Photo Journal: In Search of Italy’s Secret Sauce
When my brother and I were little, our mom would occasionally break the seemingly endless Chinese-food marathons with a special treat to pizza night. Little did we know it was because we couldn’t afford dinner ingredients and pizza was a mere 75 cents (remember those days??). But we didn’t care, everything about it was glorious: the tangy sweet taste of tomato, the gooey saltiness of the cheese, the crunch of freshly baked dough.
Since then, I had dreamed of visiting the land where pizza was invented. Surely it must have other secrets to be discovered, I thought. And last month, I finally booked a trip (just a few decades later) to find out for myself!
Over the course of my twelve-day birthday celebration in Italy, I traversed the sites, stores and eateries across 6 cities (more posts to come on those) and was pleasantly surprised that this thing I sought was actually not a thing at all, but a word.
I remember the first time I heard it; it was a gentle rustling of a word. The two syllable response rolled off the surly underpaid, overworked doorman at my hotel in Rome like a trickle of fresh virgin olive oil over stale bread.
Despite the hard stare he gave through barbed-wire framed irises, his lips pursed to form the most perfect sound in two puffs. It was a soft staccato that gently rang through the dawn.
And with that, gone was the rigidity of his formal soldier-like posture. Instead, his head tilted ever so slightly in a subtle curtsy.
For me, it was the secret sauce that diffused all awkwardness and tension.
Then began my obsession to receive the word as frequently as possible. Like a junkie, the more I got it, the more I wanted it; and I thought constantly about my next fix. Within an hour of receiving it, my ears ran on empty and perked north, south, east and west to catch it, even if at a distance.
Even though I knew it was a fleeting formality between strangers, it gave me a sense of comfort and commonality. And so I eagerly thanked everyone from waiters to porters and strangers who gestured directions. I lingered to ask questions and exchange civilities over spices, wines, bottarga. I emphatically gestured with emotive aura to express the tastiness of the country’s delightful dishes. All to receive this single word in response.
For twelve days and twelve nights, I basked in the powerful glow of the word and as I stepped into the cab to Fiumicino Airport on my last day in Italy, I wondered how I could ever live without it.
In the cab, my elderly silver-haired driver and I struggled to make conversation and the clumsy exchange between us fell on deaf ears. Instead, we settled on exchanging a few quiet smiles in the rear-view mirror. We were both helpless in finding a common ground between the conservatively buttoned-up Roman taxi driver and his transient younger Asian female traveler.
As we arrived, he carefully stepped out of his car to help me out.
“Grazie,” I said for the last time bidding both him and the country I had dreamt so many times of visiting, adieu.
And then there it was.
“Pregggo,” he hummed as we bowed our heads in understanding.
From the man with the kind teary-eyes, it was the master fix of all fixes and the vast gulf between us disappeared for just a moment.
Via Del Tritone, 113
00187 Rome Italy
+39 06 422921
The First Luxury Arts Hotel
Via del Vantaggio, 14
00186 Roma Italy
+39 06 45617070
Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria
Via Alberto Cadlolo, 101
00136 Rome, Italy
+39 06 3509 1
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