Added On: Friday, December 14, 2007

That's Amore

For Salvatore Parisi, there is nothing more beloved than Cuban cigars-- 60,000 of them.

Eight friends gather on a recent night at a private home, surrounded by pine trees, in a gated community outside Rome. Smoke curls about the study, a Victorian-style room packed with tooled leather books, gilt-framed oil paintings, busts, overstuffed chairs. Tonight Ubi Maior, a new cigar club, is convening. The host, Salvatore Parisi, a 52-year-old psychologist, is the only member who hasn't struck a match. Instead he initiates a visitor into the art of smoking a Cuban stogie. Step one: adoration.

First out of the humidor is a 25-year-old Dunhill Estupendo--anything but stupendous looking, though it is said to be worth $1,200. Parisi purses his lips and plants a kiss on it before returning it to its reliquary. Next, a fistful of pre-Castro cigars in plastic, resembling shriveled old men too small for their pants. They date from an age when hundreds of brands, instead of the 30 officially sanctioned now, competed on the island in capitalist frenzy. They bear names like Por Larranaga and Maria Guerrero, and when Parisi holds one to the light you can see a little green from age has discolored the band. Then he leans over a second humidor, straightens up and holds a cigar aloft with all ten fingers, like a priest raising the Host. "This is the Dunhill Cabinetta," he says. More kisses now, twice blessed. Cost: $200 apiece. Parisi strokes the cigar with a finger. "Like silk," he whispers. The room seems to go silent. Then a heavyset friend in the crowd reaches for the punch line: "Let's smoke it." Parisi glowers.

In his workaday life Parisi runs the Scuola Romana Rorschach, an institute in Rome. He teaches the techniques of reading personality quirks and preoccupations from what people say they see in ink blots, providing analysis to the Italian courts and to the Vatican, which wants clues to a person's state of mind before deciding on a marriage annulment. You can imagine what Parisi daydreams about--even as he ponders questions on behalf of the Apostolic See. "I'm not sure if God exists," he muses. "But if He does, I'm sure He smokes cigars--only Cubans."

Married and childless, Parisi spends nearly all his free time with cigars, meeting with smoking clubs, planning trips to Cuba to buy them, inspecting cigars, touching them, occasionally even smoking them. And when he does so, it's preferably alone, on the couch in front of his fireplace. "I never smoke [merely] out of habit," he says. That would be intensely disrespectful to his stash of 60,000 Cuban cigars, worth, perhaps, $2.5 million. Many of them he keeps in a roughly 35-square-foot, mahogany-paneled room in his basement, which houses boxes of cigars piled on shelves to the ceiling and in columns rising a few feet off the floor. Just outside the room sits a 140-pound bale of Cuban tobacco. Among his favorites: 15 Cohiba Behikes, which have doubled in value in the past year to $750 each.

By his own admission Parisi is a hoarder. Easy with a laugh or an arm around the shoulder, the man insists on having everything just so. That's true of his bespoke sports jackets, shirts, shoes, boxer underwear. What he likes he buys in bulk for fear it will run out. A dresser in his closet is stuffed with his favorite red leather gloves, of which he wears one pair once a year. When rumor had it that the maker of his favorite English lavender soap was going out of business, Parisi ordered dozens of boxes. He is an unapologetic monarchist (Italy hasn't had a king since before Mussolini) and keeps a photo of Queen Elizabeth in his office.

His love affair with Cubans began when he was 22, with an H. Upmann Aromatico he bought out of curiosity from some Russians in a Rome market. He smoked it, then ran back and cleaned the place out. Soon after, he tried a Davidoff 4000. "From that moment I was obsessed," he says. In those days Cuban cigars were hard to come by in Rome, but travelers coming from abroad could bring in 50 each. Parisi pressed stewardesses and friends to buy for him. He developed a taste for the "softer, more delicate" flavor of cigars aged for three years or even decades.

When Parisi took his first trip to Cuba in 1996, newly made "fresh" cigars were hot, and so he was able to load up on old favorites on the cheap. On return visits he started collecting old cigar molds (he now owns 200) and old books, pamphlets and dissertations, going door to door in Havana to buy them up--until word spread of the crazy gringo and prices shot up. On one early trip he joined a Cuban friend on a long, bumpy ride to the Santa Clara region to taste a new kind of cigar. At 11 p.m. the two pulled up at a dark house with a dirt floor and no electricity--"a place I wouldn't even put my dog," Parisi recalls. (Make that 13 dogs, all dachshunds.) A wrinkled old man came shuffling toward Parisi in the candlelight. He held out a crude, lumpy cigar: a Pelo de Oro ("Golden Hair"). Love at first puff.

To many smokers a Pelo de Oro seems overpowering. Parisi's common-law wife, Susanna Massimi, once broke out in hives when she touched its leaves. (She, for her part, is not allowed to wear perfume or put cream on her hands when entering the basement sanctorum.) Dark, resinous and furry like sage, the Pelo de Oro plant is prone to disease and easily infects other crops. It's largely for that reason that the Castro regime limits its distribution and that people talk about it in whispers. Though the strain is now grown in other countries--Costa Rica, for example--it's still largely a cigar for Cuban campesinos. "When I go back to Cuba, I keep looking for that cigar," says Parisi, quick to add that he never trades or resells them. He has rollers in Havana make him cigars with Pele de Oro tobacco and, in the 50-odd trips he's taken to Cuba since that drive in the country, he's ordered more and more and has had bands made for them bearing his name.

On his trips Parisi occasionally makes time for other activities, like teaching at a psychiatric hospital in Havana. He also spent two months in a cigar factory in the capital, learning how to roll. On later trips he brought plant workers anti-inflammatories and asthma drugs. "There were no dentists, no doctors," he recalls. Once he attended a meeting there of La Cumbre ("The Summit"), a club of elite cigar aficionados, including a Moscow clothes retailer, a Chicago collector of pre-Castro cigars and a cigar merchant from the Cayman Islands.

At Ubi Maior the group breaks for dinner, a buffet of porchetta (pork stuffed with rosemary and olive oil), pasta fagioli, slabs of salty pecorino cheese and rum cake. Then out come the cigars again. Parisi is still not smoking. Finally, a Marcello Mastroianni look-alike in narrow pants and thick glasses emerges from downstairs with a new cigar. "Ah, questo va bene," Parisi exclaims.

The Pelo de Oro has arrived. Parisi runs his eyes down it, then a finger. He grabs a magnifying glass and points to a diagonal edge of leaf tucked inside the rounded mouth end of the cigar. A craftsman's touch, he says, so the leaf doesn't unravel after it is clipped for smoking. He cuts the tip, lights the cigar and hands it to a guest. The air thickens with a deep, rich smoke.

"Smoking a Havana cigar is like having sex with a real woman," says Parisi. "If the parallel seems ridiculous, you don't know Havanas--or you don't know real women."

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