The road to Ludovico’s house was not a crushed stone drive that wound up a Tuscan hill accompanied by cypresses. You know, the kind silhouetted against the sunset on the cover of romantic novels in the “Italy porn” genre.
Instead, it was a narrow alley whose masonry buildings stood at point blank with the edges of a street where pedestrians scattered only slowly, like jaded farmyard chickens. We were driving a red Fiat Cinquecento, thankfully, and deftly made the tight turn through the arched portal that led into the cobblestone courtyard. The Milanese fog had lifted and the sun was starting to appear, white and diffuse, through the gauzy air. The gray of everything was offset by the red car and the ochre-tinted plaster of the building chipped in some spots.
Ludovico had an American visitor named Roberto who had recently arrived from a place called Watkins Glen. He was preparing lunch. I was visiting Milan from the Ligurian town of Camogli, where I had spent the summer rehabilitating a private garden that had fallen into disarray. Ludo’s partner, Alessandra, was my host in Milan; she had invited me to tag along.
I had been going back and forth between Italy and the U.S., and while I did meet some expats during my stays in the bel paese, I generally avoided other Americans. I didn’t think we had much in common.
Ludovico’s apartment was a third-floor walk-up with windows on both the courtyard as well as the canal. He greeted us enthusiastically in the foyer, while his guest held back. I walked down the short corridor to the kitchen. Roberto was tying an apron at his back.
“The first thing is to pour a glass of wine,” he said after I introduced myself.
Roberto’s blue eyes had nothing of the pretty boy about them thanks to his luxuriously bushy black eyebrows. The eyes themselves were penetrating, searching, and a little careworn. He looked to me like someone who was missing something longed-for in his life. Yet he was happily preparing our lunch of penne all’arrabbiata. The tools were arrayed, the wine was airing, and he held a bulb of garlic in his right hand, which he set on the counter so that he could shake mine.
“Why do you go by Roberto,” I asked, “and not Robert?”
“It is Robert,” he said, “but Ludovico has decided to Italianize my name. He doesn't like it when people call me ‘Bohb.’”
“Okay, Roberto,” I conceded. “Thank you for making our lunch.”
"I like to make people happy," he said. "Especially when I'm here because Italians enjoy food more than Americans do."
“Americans like to eat, by the looks of things,” Alessandra said.
“Overeating or depriving ourselves, that’s what we do,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Roberto. “The U.S. is still a Puritan country at heart. Sin and repentance.”
He poured some extra-virgin olive oil into a skillet and started peeling garlic cloves with a small knife.
“I’m generally not very good at enjoying things I have to do,” Roberto said to me, “but I seemed to have managed it with cooking.”
“What brings you to Italy?” I asked him.
“It suits me,” he answered. “I love the food, the wine, the cars, and the countryside. And the people, of course! I met Ludovico through a mutual friend on my last visit. He invited me to stay for a few days here before I head to Montepulciano. I’m taking a full-immersion course in Italian next week.”
Roberto had plucked the leaves from a bunch of fresh parsley and placed them in a small drinking glass. He took the kitchen scissors and started snipping the leaves in the glass.
“Why do you that?” I asked.
“The parsley is confined in the glass, and that makes it easier to cut,” he said.
By now the garlic was getting abbrustolito, or toasted, an even brown. Roberto carefully picked the cloves out one at a time and placed them in a small bowl. Then he tossed hot pepper flakes, or peperoncino, into the oil, and I watched them skitter at a respectful distance. The pungency filled the small kitchen, drifting up my nostrils. It made my eyes water.
“Toasting the garlic and the peperoncinois what gives the sauce its flavor,” said Roberto.
“It puts the rabbiainto all’arrabbiata," Ludovico said, filling a pot with water from the sink.
“You’re using canned tomatoes,” said Alessandra.
“Yes, well, that’s my habit in the States, because I like to use Italian tomatoes. The soil is different, and you can taste it in the tomatoes. Besides, if I used fresh tomatoes, it would take too long for lunch. I’d have to remove the skins. This sauce is more spontaneous than ritualistic to me.”
“Well,” said Alessandra, taking a sip of wine, “I don’t have to agree with you to recognize that it is very Italian to have an opinion about cooking. We’ll have to make you an honorary citizen.”
He lowered the heat and dumped the diced tomatoes into the skillet, standing back to avoid the fallout.
“Where are you staying in Montepulciano?” I asked.
“In an osteriathat has rooms for the students,” he answered, then asked me, “What brings you to Italy?”
"I used to live here. Then, I went back to the U.S. But I never really settled back into it. I think that once you're an expat, you kind of lose your original nationality without gaining a new one. You’re in expat limbo forever.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. He looked at me with his penetrating eyes. That was where he smiled, rather than with his mouth. I had trouble returning his gaze. It was as if he wanted to unlock my secrets, and it made me feel vulnerable. I just looked down.
The aroma of the sauce permeated the room. I wanted to grab a piece of bread and dip it into the simmering red tomatoes. Roberto fingered through Ludo’s utensils until he found a potato masher, then gently pressed the diced tomatoes, now softening, in the skillet.
“Now I need to grate some parmigiano,” he said.
The sharp odor of the cheese introduced itself into the bouquet, like the bright and unexpected sound of the triangle in an orchestra.
“You must be a good listener,” I said to Roberto.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“Because you use all of your senses when you’re cooking.”
He looked at me askance, with his head down and his eyes smiling again. When I returned his gaze this time, he raised his luxurious eyebrows in some sort of a challenge.
I liked this Roberto, although he was very different from anyone I had previously met. He wasn’t like an Italian guy, with their romantic subterfuge. And he was nothing like an American. He lacked the American prejudice about the world; he had understood our nation, as I did, from the outside looking in.
Like me, he was a natural-born expatriate.
This was both a welcome and frustrating revelation for the simple reason that he was out of my league. He was too good-looking to pay attention to someone like me.
He dumped a handful of salt and a box of penne rigateinto the boiling water. Then he looked up at me.
“Is Montepulciano very far from where you’re staying in Liguria?”
“Far meaning too far to travel for a lark?” I asked.
“No, I mean, too far to travel to be my guest for the weekend.”
I was unable to respond, not sure of what he meant. Alessandra came back into the kitchen from setting the table.
“You can take the Super Rapido train to Florence,” she said to me, popping an olive into her mouth.
"Well,” Roberto said, “I'm going back tomorrow, and if you can make it, I'd love to take you to dinner on Saturday."
Alessandra looked at him, then at me, and said, “Of course she’ll come.”
I glared at her while Roberto drained the pasta into a colander in the sink.
He put a little bit of raw olive oil on the pasta in the serving bowl before mixing in the sauce. He looked at the three of us anticipating our meal and decided to try out his Italian.
“La pasta é pronta!” he said.
Lunch was ready.