Over the course of my life, a stranger in Italy has bridged our cultures and left a decades-long impression with his continuing hospitality.
Alfredo Valerii opened L’orso 80, a rustic eatery near Rome’s Piazza Navona, when he was a young man. The original restaurant boasted one room, a pizza oven, and a single outdoor table. In 1983, three years later, Alfredo was to become my all-time favorite waiter.
In the time before the internet and the Travel Channel, I was one of four 20-something Nebraskan farm kids who bought Instamatic cameras and cheap airline tickets to Rome. We were explorers with only a globe and a Frommer’s to guide us. Barely anyone in our families or rural communities had traveled overseas since World War II. Our parents cried, so sure were they that our lives were imperiled.
Rome was magical — the aromas, the ancient remains, the stone everything, the animated people — all new and different, all romantic. The city remains magical and is more beautiful now that I’ve looked beyond the tourist sites and have developed a deeper appreciation for the people and history.
Newly married and financially strapped on our first international vacation, my husband and I limited our daily expenditures in Rome to $20. We were not the affluent clientele so many restaurateurs appreciated and encouraged. But that did not matter to Alfredo, who graciously welcomed us nightly to L’orso 80 with a smile, patience, and tolerance.
The food was good and the wine cheap — and the hospitality absolutely memorable. Alfredo was funny and charming, and he refilled our empty wine bottles with Soave Bola that we drank on the rooftop of our neighboring hotel as we toasted him.
Our lives have crossed four times over the 36 years to last summer. Alfredo became a successful business owner, now in his mid-70s; his wife, four children, and grandchildren have worked in his restaurant and share in the personal and professional accomplishments.
My husband and daughter, then 14, visited Alfredo’s restaurant 20 years after our first Roman holiday. The pace of our lives was faster by then. The arrogance of our youth — Alfredo’s and ours — had dissipated; we were parents, working hard and busily building our lives and careers.
It would be another decade before my husband and I shared Alfredo’s generosity and warmth again. His restaurant had flourished and expanded. His son was our waiter.
On my recent trip, nostalgia and joy flowed over me when I spotted the genial, white-haired man — a stranger of many years — through the restaurant window. Alfredo doesn’t speak much English, but he is a master of nonverbal communication. His smiles, handshakes, and gentle nods have welcomed guests for decades.
I do not have such skill — nor fluency in Italian — but with the help of Google translator, I wrote something for Alfredo in his language:
Your kindness to strangers 36 years ago has never been forgotten. You are Rome’s great ambassador. We were young when we met — you and I, our lives were yet to be lived. Strangers — we have never known each other. My husband and I have brought our daughter here, and we have met your son. I revisit you again today after 36 years. You have always been kind, welcoming, and remain the best of Rome and the Italian people. Your hospitality has bridged cultures and established shared kinships. Thank you.
I handed the note to the man and child behind the cash register — son and granddaughter of Alfredo. His son read the note to Alfredo as waiters and cooks gathered. Cheers and back-patting went around the restaurant. Alfredo beamed, his appreciation spoken with his smile and shinning eyes.
There was warmth in our shared glances as I left the restaurant that day. We were strangers once again, but that has never meant without a fond memory.