Sometimes a trip to the barbershop is about more than trimming split ends -- in this case, it tied up some loose ones.
It was a rainy October afternoon in 2018, and we were visiting Washington, DC for the first time with our children, then aged 9 and 12. While my husband worked at the Italian Embassy during the day, I embraced the job, as the American, of touring the kids around the city’s museums and historical monuments.
I wanted them to feel my patriotism for and pride in my nation’s capital, represented by the Lincoln Memorial, The Supreme Court, and the National Gallery of Art, to name a few of the landmarks I longed to show them. I hoped for them to appreciate their American and Italian citizenships, and to learn to recognize the Capitol as quickly as the Colosseum.
At the end of that afternoon, my husband insisted, of all things, on getting his hair cut. I didn’t understand his urgency — Sicilian Tony at San Francisco’s North Beach barbershop had just given him a trim the week before.
After a quick search online for a phone number of the barbershop, my husband smirked in triumph at me. He promptly made a cold call to another Italian, named Diego, a renowned barber who worked off of Dupont Circle. The moment Diego heard my husband’s voice — which, to him, was that of the grandson of an old friend — he invited us over immediately.
“I’d stay open all night to see you,” he told my husband, despite the fact that he was about to close.
Off we went, all four of us, seeking two manly trims (one for my husband and one for my son), and a historic reunion under a downpour.
En route to Dupont Circle, my husband explained who we were about to meet: As a newly-arrived immigrant from Italy, Diego D’Ambrosio found his first job in the 1960s at a small barbershop in suburban DC. About four years later, he procured an appointment at the Italian Embassy to see how he could branch off to start his own business. There, he encountered my husband’s grandfather, Egidio Ortona, who was then the Ambassador of Italy to the United States. Thanks to Egidio’s support and advice, Diego later told us, he was able to open up his first barbershop in the Dupont Circle Hotel. In 1988, Diego moved into the very spot where we would meet him. The kids were excited to talk to the barber who had known their late great-grandfather as a regular.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among Italian men that Sicilian barbers are the best. Diego was the exception — he was from Roseto degli Abruzzi along the Adriatic Sea. Word traveled quickly that Diego was the only one in Washington, DC who really knew how to cut hair the way Italian men liked it. I always questioned how much “trimming” Diego really did with Egidio, because, in most of the photos I have seen of my husband’s grandfather, he was bald.
But, as we all know, a trip to the hair salon isn’t simply about the cut — it’s about the exchange of ideas, the offering of advice to a personal problem, the possible hint of gossip shared by a previous client, the empathy expressed by the nurturing artist.
As the rain trickled down outside, I sensed we were going for more than a trim — as must have also been the case every time Egidio sat in Diego’s barbershop chair whether for a close shave or a lathering of his scalp.
My husband went on to share with us that both Diego and Egidio each came from small, Italian towns, and loved exchanging stories about all that they missed in Italy and loved in America.
In the 1980s, when my husband was in elementary school, he lived in Washington, DC for a brief period while his own father headed the Press Office at the Italian Embassy. He remembers accompanying his father to Diego’s on Saturday mornings, and sitting on telephone books while Diego clipped his ten-year-old bangs. He recalls that, even then, there was a line out the door of men queuing up for an appointment (Diego only took walk-ins).
Diego’s barbershop is adorned with a Wall of Fame of signed, framed photographs of his clients. There are former American Presidents, Supreme Court Judges, foreign prime ministers, Cardinals of the Catholic Church, and even a female astronaut. Right below a framed photograph of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a black and white photograph of Egidio captures him with his arms folded across his chest and his intelligent eyes challenging a diplomatic duel.
Almost forty years later, when my husband walked into Diego’s barbershop, with his half-American-half-Italian son, Diego’s eighty-year-old eyes welled up to meet the fourth generation Ortona. Dressed impeccably in a pressed blue suit, light-blue dress shirt, and yellow tie with a matching pocket scarf, Diego embraced my husband, Lorenzo, and our son, Luca, as if they were his own. Diego cupped Luca’s cheek and stroked it gently, recognizing the eyes of an old soul beyond his twelve years.
“I owe so much to your great grandfather,” he whispered to Luca. “He was one of the kindest people I knew.”
While Diego combed Luca’s hair, his weathered hands prepared to trim it with long, elegant, Mannerist fingers, and perfectly-manicured nails. They were soft but wrinkled hands that labored tirelessly for years to shape the hair of those who led nations.
Once the trims were done, the third and fourth generation linked arms with Diego, and huddled in a genealogical triangle underneath the photograph of the first generation Ortona whose studio portrait hung framed above their side parts. Diego told us that he had lost his wife earlier that year, and seeing us as a family made him nostalgic for Italy and the past.
An hour later, it was dark when we walked outside on the rainy sidewalk on the corner of 19th and Q Street. A lamppost lit up “Diego D’Ambrosio Way,” a street corner dedicated to him in 2010, a year after he was knighted with the Order of the Star of the Italian Solidarity by the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC.
Diego wouldn’t release my hand until I promised that we would return the following year. I nodded, while swallowing a lump in my throat, and waved goodbye to him as tears streamed down his cheeks.
Once back in San Francisco, where we were then living, Luca received compliments on his new haircut from friends.
“The barber who cut my great grandfather’s hair gave me this trim,” he blurted, running his hands through his newly-cropped bangs. “Four generations of an Italian family that usually lives overseas but somehow always finds its way back to America — and to Diego. Pretty lit, huh?”
In October 2021, Diego passed away at the age of 87. Unfortunately, we never saw him again.
Our children never met their own Italian great grandfather. But, after this experience, they felt they knew him better thanks to “the Italian grandfather of Dupont Circle," as one obituary described Diego.
On this trip, my kids saw that American history came not only through its monuments, landmarks, and museums but also through the journey of many Italians who either immigrated to the United States, like Diego, or had the privilege of being posted there for work, like Egidio (and, eventually, like us).
My kids got glimpses of two very different Italian lives from once upon a time in America. For our family unit of four, traveling within America is, by now, not only about visiting my past but also that of my husband’s. The more we travel the more we see the world through both American and Italian eyes, and gather the stories of both of our countries as one generation trails after another.
Right after our trip, we sent Diego the photograph taken of all of us together with Nonno Egidio behind us. Even if we don’t ever find the below photograph hung up next to Nonno Egidio’s, it will remain one of our favorites.
This one brought me to tears! Not one word out of place in your beautiful story! Congrats!
What a special moment and a beautiful read. Thank you!