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What I Learned

An Old Italian’s Secret to Good Service

© Alessandro Gottardo

I came into this world an indiscriminate eater. Born the first grandchild of a large Italian American family in Boston, I was fed pasta and pizza, meatballs and ice cream. For my first birthday, I was given a chocolate sheet cake and encouraged to sink both hands in. By age two, I had both discovered condiments and learned to order in restaurants, repeatedly asking servers for “dip it” until someone delivered a bottle of Heinz.

When I was four, my parents and I moved just north of Boston, to a two-bedroom apartment with vines of seeded purple grapes that wrapped around the driveway’s arbor. The refrigerator took days to arrive, so we subsisted on the local offerings, eating pupu platters at China Moon and big Italian subs at Anthony’s Deli, where Tony, Jr. gave me big hunks of provolone to snack on while I waited in line with my dad. We ate dinner at Angelo’s, a newly opened pizzeria across from the middle school I would eventually attend. The pepperoni was thick-cut and curled at the edges; orange grease dribbled down my chin. The owner, Salvatore—a grandfatherly Italian who grew up outside Naples—took Polaroids of me eating his pizza that would hang on the arched doorway for more than a decade. “You like pizza?” Sal asked in his accented English. “She loves everything,” my mother said. He nodded, impressed. “When you’re old enough to get a job, you come work for me, OK? I’ll teach you everything.”

The summer before junior year, I started there as a cashier: answering phones, packing to-go orders, snacking on the glorious breadsticks that resembled steaming little fingers. Between rushes, Sal brought me back into the kitchen, where he made me drink olive oil straight from portion cups and spin circles of dough in the air. After a month, he decided I was ready to take tables, and we put my first training shift on the books.

When I arrived, he kissed me on both cheeks and led me to a table in the corner. I expected him to sit down with me to discuss the menu or go over the rules, but instead he brought me a glass of water and a can of root beer, cracking open the soda and pouring it over ice. “Tonight, you eat,” he told me. “You eat and you watch. You learn.” I was nervous at first. I was only 15; I’d never dined alone in a restaurant. And I felt strange being waited on by my boss. But soon another table came in, then another and another, and I found myself with plenty to take in.

The food was great—crispy calamari and thin-crust pizza, my very first bite of lobster ravioli—but overshadowed in memory by the unforgettable service. Clad in his chef’s coat and checkered black pants, Sal greeted each diner like family, making them laugh, pouring Chianti, delivering each plate of fresh pasta with a flourish. Watching him work instilled in me a deep romanticism for restaurants that’s kept me with one foot in the industry ever since. In the intervening years, I’ve worked in upscale spots and punk rock diners. I’ve scooped ice cream, pulled espresso shots and muddled mint. But that summer at Sal’s pizzeria has always stayed with me.

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