When I was a little boy living in Italy, I fell in love with Italian waiters.
This is not an exaggeration. During my childhood in Italy in the 1930s, my parents would often ask hotel staff to keep an eye on me, to look after me, feed me, and attend to my needs and even, on quite a few occasions to tuck me into bed. This would happen during the summers when my parents travelled from Milan, where we lived, to Venice, where we spent our vacations. Between the ages of six and eleven, Venice, especially the Lido became my playground. I would rush back and forth through the unthreatening waves of the Adriatic, romping on the beach, making friends, screaming and starving on as children do, particularly those happily bereft of parental supervision. Still, at the appropriate times, a hotel employee would appear among us, telling us to return to our hotel—the Excelsior---where my parents always took rooms. There, my parents would await me in the large, elegant dining salon and we would partake of leisurely, beautifully prepared meals.
On these Venice vacations, my parents did not exactly neglect me. Always providing me with my own room, just next to theirs, they saw to it that I was bathed and properly dressed and I would generally lack for nothing. Still, my mother and father were social creatures, with a wide collection of friends. They loved to attend parties and go dancing, and would only return late at night.
What to do with little Gianni (as I was called)? It seems that in Italy you trusted the hotel staff with your life---and your children. My father instinctively knew that leaving me in the hotel at night in the care of the kitchen help would be the safest thing a parent could do. There were the cooks and the chambermaids and the waiters, all of them living in the hotel, who were certain to adore children---especially a sweet-looking young boy with very blue eyes and very blond hair. And so it came to pass that I would often sit by myself in the hotel's huge dining room, being served my pasta and, for dessert a special sweet. All the diners' eyes would be on the little blond child sitting there all by myself, being such a good boy!
When my parents took off for the evening, I was put into the care of the dining room's maitre d', who would allow me to spend time in the hotel's large kitchens, both before dinner, after dinner and sometimes during dinner. I would observe the hectic yet disciplined food preparation – the chopping and slicing and cooking, the coming and the going. To me, it was all a heavenly mayhem---a confluence of excited talk, choreographed action and seductive aromas.
And then, there were the waiters! The old ones, the young ones, and the middle-aged ones. Uncomplaining, they seemed like men on a mission. Clearly, they were proficient and hard-working, but---and this continues to touch me to this day---Italian waiters all seem to have a sincere love of the ceremony of “service”. They perform their duties without servility or condescension, but with a manner that affirms a special rapport with the diner. It always seemed to me that in Italy, waiters don't want to be anything except waiters---professionals who know what they're doing and, most importantly, who take pride in their hard-earned skills of hospitality, presentation and diner satisfaction.
John Jonas Gruen