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Meet the artisans of Rome

Ancient traditions are alive and well in Rome — from a parfumier and a bookbinder to a leather worker and a mosaic artist, these six artisans will make you want to reach for your wallet

Meet the artisans of Rome
Laura Bosetti Tonatto, parfumier, Essenzialmente Laura. Image: Nico Avelardi

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Laura Bosetti Tonatto
Parfumier, Essenzialmente Laura 

“You’re completely tied to nature,” Laura Bosetti Tonatto is telling me. “You don’t like skyscrapers — you need space, you need greenery. I don’t want to know why, but right now, you really need this.”

Choosing a perfume with Laura isn’t your average shopping trip. Italy’s best-known ‘nose’ — parfumier to the likes of the Queen of England during her 30-year career, Laura is obsessed with fragrance. She can tell you about its history, its place in literature, its health and wellness benefits — and she can also tell you about yourself.

Insistent that a choice of scent is instinctive — a decision coming straight from the hypothalamus — Laura doesn’t like people buying one of her 46 perfumes straight off the shelf. Instead, she takes customers through the seven ‘olfactory families’ — from florals to leather — and sees which they respond to. If you’re interested, she’ll tell you what that says about you, which may be surprising.

When I first met Laura I told her I never wear perfume, but she’d insisted I try everything. “You must choose what your instinct says,” she’d said. And that’s how, sniffing one and then trying it on my skin, I’d said, “That’s the one.” It wasn’t oud, rose or patchouli — scents I’ve always had a soft spot for. It was called Bosco (‘forest’) — the woodiest of Laura’s woody fragrances. And, she said, my body was craving it. I told her that, as a country-dweller who’d just spent a few punishing weeks in LA, London, Bologna, Rome, she was spot on. “It’s the same as when you crave pasta or risotto,” Laura says. “Your body needs this.”

Her perfumes are beautifully calibrated and imaginative (in one, Incenso delle Chiese di Roma, she’s bottled the scent of Roman churches so well that the Vatican sells it), and listening to Laura explaining the history of each — from its ingredients to her inspiration — is infectious. Her attitude is the icing on the cake. She keeps prices affordable (€46/£41 per bottle) by using simple packaging, but dresses up each plain white box with a piece of red string. Buying perfume for yourself is the ultimate self-love, Laura tells me as she wraps mine up. As I untie the string, I should think of something I’ve been fretting over and imagine it dissolving. New perfume, new life.

It goes without saying I’m a scent convert.

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Elisa Nepi, leather worker, Ibiz. Image: Nico Avelardi

Elisa Nepi, leather worker, Ibiz. Image: Nico Avelardi

Elisa Nepi
Leather worker, Ibiz

Working with one’s parents isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but when Fulvio and Simonetta Nepi gave up their leather-working business in 2005, daughter Elisa not only took it over, but re-employed them, too. At Ibiz (named in honour of a trip her parents took to Ibiza in 1972, which inspired them to start the business), all the brightly coloured bags, belts and wallets are handmade on site; sides of leather (personally selected by Elisa in Tuscany, and vegetable-dyed) are draped over the worktable, where the family jostles for space, cutting and stitching.

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Fabrizio de Mauro, chocolatier, SAID dal 1923 Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato. Image: Nico Avelardi

Fabrizio de Mauro, chocolatier, SAID dal 1923 Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato. Image: Nico Avelardi

Fabrizio de Mauro
Chocolatier, SAID dal 1923 Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato 

The company was founded by my grandfather, Aldo, in 1923. We’re now on the third generation, run by myself and my sister, Carla. We’ve transformed our main shop into a ‘concept store’ focused around chocolate — so our HQ is home to the chocolate laboratory, the shop and a restaurant. My father, Bruno, still comes into the shop every day — aged 91 — along with my mother, who’s 85, and does all the flowers. Carla and I have nine nieces and nephews between us, so our history will continue. We opened a branch in London in 2013, and plan another one in London this year. 

Our methods are traditional, for sure, although we’re innovative too. Unfortunately, our old machinery is only for show because it doesn’t conform to modern safety standards. We have one old machine that we still use to temper gianduia [hazelnut chocolate], using an old recipe. Most of what we make is made and packaged by hand — we make it in small batches to guarantee its freshness.

We were among the first to make products with salt and spices that are now standard for many other artisans. But every year we come up with something new.

Italy was among the first producers of chocolate in the 16th century. As the country is also renowned for its pizza, bread and cheese, we pair them all with chocolate in our restaurant — you’ll find things like focaccia with spreadable chocolate, and little chocolates with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.

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Stefano Marcotulli, ice cream maker, Gelateria del Teatro. Image: Nico Avelardi

Stefano Marcotulli, ice cream maker, Gelateria del Teatro. Image: Nico Avelardi

Stefano Marcotulli
Ice cream maker, Gelateria del Teatro

Stefano Marcotulli is claiming to be selfish. “We just wanted to make gelato that we liked,” he says, about the impetus that propelled him (insurance worker) and his wife (architect) to quit their jobs in 2006. They loved ice cream, he says, and used to do the rounds of Rome’s famous gelaterias. They couldn’t find one that felt right for them; so they decided to open one themselves.

They were ahead of the curve. Today, their locally sourced, ingredients-first approach is the norm in artisanal circles. What isn’t, however, is the extremes to which they take it. Stefano points to the bowls of fruit, nuts, herbs and cacao beans by the kitchen window. “Anyone can call themselves artisan, but if you claim to make gelato artigianale fresco, that should mean you only use fresh ingredients, and your customers eat it the same day, or at most, the next day,” he says.

Where other establishments buy ingredients pre-prepared, here they make everything from scratch: peeling prickly pears, de-stoning cherries, hand-grinding pistachios. Their pasta and pizza restaurant round the back runs on the same principles.

Stefano grabs a handful of sage leaves. “We make an infusion,” he says, “because if we mash up the leaves, the gelato will go green, but this way it takes the smell but not the colour.” He’s making one of their bestselling flavours — sage and raspberry, born one sweltering August day when “I wanted to make something fresh but instead of doing mint like everyone else does, I thought we should try sage”.

Everything is small-batch — Stefano mixes organic Thai sugar with Umbrian milk and dextrose, stuffs the sage leaves into what looks like a tea strainer, and pops it into the machine, to be heated with milk before freezing. They have 200 flavours, he says, as the scent of sage fills the air, and they serve 40 at any one time.

After 10 minutes, Stefano spoons it out into a steel tub, drizzling a raspberry compote between each gelato layer, like a lasagne. I taste sage first, sharp and cool. The next spoonful picks out a whole raspberry. In the shop, I scour other flavours: tiramisu (made with homemade sponge and organic coffee); pumpkin (pre-roasted for two hours); blackberry (picked by a friend). And I thank Stefano for his selfishness.

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Tiziana Ferraresi, mosaic artist, La Gotta Dipinta. Image: Nico Avelardi

Tiziana Ferraresi, mosaic artist, La Gotta Dipinta. Image: Nico Avelardi

Tiziana Ferraresi
Mosaic artist, La Gotta Dipinta

Walking into Tiziana’s workshop is like stepping back in time, with ancient-style mosaics dotting the shelves, and pots of tesserae — different colours, consistencies and provenance — lined up around her workspace. She works in much the same way as her predecessors did 2,000 years ago, breaking the tesserae into smaller pieces by hammering them over a spike-embedded tree stump, then placing them down one by one. Most of her work is for entire floors — commissioning a mosaic to show you’ve ‘arrived’ is as popular as it was in the days of the empire — but she also makes smaller things, from coasters to artworks.

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Federica Mendaia, bookbinder, Cartonnage Legatoria dell'Orso. Image: Nico Avelardi

Federica Mendaia, bookbinder, Cartonnage Legatoria dell’Orso. Image: Nico Avelardi

Federica Mendaia
Bookbinder, Cartonnage Legatoria dell’Orso

I’m from the north, Lake Iseo, but came here 30 years ago. My first memory of Rome was thinking that you really breathed the air here — the beauty of Italy. It was magical. Now, it’s not what it was, and we’ve lost traditions, but the beauty remains.

I’m not sure I’m an artisan… I just do simple things, covering notebooks and albums, and making boxes. I opened this shop 20 years ago — I feel like I’ve spent my life here.

Everything’s made to measure. You come in, choose a product and a paper, and I cover it. Prices start from around €10. I’ve got about 700 different kinds of papers to choose from — some printed, some handmade, some marbled. 

I don’t make the paper myself, but I create the objects. You choose what you want: the paper, the ribbon, the binding and the elastic. And I can do it on the spot. Boxes usually take about a day, but a notebook I can do in about 45 minutes.

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Published in the Rome 2018 guide, distributed with the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)