make a mistake, the boss can always fire you. All things considered, just like I learned to be a bartender, I could also learn to be a waiter, and then not to mention that I would be working from home."

Four or five days passed, and my friend called me, telling me:

"I found you a place on Via XX Settembre, a magnificent place."

I replied that I had decided to stay with my family. He said:

"Well then, good luck."

And I replied, "Thanks."

I started with not too much enthusiasm; I was insecure. I pushed myself, trying to make the best of it.

In the first few days, I really struggled. When we had banquets of ten or twelve people, we called in two experienced waiters for backup, waiters with twenty years of experience, and then I watched their every move closely. How they set the table, arranged the cutlery and glasses, uncorked a bottle of wine, holding the label prominently in front of the customer as they tasted it.

Then I learned a lot from the clientele, the right ones. During their conversations, I didn't miss a word, trying to remember everything that could be useful to me, every nuance.

And so began a new experience.

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