The water list arrives as I am seated; it contains more than 20 still and sparkling versions with detailed descriptions of the taste, mineral properties, and health benefits of each. If I had dined at La Pergola in Rome’s Cavalieri Hilton before, the wait staff would already know my preference. Water is followed by Champagne, then butter and olive oil, and then a choice of six breads. Another waiter appears with 10 types of salt.
All diners at La Pergola receive this same treatment. “And everything is timed to a matter of seconds,” explains Umberto Giraudo, La Pergola’s 35-year-old manager. “Water, aperitif, wine, oil, butter, bread. We serve oil and butter before bread to eliminate questions. If you serve the oil and butter first, your customers unconsciously know the bread is coming. The water should arrive before bread and oil to quench their thirst before you feed them. We don’t want our customers to ask for anything.”
Wanting the customers to remain silent is a sentiment that you might attribute to a testy server at a roadside diner—not to the manager of one of Europe’s great restaurants. Yet few have given restaurant service as much thought as Giraudo and his staff. In 2004, Giraudo, along with Chef Heinz Beck, maitre’d Simone Pinoli, and sommelier Marco Reitano, published Arte e Scienza del Servizio (“The Art and Science of Service”). The book helped solidify La Pergola’s growing reputation for world-class service, and last year the restaurant received a three-star rating, the highest possible, from the Michelin Guide. Beck and his team have the only three-star restaurant in Rome.
Giraudo was working in Paris for Alain Ducasse when he met Beck. It was a career-changing moment. The German Beck, says Giraudo, was the first chef he’d come across who “properly understood the relationship between the dining room and the kitchen.” For many chefs, the front of the house is a detail, if not quite trivial, significantly less important than the quality of the food.
“You cannot only take care of your guests with cooking or with only receiving well. It’s like a train—you cannot run a train on one track—you need both,” explains Beck.
Great service, to Giraudo, is a trick of cross-cultural alchemy. Servers at La Pergola must act as professional as the French without forgetting they are Italian—i.e., “smile and be very friendly,” says Giraudo.
Waiters are trained for a minimum of three months before they are allowed to enter the dining room. This rule holds even for waiters who’ve served as captains in other restaurants. “Everyone must learn our system,” Giraudo explains. “New hires are not allowed to answer the phone until they have been trained. If you want to be professional, each task is very important—especially the little things.”
Giraudo believes that a waiter should view his work as a career, not as a temporary rest stop between jobs. Rarely, however, does he come across someone who views the profession the same way.
“It doesn’t really exist anymore. Nobody wants to be a waiter,” Giraudo says. And so, Giraudo says, he, Beck, and Pinoli decided to write “an elegant book with beautiful photos. We felt this was important to encourage people to dream. We want people to want to enter the profession.”
Beck adds, “There is a need for qualified people because there is a lack of information on service. There aren’t really any other books on service. Certainly none that would inspire people to enter the profession. People need a passion for customer service. And that’s why we made our book. People can be proud, and should be proud, to have such a job that provides so much to people.”
Pinoli, the first staffer La Pergola’s clients encounter, came to the restaurant in 1997 after leaving Italy for stints around Europe. “I knew this was my job when I was very, very young,” he says. “So I trained for this. First, I went to England to learn English. Then to Geneva, on the French side, to learn French. Obviously I know Italian, and it is very important to know these languages in this business in Europe.”
Ten years ago, La Pergola had a staff of four in the kitchen and six in the dining room, so it wasn’t possible for Beck and his team to pay the attention to detail they’d envisioned for their restaurant, and Pinoli is quick to add that Beck “was seeing 10 years ago what we are doing now.”
Today, with 34 staffers, La Pergola serves fewer customers per night than when it first opened. Originally, the restaurant had three seatings serving 90 people per night. Now customers are never rushed through dinner, because there is only one seating of 65 guests per night. By comparison, the highly regarded Maestro in Tyson’s Corner serves up to 96 guests at a time and offers on average two seatings each night—that’s 192 guests max—with approximately 40 staffers.
As is common at high-end restaurants, Giraudo leads his staff through a daily briefing on the menu. The presentation covers that night’s selection of caviar, truffles, oysters, wine, and the menu itself.
Then there’s a second briefing—this one to discuss the résumés of each guest for that evening. For all diners, La Pergola creates a file that details what the restaurant knows about them: where they are from, what language they speak, their food allergies, their tastes in wine, whether they prefer constant coddling or more discreet attention. Giraudo wants customers “to be treated as friends. Your evening will be designed to take into account your particular tastes and desires.” This friendship begins with the database, which is updated obsessively.
The staff at La Pergola is tightknit; many of its members have worked together for years. Gratuity is included in the bill, and anything extra the restaurant receives is spread evenly among the team. “The compensation system in America [where waiters typically receive low wages, little to no benefits, and work primarily for tips from customers] is very wrong,” says Beck. “You are motivated only to work for compensation. High-tipping tables will receive attention, and the others, perhaps unknown, will suffer. This is also indicative of someone who does not love their work. If you are only working for money, then you do not love your work.”
More such thoughts are available in the book. But you’ll need to speak Italian or Portuguese to read them. To date, Arte e Scienza del Servizio has not found an English-language publisher. Perhaps that is not surprising. Most of the Americans I know work for money.