Roman waiters’ service puts their American counterparts to shame

Me with Marco Uras, a waiter for 30 years, at Mamma Venerina near the Vatican.

Me with Marco Uras, a waiter for 30 years, at Mamma Venerina near the Vatican.

If you’re an American waiter or waitress at work, please stop what you’re doing for three minutes. Your customers will not lap up the toilet bowl if you don’t refill their water glasses. They have plenty of bread. Don’t give them more. They are not homeless. Don’t ask them again if everything is OK. The couple might be discussing what orifice they will violate that night, a divorce or how they will kill you with the crab fork if you approach their table one more time.

Stop what you’re doing and read this blog.

Let me tell you how to wait a table. It is courtesy of one Marco Uras, a terrific veteran waiter at Mamma Venerina, one of my favorite restaurants in my old neighborhood, Prati, near the Vatican. Uras has been a waiter for 30 years dating back to his childhood home in Sardinia. Uras represents what restaurant wait service in Rome 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 and more tips. One of the small reasons I prefer life in Rome to the U.S. is the superior wait service. When I eat, even if I’m alone, I want to be left alone. Waiters should be like baseball umpires. They should do their job without ever 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. They think 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 Moroccan bazaars.

The difference between Rome and the U.S. is eating in Rome 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 Marco treated my table of four Saturday night. I walked in ahead of the rest. He led me to my table by the window and let me get comfortable before approaching me again. I told him I was waiting for others but I’ll take a beer. He brought the beer and four menus. Then he went off by himself while I lingered over my beer, the menu and my wonderful life in Rome. He left me alone.

When the three others arrived, I handed them the menus and we talked for 10 minutes. During a lull in the conversation, Marco came over and took our food and drink orders. He returned with water and a half carafe of wine and left. He didn’t come over twice asking us if the food was good. He knows it’s good. It’s Rome! Food is always good in Rome! He didn’t ask if we needed anything else while we were laughing about one of our friends. When we needed another half carafe of wine, my friend simply raised his hand a bit, as if he was itching his ear. Marco came over. Tourists who complain about slow service in Rome don’t understand this. They’re too used to hovering waiters to bother getting their attention.

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 high-end hooker’s. When we were ready to leave, I raised my hand for the bill. He brought it over with two glasses of liquirizia, Italy’s licorice-tasting liqueur. On the house.

The whole evening was perfect. Great food. Great wine. Great conversation. I barely remembered what the waiter looked like until I realized that he’d be a great subject for this blog. I called Marco over and introduced myself. I told him how much I appreciated him leaving us alone. I asked him why he does that.

“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 my old paper in Denver, 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 (few are waitresses) 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 ($1,430) a month and could go up to 3,000-4,000 euros.

Salaries are important. That’s because tipping in Italy is not. Even if the service charge is not included in the bill, few Italians tip. I tip 10 percent, just out of sheer habit and pure appreciation for good service.

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 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, Marco Uras, for your great service the other night. As for all the waiters and waitresses in the U.S., here’s a quick phrase you should know in the oft-crude Romanaccio dialect: Magna e scappa.

(Go away.)

12 thoughts on “Roman waiters’ service puts their American counterparts to shame

  1. I worked as a waitress in my former life (in Denver, at a restaurant that touts ‘casual elegance’). It’s habit for me to notice how waiters work in Italy. (And, why are there few waitresses?) My Italian friends were quick to teach me the rules of tipping in Italy. One, scolded me in front of the bartender for rounding the bill up and leaving a meager tip. He told me not to tip because they would start expecting it from the locals. I was surprised to read that you tip 10% – on top of the coperta? Your friends haven’t taken you into the vicolo for a lashing? I live in Fort Collins, now. A local pub has implemented a no-tipping policy. I should see how that’s going. Waiters and waitresses in the U.S. complain about poor tippers, but, I suspect poor tippers are few and far between. And, I’m fairly certain they take home more money, even after ‘tipping out’, than their employer would be willing to pay them as a salary. I wish tipping would disappear in the U.S., but, I’m afraid it’s here to stay. And, I think the next time a waiter or waitress leaves my bill on the table without me asking for it, I may send it back to the manager…

    • I often tip 10 percent because the coperta often isn’t included. Some places fold it into the overall pricing of a restaurant or bar but there’s no way to tell. Rarely is a “coperta” listed on a bill. I did learn when someone wants to split the check, if I say, “I’ll pay. Just leave a tip,” they don’t. How’s your Italy withdrawal? Did you live here? I lived in Denver for 23 years until I moved here.


      • I’ve been to Italy several times – just returned the end of October. I have family east of Napoli. My withdrawal is so bad I’m returning. Getting my documents in order for an ER visa.

  2. So true! Another thing I love is how you are recognized as a regular after only two or three visits to a restaurant and warmly greeted each time you return (Bentornati!). The only place in the U.S. where I was acknowledged as a return customer was at the Starbucks I patronized every morning.

  3. Oh, God, you went to Starbucks? AGHHHHHHHHHHHH! I hope living in Italy has weaned you off that vile swill. But very good point about recognition. Pizzeria Remo in Testaccio has a line every night. Yet the waiters recognize me when I come for only a monthly fix and I rarely have to wait.


    • Hey, I was living in the U.S. I knew no better. Not sure what the hell we’ll do when we go back someday. Last summer we had terrible coffee experiences during our trip to the States. We love Da Remo too!

  4. U.S. coffee shops can make up for lousy coffee with a homey atmosphere. The U.S. still has neighborhood cafes with overstuffed chairs and couches. But the coffee and snacks are usually awful and Starbucks has forced many of them to close. I’ll take standing at a coffee bar in a gritty Roman neighborhood any day.

  5. I shared this blog post with my fellow students in my Italian class….we were just discussing obnoxious US wait staff a couple of weeks ago.
    Sadly, I’m learning not to order cappuccino in the US…at least not in my area…even in an Italian restaurant. For some reason they are all foam and no espresso! I’ll make my own at home.
    Thank you for this post.

    • My problem with any coffee in the U.S. is it’s too big. I can’t drink a quart of coffee in one sitting. They serve it so hot you need to soak your lips in ice water after the first sip, then half of it gets cold. Your window to drink it is about 10 minutes. Besides, a cappuccino can NOT be served in paper cartons. That’s just plain wrong.

      Thanks for the note.

      John Henderson

      • You are so right. I am not one of those people who walks down the street with a venti latte in hand.
        Last evening I met a friend for a casual meal and the waitress was literally running from table to table and getting everything wrong… and she could not understand that I did not want my coffee warmed up! I need to print out a copy of your post and carry it to give to wait staff. It was obvious we should have gobbled our meal and been out of there in 20 minutes.
        Oh, to be in Italy.

  6. So the waitresses was bugging you and still got things wrong? That’s double trouble. I love Rome restaurants because you can set your own pace. I can be in and out of there in a hurry if I call the waiter over enough. But I also got scolding by some Roman friends for trying to leave a tip. Then the next night I went out with an American friend. He left a 5 on a 20-euro meal and the waiter nearly kissed him.


  7. Pingback: Dumb tourist tricks: Things never to do in Rome

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s