An Italian master's 10 tips for being a great waiter

"No 4. Know when to shut up."
"No 4. Know when to shut up." Photo: Shutterstock

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News has reached the Southern Hemisphere that one of the great head waiters of the world, Giuseppe Nucera, has gone into retirement.

For more than 30 years, Nucera presided over Capannina Ciccio, a restaurant in the fishing village of Bocca di Magra on the north-west coast of Italy, watching it grow from a shack on the beach to a sprawling bungalow seating 200 diners.

His retirement is a loss, but Ciccio will continue to flourish without him, because Nucera left behind a set of guidelines to ensure later generations of waiters deserve every tip left for them.

In addition to possessing the combined skills of an acrobat, a diplomat, a psychologist, a surgeon, an actor, an accountant and an octopus, Nucera was a teacher. Over a coffee-soaked conversation post long-lunch at Ciccio, he revealed to me and Lucio Galletto (a former colleague of Nucera's until he moved to Australia and opened Lucio's in Sydney) the basic principles of his working life.

These are Nucera's guidelines on how to be a great waiter. I think Australian waiters have much to learn from the master's lessons.

1. Act like it's your own restaurant, so its successes are your triumphs, and its failures are your embarrassments, from which you learn.

2. Prepare yourself to be able to talk on any subject. A good waiter spends the first half hour of the working day consuming media, because you never know when a customer will want to discuss politics, sport or scandals.

3. Know the backstory of everything in the place – not just the menu, but the wine, mineral water, oil, decor, owners and regular customers.

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4. Know when to shut up. Some customers may be too polite to tell you to back off.

5. Don't make the customer look like an imbecile in front of other guests. As Nucera said: "If someone introduces me to his friends as Giovanni, then I am Giovanni for that table for the night."

6. Control the chefs – otherwise they will control you. You are the customer's ambassador to the kitchen, and you must never let the kitchen say, "It can't be done".

7. The serving of food and wine is a performance, not just a delivery. You should be able to carry, carve, compose, explain and entertain, while simultaneously analysing what else the customers need. That continues until you farewell them at the door.

8. Keep smiling, even if no one is observing. If you look confident, the customer can relax.

9. Eat out often in your own time, to learn from other restaurants.

10. It's better to serve a smaller quantity of top-quality ingredients than a large helping of something the customer will remember as second-rate. That way a restaurant has bella figura (a good image) and so do you.

David Dale is a food and travel writer and co-author of Soffritto, Lucio's Ligurian Kitchen, and Coastline – the Food of Mediterranean Italy, France and Spain with Lucio Galletto.