“Leather, real leather,” the Italian man in the purple polo-shirt tells me proudly, motioning towards a dainty white pair of strappy sandals with blue jewels. The sandals are cute, but the thought of squeezing my feet into anything right now hurts. He knows. He looks me up and down; shaking his head slowly at the now-shredded sandals I purchased from Bloomingdale’s a week before leaving New York for Rome.
“The worst,” he says, in broken English. “Bad. Bad to walk on stones. Siedete.” I sit.
The brown and gold Oriani sign is hidden under a faded, salmon awning on Via Torre Argentina.
For visitors to Rome, finding comfortable shoes for the cobblestone streets is a feat that starts way before setting foot in Italy. After three weeks, the jagged rocks have destroyed the shoes I bought specifically for my trip here. I need a new pair – a pair that will stand up to the stones – immediately.
So perhaps it is a combination of the colorful, comfortable looking sandals in the windows and the warm smile of Rosario De Simone in the doorway that pulls me into Oriani on Via Torre Argentina. Inside the creamy, peach-colored walls I find tall showcases displaying sandals and jewelry, all handcrafted by De Simone himself.
“Tutti i piedi sono diversi.” All feet are different, De Simone says, which is why he takes the time to measure each carefully.
My cheeks redden as he gently traces the space between each of my toes, ignoring the three Band-Aids I slapped on that morning in an attempt to hide my throbbing bunion. “Avete i piedi gonfi,” De Simone laughs. Swollen feet, he tells me. I soon learn that he knows how to fix them.
Sandals have always been a vital part of Roman identity, so much so that they contributed to the development of early Roman civilization. As the Empire expanded, so did shoe making and vegetable tanning; Romans would introduce both practices to the peoples they conquered. Using a pragmatic yet fashionable approach, Romans coined a thong sandal that was durable enough for military activity. Nowadays, sandal making continues to thrive in Italy – especially in coastal areas where the weather is warmer all year round.
De Simone uses the same practical mindset, and the secrets of sandal making he gleaned from his uncle, “Zio Alfonso,” to design sandals at Oriani. His uncle has been making sandals for 60 years and owns two shops in Capri and Positano, on the Amalfi. Handmade sandals from the Amalfi Coast gained notoriety when Jackie Kennedy, in the summer of 1962, went on a midnight shopping spree at Canfora. After Kennedy purchased nearly every design imaginable, the secret was out. Canfora sandals are well known today and beloved by tourists all over the world.
Photographs of the Kennedy’s on vacation are displayed throughout Oriani.
An admirer of Canfora and a lover of the craft, in 2009 – about five years after his daughter Oriana was born – De Simone opened a sandal-making store of his own. In Rome. And named it after her. He is the only employee. His customers are primarily Italian women, whom he says prefer hand-sewn, chemical-free shoes to the ones sold in department stores.
Even so, when the occasional tourist wanders inside Oriani, she is hooked. Take for example, Angela from Canada. Angela first bought a pair of handmade sandals from De Simone on a visit to Rome in 2013. It is June 2014, and she has returned for a second pair. De Simone rushes to kiss her on both of her cheeks.
For his beloved customers, De Simone works six days a week, exercising his creativity, thoughtful personality and skilled hands. He cuts leather imported from his Zio Alfonso’s stores. He sews and sews, each strap separately, attaching one to another with minuscule screws. “No glue,” he states firmly. This is important, as shoes made with glue will come apart if they get caught in the spaces between the cobblestones.
I choose a black, bronze and white leather color-scheme for the tri-strap sandals De Simone creates for me. Even though I normally prefer a simpler style, De Simone explains – through a series of hand motions and pointing – that I need more support for my naturally wide feet and toes. I watch as he inserts non-skid pads into the soles of the sandals-in-progress, making them extra cushiony and safe for the slick-when-wet stones.
Non-skid, rubber pads on the bottom of the sandals prevent sliding on the cobblestones, especially in the rain.
Whimsical, gold ceiling ornaments twinkle as he calmly paces up and down the 20-foot deep, 3-foot wide space, gathering his tools and models. The tools are remarkably simple ones: a hammer, a half scissor-half razor instrument and a screwdriver of sorts that is used to mark where the inserts of the straps are placed on the sole.
Above the diligent De Simone and the piles of his empty shoeboxes, glimpses of the shop’s original stone foundation are visible. How fitting – as he works sandals strong enough for Rome’s stones, he is completely surrounded by them.
It is true; the cobblestones are inescapable. Most of Rome’s historical center and main streets are studded with the brick-sized slabs of volcanic rock. They have been since the end of the 1500s, when Pope Sixtus V’s carriage – with the Pope himself inside – almost fell over in St. Peter’s Square. As a result, Monsignor Ludovico Sergardi, the Vatican’s supervisor at the time, decided to repave the area with basalt cubes. According to Roman-Catholic legend, each stone laid around the Vatican represented a soul saved by Saint Peter.
By the end of the Italian Unification in 1871, the cobblestones, cut and sized by hand and pounded into beds of coagulated dirt, covered nearly all of Rome. They are called Sampietrini in Italian. Translated, the word means “the children of St. Peter.” The stones were probably nicknamed after the maintenance workers of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Rosario De Simone prefers the word “tradition.” He also credits the cobblestones with securing his business profits, as they perpetuate the need for sturdy, well-made sandals year-round.
The Nadino – or little knot – is the favorite sandal style of De Simone’s customers.
There are three iconic sandals that De Simone insists are just as enduring as the stones themselves: the Ragno, or “the spider,” a beautiful tangle of overlapping straps that look like a web, the Capri – a simple, classic design a la Jackie O and the most popular, Nadino – “the little knot” made of two straps woven together into a thong. De Simone uses mostly white, black, brown and tan-colored leather for the straps. While neutral tones are the best sellers, he has nearly every shade of the rainbow available, if desired. He once made a pair for a woman using red, green and white leather – the colors of the Italian flag.
All sandals cost between 70 and 90 euro. De Simone can also add some of his handmade embellishments – jeweled flowers, stars and other shapes – to the sandal straps, which will raise the price accordingly. The entire process lasts 30 minutes, including the time that De Simone takes to readjust your straps if they happen to be a bit looser or tighter than you would like. Part of the fun is watching him work quietly, patiently and passionately.
As he perches on his wooden stool, Rosario De Simone keeps tradition alive. He is a one-man show. An artisan. A firm believer of “made in Italy.” For him, the Sanpietrini in the streets are just as Italian as the Vero Cuoio – the genuine leather – he holds in his hands. With each pair of sandals, he places a tiny brown card with a warranty number on it. The warranty promises, “high quality achieved from using tanning vegetable extract with most advanced technologies…in compliance with nature and man.”
A smiling De Simone with my new sandals.
There are other sandal-makers in Rome, but for some reason, my feet – or fate – have led me to Oriani. “Vivo di questo.” I live for this, De Simone tells me, as I slip into his masterpieces.
A half an hour earlier, I wished Rome would do away with its cobblestones. But now, in my handcrafted, custom fit leather sandals, my feet feel a new sort of appreciation – a new connection – to the secrets cradled between the cracks in the stones.
In my Italian sandals, I am an Italian. I have Italian sole. And I will walk with pride the Roman, cobblestone streets.
Oriani Gioielli. Via Torre Argentina 43A. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (tentative). Sunday, depending on weather. Email: email@example.com, www.orianigioielli.it