angelo amorico
Photo: Courtesy of Kirby Bumpus
Think you've seen Italy? Until you've hit the road with Angelo Amorico—standing in Al Pacino's shoes on the Godfather balcony, peeking into the pope's closet—you haven't seen anything. Sarah Lyall takes a spin through Rome with Oprah's favorite tour guide.
When you explore Rome with Angelo Amorico, these are some of the things you will not do: You will not wait in line. You will not become prohibitively hungry or thirsty. You will not tote around a stack of outdated guidebooks. You will not spend a whole afternoon in an enormous church, hearing someone drone on about obscure artworks that are barely visible to the naked eye because that is what your tour is doing that day and God forbid you should depart from the tour.

"When clients leave, I want them to leave with the most beautiful smile," Angelo is saying as we glide through the streets in one of the black Mercedes vans that his company, Access Italy, uses for its tours.

Angelo, who is 57 and looks like a twinkly, better-fed, benevolent version of Larry David, has just treated me and my 13-year-old daughter, Alice, to a behind-the-scenes tour of Il Campidoglio and Rome's city hall. We had been walking through the building, arguing about politics, when suddenly Angelo opened a nondescript little door and we stepped outside onto the building's rooftop. Dizzy from the height, we walked across the roof, gazing at the far hills of Rome and at something equally gratifying: a swarm of tourists far below us, undoubtedly being lectured about the political, social, and economic legacies of the fourth-century emperor Constantine I and worrying about whether they were going to miss the bus to the restaurant.

On the way out, we dropped in on the mayor himself, Gianni Alemanno, a small, courtly figure who ushered us onto his private balcony. "When I was here with Oprah, the mayor wasn't in," Angelo said, and I felt a prickle of pride—he was in for us! Angelo met Oprah about 15 years ago and has guided her in Italy three times, enough so that they now consider each other friends. "In the early '90s, my lawyer said to me, 'If you're going to Italy, I know the guy you should meet—he'll take good care of you," Oprah says. "And that's an understatement when it comes to Angelo. He seems to know everybody in the whole country." She is one of a number of notable clients, among them Diane Sawyer, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and Michael J. Fox. Not that Angelo recognized Fox. "I asked him, 'What do you do?' and he told me, 'I'm an actor,'" Angelo says. "I thought, 'He's a short guy with a backpack and jeans.' I wondered how this college kid had enough money to pay for me."

Still, the bulk of Angelo's business comes from regular people—regular being a relative term, since he charges an average of $500 a day. He has about 50 guides across Italy and matches the tour to the client. If you are an oenophile, you might go to the Badia a Passignano winery, an estate that dates back to the year 395 (and where it is rumored Galileo once taught math). You could study the work of Caravaggio, or visit an olive farm, or sail down the Amalfi coast. Or you could simply waddle from restaurant to restaurant, blissed-out on pasta.

He gets all kinds, Angelo says—from hard-core fact-seekers to rank amateurs who lose heart at Famous Building Number Two and clamor instead for Cup of Coffee Number Three. "After five minutes, I understand what they want to do," Angelo boasts. Many of his clients (90 percent of whom are American) want to go to un-touristy spots, and Angelo obliges. For example, he knows a man who has the key to a door off the Sistine Chapel. The door looks as if it would lead to an old storage area, but inside is a robing room for pontiffs—where a cardinal changes from his red robe into a fancy new white one after being elected pope. The vestments are waiting there, Angelo says, in three sizes: "one for a fat pope, one for a medium pope, and one for a skinny pope."

Angelo's favorite places in Rome
oprah winfrey in rome
Photo: Zoe Vincenti
Alas, we don't get to see it; Angelo's friend has the flu. But we go to the Vatican anyway. As we enter the massive structure, he correctly reads the family mood. "I don't want to take you through the whole museum—that would take five hours," he says. "So we do the shortcut." This is my kind of tour, especially because of the information Angelo shares, such as how Raphael two-timed his noble girlfriend with the woman he really loved, a baker's daughter, and how the guy in one of the murals is a dead ringer for Sylvester Stallone in his early days.

Angelo has been in the guide business for 28 years, after first working as a hairdresser. "The women drove me nuts," he says. "They came in with photographs of Farrah Fawcett, with the frosted hair, saying, 'That is what I want to look like.' And I said, 'I'm a man, not a god.'"

He was living in Boston then, having moved there to learn English. That is where he met his American wife, with whom he has two sons, Simone, 29, and Marco, 27. They work with their father in the business, often providing a wry corrective chorus to his sometimes excessive exuberance. Once, they recall, Angelo was showing around two American women in their 50s. Told they didn't have husbands, Angelo promised to find them nice Italian boyfriends, only to learn they were already happily paired up—with each other.

After a spaghetti dinner at Antica Pesa near the Gianicolo ("Sophia Loren's favorite restaurant," Angelo says), we fall into bed exhausted, but wake up ready for another day of serendipitous encounters. First we are joined by Max Parini, one of Angelo's guides, a champion explicator of historical context. Leaving the car in what is clearly not a parking space—"We are Italians! We will park in the middle of the street!" Angelo says—we visit the Sancta Sanctorum, a chapel once used by popes. The door is locked. Not surprisingly, Angelo knows the guy with the key. We go in, leaving the other tourists to gape wistfully through a grated window. There is some confusion about the provenance of a sacred piece of wood on the wall. The guide says it came from the bench where the disciples sat at the Last Supper, but as we leave, Angelo whispers to me, "Last time, he said it came from the table." We accept that it is historic and leave it at that.

Then we head to Giolitti, whose 40-plus gelatos—from hazelnut to papaya—are reputed to be favorite treats of the Italian parliament when the task of legislating becomes too arduous. Angelo knows one of the owners, Nazzareno Giolitti, a lion of a man exuding Italian machismo, who hands Alice and me aprons and leads us through the main steps of gelato-making—mushing the fruit, stirring in cream, sugar, and milk, and then tossing the whole mixture into giant churning machines. He calls ice cream "the most important, most complete food in the world," and he is not kidding. The secret, he says, is passion. Also simple, fresh ingredients in the perfect proportion. "It's like women," he says, clearly a connoisseur. "If a woman puts on too much makeup, she ruins everything. Better to be natural."

What is there left to do? We are too tired to see anything else and expect we might never eat again, either. As we say goodbye to Angelo, he reminds us that we have promised to come back with the rest of the family. He will take us to Positano, on the coast, and we will swim and eat seafood and see nothing we don't want to see. "We'll keep in touch," he says. "Leave it to me. I'll tell you where to go."

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