The Neighborhood Knife Sharpener

10 Dec

When I first moved to my neighborhood, every once in a while I would hear someone yelling some word at intervals. I thought it was a name, and this person was calling someone. It sounded like “OOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” I kept thinking: Tino, would you stop getting lost, for God’s sake? But it kept happening, with a sort of regularity that I just couldn’t make sense of. So I figured maybe it was a crazy person—I mean, how is it possible that the same person yells out the same name every week for the entire neighborhood to hear? As we say here when we have no idea about something: BOH.

One day when I heard it start up and Ale happened to be home, I said to him, “What IS that?”
He said, “Oh, that’s just the arrotino.”
“The WHAT?”
“You know, the guy who sharpens the knives.”

Um, ok. So, there’s this guy, you see. And he goes around my neighborhood to this day on Friday mornings, yelling out “AAA ROOOO TIIIII NOOOO!” in the apparent hope that people will come out of their houses with their knives for him to sharpen. I even read an article on Trastevere that says that people actually lower BASKETS from their windows, full of their knives to sharpen. Besides sounding quite perilous, is that not just a little too quaint, a little too nostalgic, even for my old-fashioned neighborhood? Is it possible?

In doing a bit of research for this post, I have come to learn that I am not the only one puzzled by this most mysterious figure. I myself have only actually seen him once. He rides around on a makeshift bicycle, and when there are knives to sharpen, he flips it over and turns the pedals with his hands to run the wheel that sharpens the knives.

I found some discussions in Italian about this and came up with two photos. Many of the Italians on the forums couldn’t believe that someone had actually captured a traditional arrotino in flesh and blood:

But folks, it doesn’t stop there. There is an even more high-tech version of the arrotino. Once when I understood Italian better, I was over at a friend’s house and heard something coming over a loudspeaker from outside. The piped-through-a-megaphone voice was shouting this: “Donne! E’ arrivato l’arrotino!” Basically it was a recorded voice yelling “Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!” My friends told me it was a classic thing that they had always heard as they were growing up. They said a car with loudspeakers tied to it would slowly drive around to announce “the arrival.” They could all recite the recording by heart, word for word, which had me laughing. In fact, I found a hilarious yet very informative blog post that talks about this phenomenon, (unfortunately only in Italian), in which Mr. Diego tells us that the voice says the same thing and is the same man in ALL OF ITALY. It’s a recording and none of the Italians I found online seem to know who this famous man actually is. Does he really exist?

When I first heard it, I thought this whole recording was so incredibly, well, fifties. I mean, come on—did people really go outside to have this guy sharpen their knives? Yelling: “Women!” I’d never even heard of such a thing and was immediately intrigued.

I found an mp3/Flash video file that records the voice. It’s a funny article in Italian asking: Who is the Knife Sharpener? You can listen to it here (if you don’t read Italian, click on “avanti” to go through the screens first, to get to the audio file. Even if you don’t speak Italian, it’s worth a look.)

[Update October 2013. Those links are broken. So I found the below clip from Youtube which is better.]

Here’s the translation (very loosely, as I did it myself) of what he says:

Women! The knife sharpener has arrived!
He sharpens knives, scissors, little scissors, silk scissors, prosciutto knives!
Women! The knife sharpener and umbrella repairman has arrived!
We fix umbrellas! The umbrella repairman, women!
We repair gas kitchens! We have replacement parts for gas kitchens!
If you have a gas leak we fix it! If your kitchen smokes, we take the smoke out of your gas kitchen! We work right away! Immediately! The knife sharpener has arrived!

In Mr. Diego’s post, he even mentions “my” arrotino here in Trastevere, one of the last of the traditional knife sharpeners. He asks if nowadays anyone really comes out of their houses with knives and umbrellas, and notes that the “gas kitchen” mentioned on the recording no longer exists. Yet, the omnipresent recording persists. Truth be told, many butchers still utilize this service, and the one time I saw my biking arrotino in action was when he was sharpening knives for the fruit seller in front of my house. These are the things that remind me that Trastevere is probably the only true village left in this big capital city, and I hope that enough people keep lowering baskets full of knives (slowly and carefully, of course, so as to avoid any unfortunate “mishaps”) to have my arrotino pedaling along for many years to come.


25 Responses to “The Neighborhood Knife Sharpener”

  1. Expat Traveler December 10, 2006 at 4:43 pm #

    Shelly this is so cool! I just asked P about it and he said, this was totally normal. Just like a butcher etc., especially some 100 years ago…I guess he knows more than we do about this. I’m happy you got to capture this.. So cool!

  2. Julie December 10, 2006 at 4:44 pm #


  3. avery December 11, 2006 at 12:31 am #

    Great post.I’ve heard this in my neighborhood as well! That is so funny. I never understood what was blaring over the loudspeaker until recently but every so often there is a knife sharpener that drives by…..And there is the dearest sweetest guy that comes by our restaurant in Piazza Cavour every two weeks that sharpens our knives for about 5 euro and he only has one hand. Crazy, but I never had the gall to ask him what happened. He’s great at sharpening knives though!

  4. Ekimrue December 11, 2006 at 2:18 am #

    Would you please ask hime to stop by Port Orchard, WA next Friday? Our knives always need sharpening.

  5. sognatrice December 11, 2006 at 12:33 pm #

    We actually don’t have an official one of these in my village…but…um…confession: my fidanzato is quickly becoming the go-to guy in the knife sharpening area (his father used to be the unofficial one, apparently, but he’s moved down to the marina village). No matter what, though, I *refuse* to let him use a loudspeaker! Very funny post 🙂

  6. Mr. Diego December 11, 2006 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Shelley, thanks a lot for mentioning me in your very exhaustive post about the “arrotino” guy.Actually there are two posts of mine about that sort of mythological figure, of which the second is this one (complete with a couple well made recordings of the “Call of the Arrotino”… how does that sound? 😉)

  7. East of Oregon December 11, 2006 at 6:27 pm #

    This is such an interesting post! And funny and historic all at the same time.. thanks! take care 🙂

  8. FinnyKnits December 11, 2006 at 6:30 pm #

    Another great nugget about life in Rome. Love, love, love it. Exotic safari creature for sure. With it’s own mating call!Hey, do you suppose this is what those folks were doing in Napoli when they were lowering baskets from their windows?

  9. Jul December 11, 2006 at 10:04 pm #

    That is too cool! We need one of those here (not that the yelling would fly in CH) – my knives are so tragically dull.

  10. Dixie December 11, 2006 at 11:22 pm #

    I absolutely love this! I feel like I’ve soaked up some important local culture.Fantastic that you were able to capture the announcement car. You must have been thrilled!

  11. liuia drusilla March 1, 2007 at 5:04 pm #

    A paralelism again ^^U: here in Spain they play a flute called “xipro” –here you’ll find how to make one ^^ and here you can listen to it- they usually ride a bike like your arrotino trasteverino ;), but I’ve never seen one travelling by car @_@.

  12. John Kelly August 1, 2007 at 3:57 pm #

    When I first arrived in Rome, I checked out an apartment in Trastevere. Being new, I got a little lost in all the winding streets. Then I started to hear someone shouting “arroTIIIIIIIIno”. I had no idea what was going on. He was probably a few streets away, but those guys have voices that can TRAVEL. And it sounded like he was getting closer and closer with every shout. It felt like he was shouting the Italian version of “Warri-ors! Come out to pla-ay!”

    Now I’m in a place where I’m woken every other morning by the same arrotino. And I still get that moment of terror when I first hear him.

  13. Milton J Potter March 11, 2009 at 9:59 pm #

    Iam Familiar with knife sharpeners as I married a daughter of one that was born in Italy
    in Pinzola and he migrated to the Us in the early
    1900 . He has a Nephew that is still living here
    in Maryland , and has two sons that are sharpeners . My Father -In – Law started his
    \trade pushing a pushcart througth the city
    before he got motorized

    Thanks for the history lesson

  14. Passage to Italy March 3, 2010 at 6:30 pm #


    I just love your site. This post makes me wish we had our on arrotino here in the States. I love how he looked at you as if to say, “what the heck is she doing?” lol

    Love your blog and am a little sad that it’s no longer continued.

  15. mondomulia March 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    In my neighbourhood, we’ve only ever had the car version with loud speakers, but I’ve never witnessed anybody getting knives sharpened by it!

  16. Un'americana a Roma March 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Me neither. I have the car version in my neighborhood now (I’m not in Trastevere anymore but Poggio Ameno) and I’m still intrigued by the offer to repair my umbrellas. Honestly? Do you think if I brought one of those cheap umbrellas I bought on the street down to the guy, he’d fix it? I’m a bit doubtful…

  17. kimmenozzi March 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    It’s all true – we have them here in Reggio Emilia, too! When I asked my husband about it, he laughed and explained it to me. It’s just another thing they take for granted here that we have little or no clue about “back home” (wherever that might happen to be)!

  18. spacedlaw March 29, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Lucky you! No arrotino for me but: “E arrivato il vostro stracciarolo!”
    On Saturday mostly.

  19. Nita July 23, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Your post brought me back when I was young. Even her in Asia, we used to have a local man on the bike shouting for scissors and knives. He also flipped his bike to sharpen it at the back wheel! With the growth of towns and cities, that art form has also been lost in our town.


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