If I could introduce one aspect of the Italian dining experience to America, it wouldn’t be the tomatoes so sweet I eat them like apples or the rich extra virgin olive oil or prosciutto as lean as an Italian model.
It would be Federico.
Federico is a waiter at 72 Ore, my favorite pizzeria in Rome. It’s not because he serves a pizza in which the dough levitates for three days, giving it a fresh, thicker crust, not to mention the restaurant its name. It’s because Federico is a typical Italian waiter.
I came with my two best male buddies. We talked male talk. We talked about soccer and women and, this being Italy, wine, food and art. Not once did Federico come over and refill our water glass after we took a sip. He knew we hadn’t spent the week in the Sahara. When we took a piece of bread he didn’t refill the basket. We didn’t look homeless. He didn’t come over twice asking if the food was good. This is Italy. He knew the food was good.
In other words, he is not an American waiter.
One of the most overlooked pleasures of dining out in Italy is the service. While this may flummox American tourists who demand to be waited on in Italy like Caesar and Cleopatra, Italian waiters’ laid-back approach is more appetizing. Federico represents what wait service in Italy is all about: Respect. Professionalism. Efficiency. Kindness. Patience.
This is what restaurant wait service in the U.S. is all about: Tips. Overbearingness. Tips. Questions. Impatience. More tips. When I eat, even if I’m alone, I want to be left alone. Waiters should be like soccer referees. They should do their job without being noticed. In the U.S., many waiters are as ubiquitous as table knives yet not nearly as sharp. They think they’re freelance writers, that they’re paid by the word. I once dated a woman whose daughter worked for one of those awful chain restaurants found in every suburb in America. During training, they told her that by the time the customer enters the door and leaves, the waitress must have at least 23 contacts.
That’s not wait service. That’s one refilled Coke away from a stalking charge. I’ve been harassed less in Turkish carpet shops.
The difference between Italy and the U.S. is eating in Italy is much more of an experience. Rome is not a bar town. It’s a restaurant town. People in Rome linger more over a meal. They don’t have reservations at a show. They’re not hitting the bars afterward. They are there to spend the evening. Waiters here know this. A few years ago I met some friends at Trattoria al Forno in Trastevere, the old Bohemian neighborhood across the Tiber River. We sat there from 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., well past closing. When they swept up around us, the owner came by with free limoncello and biscotti. If we weren’t in a hurry to leave, they weren’t, either. I’ve been in restaurants in New York where waiters nearly put timers on your table to buzz you when it’s time to go.
You want to know how to wait a table? Follow how Federico treated our’s. I arrived ahead of my friends and he said, “Buona sera, John.” He remembered my name. I hadn’t been there in two months. I didn’t even remember his face. He put me at the same table and remembered what I ordered.
When my friends arrived, he handed us menus and then left. He didn’t immediately ask us what we wanted to drink. We hadn’t even said hello yet. When we were ready to order, I merely looked up and he caught my eye. He came over, took our order, brought the wine, then took our pizza orders. He went away. The service at 72 Ore is very fast. When the pizzas came in less than 10 minutes, he left. We didn’t see him again until we ordered more wine. We didn’t see him after that until we asked for the check.
The only reason I noticed him is after two years in Italy I have become very appreciative of Italian wait service. I notice that I notice it. I asked him about his philosophy. Federico has only been a waiter six years. He has been at 72 Ore for two. He’s not the veteran waiter you see in many trattorias and pizzerias. But they share the same approach, as if they all came off a conveyer belt in Tuscany.
“I want to let you enjoy your meal,” he said. “Be kind with a smile but don’t be obsessed with the client.”
Many American waiters act as if we’re on fire. Why do they try to be our best friend? Their smiles are as phony as a beggar’s.
One of my favorite restaurants in Rome is Mamma Venerina. It’s an old Roman restaurant near the Vatican, with white tablecloths and waiters in ties but affordable prices. Marco Uras has been a waiter for 30 years. He’s always there when I need him; he’s never there when I don’t. He comes when I raise my hand as if signaling a bus to stop. I once asked him why he leaves us alone.
“You are together and I wanted to give you privacy,” he said, almost with a American-style shrug.
American waiters, waitresses, did you hear that? It’s real simple. We’re at your table to talk to each other, not to you. If I want to discuss wine with you, I’ll ask you. I’ll ask for more bread and more water. If there’s water still in my glass, why are you refilling it? What am I? A camel?
Eight years ago when I wrote a food column called A Moveable Feast for The Denver Post, I took a similar approach at one of my favorite pizzerias called La Pratolina, not far from Mamma Venerina. I chatted with the owner, Fabrizio Cicchetti, about Roman waiters’ respect. It is by design, he said.
“Maybe (diners) want to talk to each other,” he told me. “Maybe they have a problem. Maybe they want to be alone. In America, it’s different. A waiter is paid for his service. If he works five hours, he’s paid five hours. Here it’s different. It’s a salary.”
That’s a huge difference. Like Marco, most Roman waiters make waiting a career. In America, it’s rent money until they finish law school or they publish their great American novel. Cicchetti told me then that waiters in Rome started at about 1,300 euros a month and could go up to 3,000-4,000 euros.
The reaction to my 2008 column was huge. One famous Denver restaurant owner told me he posted the column on the kitchen wall and made every waiter and waitress read it. However, one waiter wrote me saying if he fails to refill a half-empty water glass, it’ll be the last water glass he’ll see at that restaurant.
So thank you, Federico and Marco and Fabrizio, for your great service. As for all the waiters and waitresses in the U.S., please cut and save this blog. And learn this phrase you should know in the oft-crude Romanaccio dialect: Magna e scappa.
Follow John Henderson’s blog, Dog-Eared Passport, on his life in Rome and travels around the world, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.