One diner was allergic to halogen lamps. Another demanded coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. And then there was the fussy tot escorted by a waitress to a convenience store for a lollipop so his parents could dine in peace.
The restaurant business is kinetically unpredictable, and Boston’s top servers wouldn’t have it any other way. “Honey, for me, coming to work is like going on a date. I put on lipstick, and I’m ready to perform. Let’s rock and roll!” says Maria Delvecchio, 46, a sassy presence at the North End’s Trattoria Il Panino.
It’s her 20th year at the restaurant, which she calls a big family. Her colleague Cosimo Paone, 42, agrees. He came to the United States from Naples and was offered a job by Trattoria’s owner, Frank DePasquale, while working nearby at Mike’s Pastry. Fifteen years later, he’s still in the fold. “We talk in Italian; we joke around. We feel comfortable, so we make other people comfortable,” says Paone. “Compared with other cities, this is like being at home.”
There’s a dignified rootedness about the hospitality lifestyle here. Gerry Mazzone, 56, is a career waiter at Parker’s Restaurant at the Omni Parker House Hotel. There, he’s part of the “30-Plus Club,” one of many servers who have dedicated a lifetime to the historic establishment. “I’ve waited on the same customers since I’ve been here. They’ve seen my kids grow up,” he says. “In Boston, you really do get the cream of the crop.”
A similar kinship exists for the hospitality community itself. “Boston restaurants are close-knit, and we really care,” says John George, 45, a veteran of the Four Seasons and Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park. He’s now captain at another Lynch restaurant, Menton. “It’s not as cutthroat and vicious as it could be. Boston is a large city, but it’s a small community” populated by lifers.
“There tend to be more long-term servers in our area,” says Blayne Daley, 34, general manager at Cambridge’s East by Northeast. “Many of us went to college here, many of us have multiple degrees, and we choose to do this because it’s a nice environment.” She says that Boston’s servers swap shifts, socialize (usually at industry hangouts JM Curley or Trina’s Starlite Lounge), and bask in one another’s successes. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’re in it because we love it.”
As such, these servers have had to change with the times. “People are more health-conscious,” says Mazzone, the Parker’s waiter. “No heavy sauces. They want salads, dressings on the side. They’re not ordering martinis.” His colleague Weston Roach, 66, has worked at the hotel for 40 years. He started out captaining a four-person team. “Back in the day, it was really elegant. The stock market was going great. Now people want a faster meal, in and out,” he says. Guests also have more allergies. “Some are real, and some are fictitious,” says Daley. “If you don’t like mushrooms, just say so.”
Ambitious servers almost welcome these whims. Menton’s George underwent several rounds of interviews and shadowing prior to appearing before guests, first at No. 9 Park and then at Menton, studying the Barbara Lynch Gruppo’s handbook, wherein the chef chronicles her philosophy for each restaurant. Now he’s part savant and part psychic, proffering details about obscure wines and then fetching cigarettes for the diner who might crave a postprandial smoke.
Daley, the East by Northeast general manager, got her start at Dick’s Last Resort, where she practiced her upbeat patter on a stream of tourists and locals. Today, she’s known for her photographic memory. “People like to be recognized, and I know their dislikes. Some regulars hate cilantro, so we don’t put it on their food. Some people have their own seats at the bar, and I’ll save their places every week and test out new dishes on them,” she says.
After four decades, Roach has grown so attuned to Parker’s guests’ needs that they rarely flag him. “A customer should never have to ask for anything,” he says.
Regulars get rewards, but so do industry veterans. Known servers make a good living, especially those at larger restaurants. Aquitaine’s Jon Fitzpatrick, 45, dubbed “Fitzy” by customers, has been a server there for 13 years. “I’m never going to be a millionaire, but I have money in the bank,” he says. His gregariousness has earned him a dedicated following in the South End, and customers have become friends. One loyal guest even invited him to the chef’s table at L’Espalier. “He thought I needed to experience it, being in this business,” says Fitzpatrick.
“I have a home with a mortgage, health benefits, dental, a 401(k),” says Menton’s George. “And I get to party with new people every night. What could be better?” Mazzone says that his Parker’s job put his children through college; he also has a summer home.
Then there’s the endorphin rush that comes from a job well done, which can’t be monetized.
Jimmy Sala, 38, started at Anthony’s Pier 4 in the 1990s. (“Anthony hired me because he said I looked like him when he was a young man,” Sala says.) Now he’s headwaiter down the street at Strega Waterfront. He relishes the connection to the neighborhood — whether that means schmoozing with Bill Belichick or recommending one of Strega’s 1,500 bottles of wine to a new couple. “People are great here. I’m not just talking about their generosity. They treat you like gold. I never feel like I’m ‘just a waiter,’ which is worth more to me than gratuities,” he says.
For career servers, the drive to please is in the blood. Menton’s George says that he sometimes hires on pure enthusiasm, despite his restaurant’s pedigree. “People might look great on paper, but this is something you can’t teach,” he says.
“I was off recently, and I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to come back to work,” says Parker’s Mazzone. “I’m going to do this as long as my body holds up.”