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.)