Lunch with Marjorie: A modern man in an ancient city—part one

Breakfast on the patio of Hotel Donatello was fairly ordinary for Rome: lattes, croissants, brioche, served with peach or strawberry preserves or honey. But Carlo Prete, the hotel’s owner, adjusts to please palates not used to the strong, thick European espresso.

“I think everybody…if they go to another country likes to see how they live and eat,” Carlo said. “We are trying to fix an average with the quality of the Italian way. This coffee is an Italian coffee, but made for…. We drink a small cup, very concentrated. If you drink just a little cup, you are not satisfied. In the morning, we only have coffee and a croissant, and we go. The maximum is a cappuccino, not a big meal.”

I love to cook Italian food,” I said.

“Oooh, very good. I should come and cook the spaghetti for you, and you will see the difference. Ha, ha, ha.”

“I would love that,” I said, sensing him doubting my culinary skills with pasta.

“Most depends on how you cook the spaghetti. Normally you tend to overcook the spaghetti.”

“Mine’s al dente,” I defended.

“Oh, no, not the way…I don’t know. We don’t add salt when adding a sauce. We put salt in the water, and then we boil the spaghetti. We don’t overcook the spaghetti,” he emphasized.

“Fresh tomato is good, and fresh mozzarella,” Carlo advised.

“I do that,” I said.

“Oh, molto buono!”

Carlo has been in the hotel business for 24 years.

“My father sent me abroad—to England, to Holland, France, and Germany—to learn the (hotel) skills. I worked at big…multi-national hotels like Grand Metropolitan and Inter-Continental Hotels. Then I came back to Rome and started…this little place. My wife and I started buying a little flat on the ground, then another one, and another one, and (now) we have the entire building.”

The courtyard’s green shutters made the red geraniums vibrant. A fountain arcing its water was a refreshing background against sun-drenched, peach plaster walls. The four-story hotel feels like a home. It is a home. Carlo is remodeling, adding 18 rooms to the existing 22.

“This is an old building—more than 100 years. When they built it, lifts were not a priority,” he explained. “Rooms with facilities were not a priority. We had to transform (it). So we are doing a lift on the other side, and new rooms with all the modern accessories, like smoke detectors, televisions and mini-bars, all controlled by computers. When you work in buildings like this, it is always very, very difficult, because as you see, the ceilings are not flat. They used bricks one against another to keep the ceiling standing. If you take one brick away, because you have to make the hole for the elevator, or to change a section…”

“It all collapses?” I gasped.

“Yes, you’ve got to be very careful. That’s why we are working very closely with engineering teams. But it’s coming out very well.”

Carlo’s wife, Patrizia, and sons, Mauro and Paolo, also work in the hotel.

“Will they do the business someday?”

“Hopefully. I tried to teach them that in order to become free, they should see what is happening…out of Italy. So Paolo went to England. Mauro went to France, and spent a couple of years there. Mauro is leaving now for England and is going to be there for some time. So they will learn a different style of living, and, of course, the language, which is very important. They will be more skilled in the job they want to do.”

“They’re very cosmopolitan,” I said.

“Yes, they should be like that. If they like to continue this job, I will be very pleased. Otherwise they will have the strength to do whatever they like.”

“You’re open to them doing something different?”

“Oh, yes.”

“You won’t be sad if they don’t do this?”

“Oh, no, no.”

“You seem like a strong man, but you allow for strength in your wife and sons.”

“Well, the children had time to become strong. We had to do a lot of battles before they became confident of themselves.”

“But you let them do that.”

“Yes, I do. Sometimes I am suffering because I see that they have been injured.”

“The parent thing.”

“Yes. Sometimes we have…fights with them, and they accuse me of not letting them be free. I will do the father job, and they will do the job of the children.”

“We imagine that in the Italian family, the father rules,” I said.

“No, no. Since the Roman Empire, the women have the power. Always,” he said. “Behind the man, there was always a strong woman.”

You don’t hear about that.

“It is true. Oh, si.”

Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years.

From the Aug. 3-9, 2005, issue

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