Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

- - -

It was possible I’d never had pizza before. Not really. Certainly nothing that smelled or tasted like the dish that sizzled on the table before me.

It was a November night in Rome. The weather was mild but chilly enough that it felt good to duck inside a restaurant, trading the gasoline fumes of the clogged street for the aromas of a wood-fired oven. The scent of rising dough was warm and comfortable, like leaning into the neck of a lover.

I let my friend order for us, and soon the table was filled with fried bites, beans, salad, and an assortment of mighty, thick-rimmed pizzas dotted with slightly charred bubbles, combining Neapolitan and Roman styles for crusts that were both crispy and chewy. The taste was some kind of wizardry. The pizzas were made from ingredients I’d tasted before, but they never had such an impact.

I’m embarrassed to say it now, but Italy wasn’t even on my list of places I wanted to go. It seemed so done. A cliché. Lizzie McGuire went to Italy, I thought.

Then I ended up on a road trip through Europe with my buddy Steve, who created a chaotic, three-week itinerary that began in Spain and took us through seventeen countries (some microstates). To give you an idea of our pace, there was one day where we had breakfast in Slovenia, stopped for coffee in Croatia, gulped goulash in Hungary, dined at a fine restaurant in Slovakia for dinner, and spent the night in the Czech Republic.

Italy, however, is where we slowed down. We luxuriated in Italy. We gazed at the awe-inspiring statue of David in Florence, explored Pompeii on a rainy day, and climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In Venice, I anticipated being overcome by the smells of the canals and braced myself for swampy odors and stagnant air. Instead, I discovered a place of movement, where twice a day, the surrounding lagoon ebbs and flows with fresh seawater. The smells had the same balmy characteristics as the ocean: alive and briny, slightly seaweedy.

Then there was Rome. On our first day there, I connected with an old friend, K, who had moved to the city years earlier. She recommended her favorite neighborhood place, a tiny pizzeria I never would have found on my own. This was the revelatory pizza that smacked me in the face with aroma and flavor. Pizza like I’d never tasted before.

Toward the end of the meal, the owner stopped by the table. He was boisterous and enthusiastic, like if Roberto Benigni were a restaurant owner.

He asked how we found his place and what we were doing in Rome. Not knowing any Italian, I spoke slowly in English, hoping some of the words might land. I said something like, “My friend lives here. She is an excellent ambassador to Rome.”

Pizzeria Roberto Benigni interpreted this as “My friend is the ambassador to Rome.”

I tried to correct him, but the man was already off and running. He called out to his employees to bring us treats, and soon there was a parade of liquor and various digestifs. The table overflowed with desserts and glasses and, eventually, emptied bottles of limoncello. We laughed until we were breathless, and when a glass of limoncello spilled all over my coat, I didn’t even mind. The man took our photos to post on his social media, “The ambassador with her friends!”

Around 2 a.m. Steve was tired and wanted to crash at the hotel, and K had to get some sleep before work. But I was still eager to see Rome. Before I understood what was happening, Pizzeria Roberto Benigni stuffed me into a cab, someone tucked a handful of euros into the driver’s hand, and I was whisked away on a whirlwind nighttime tour.

The soaring arches of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain’s rushing waters, the timeless Pantheon, the impressive Spanish Steps that looked like an empty, rippled hillside. I experienced all of them quietly and by moonlight, alone but for a bored chain-smoking driver who couldn’t have cared less about an ambassador’s friend. It was exhilarating.

It’s true I was tipsy, but I had also never experienced anything more dramatic or perfect. Suddenly it made sense why people say “Roma Caput Mundi”—Rome, capital of the world—to refer to this dazzling and unrivaled place, dense with history, food, and culture. My soul seemed to leave my body, and Italy rushed in.

My photos of that night are blurred, but my memories remain vivid, cradled by every aroma I encountered. For the remainder of the trip, my nubby black coat held fast to the scents of tobacco smoke and diesel, zingy limoncello, and tangy tomato sauce. The fragrances of an eternal city.