People from all over the world covet a table at Massimo Bottura's acclaimed Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Manager and sommelier Giuseppe Palmieri has been greeting these guests for nearly 13 years, and he has seen the restaurant blow up from its humble beginnings into one of the world's best — the impact of ranking fourth place on the San Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list back in 2011 and then earning its third Michelin star in the guide's 2012 iteration. Here now, Palmieri discusses the evolution of a restaurant, why service needs to change, and every restaurant's nightmare: no-shows.
Let me ask you about your own background with Osteria Francescana. When did you start working there and how did you come about it?
I arrived in Francescana in September 2000. I came from a big restaurant with two Michelin stars close to Bologna. At that time the chef was a very famous chef, Bruno Barbieri, now of MasterChef Italia. It's important because in that restaurant, I met Lara [Gilmore] and Massimo. They used to come on Sunday night for dinner. I was very curious about them. Osteria Francescana was a completely different place at that time.
I finished my experience at this restaurant, Locanda Solarola, and my plan was to move to the US. But for a sommelier or restaurant manager, it is not so easy. So I came to Modena. The first idea was to [work with] Massimo for just one year and then to try to move to the United States. But that day, we decided to try to transform Osteria Francescana, to try to follow our dreams. It's time to do something else special.
You've seen the restaurant go up in rankings and get its third Michelin star. When did it start changing in terms of reservations?
I think the third Michelin star changed some things, but I think everything changed when Massimo got fourth of World's 50 Best Restaurants. I think that's the future, definitely. The third Michelin star was my dream because I'm a waiter so three Michelin stars means something. But it's different to a few years ago. I think today what changes the manner of reservations is 50 Best. When you are between the 10 and the first, it's crazy how many very interesting young people come to visit you.
Let's talk about the reservation process. What's that like?
We ask for reservations online more than by phone. One or two days before, we confirm. But the big problem is the no-show.
Yes. Every week. The last one was on Saturday night, four Brazilians made the reservations online. We gave a call on Friday afternoon asking to reconfirm the reservations. "Yeah sure, see you tomorrow night. We are very excited, blah blah blah." 8:00, 8:15, 8:30, I am still waiting for the Brazilians.
What do you do in situations like that?
I can understand if you don't want to come. No problem. Give us a call. You changed your plan, you want to visit Venezia or Firenze, no problem. You're on vacation, it's okay. We have a big, wide waiting list, give us a call. But they don't. People can be rude. They don't understand. The big restaurants in little Italy [have] 11 tables, 10 tables, 12 tables. Francescana [has] 12. For us it's not possible to take money with credit card online for the no-shows. It's a big problem. Imagine one table is empty it means 10 percent of your money that you lost. One table between 10 and 20 percent. It's crazy.
This is something that happens in a week, from Monday to Saturday, three or four tables a week. It's crazy. You try to control the situation by giving them a call one day before, just to ask if you want to confirm the table for tomorrow, if you want to change your plan please give us a call. And they don't come. I changed my way to talk to [the people who sound unsure over the phone]: "Please sir, if you want to definitely confirm your table because you are not sure, please send us your credit card number." But it's a bluff. It's not possible to take money. But if they send us the credit card number, we are sure that they come. When they don't, they cancel the table and they definitely don't come.
How long is your waiting list?
For Saturday night, the first table availability is the end of June right now. This is the situation for Friday night and Saturday night. We have a beautiful waiting list for Friday and for Saturday.
It sounds strange to not show up for a reservation like yours that people wait for a long time to get into. Why are no-shows a problem?
I think that the reasons could be different. First of all, the new generation of tourists choose Osteria Francescana because they read about this big restaurant, but they are not particularly interested in gourmet. They are very rich people. They are looking for big restaurant so they book the table. Then they arrive in Italy. Then they arrive in Florence for shopping and say, "Why don't we stay in Florence one more day?" My favorite customer is the very young boy that comes from San Francisco with under 20 euros in his pocket and is very scared when coming in. That's my favorite.
Because I open myself to him. I don't care about the very rich ones. [UPDATE 3/26: Palmieri adds in a emailed statement: "everyone - rich or poor- receives a warm welcome no matter how many Euros they have in their wallet or back pocket, as long as they can cover the bill!"] Because it's okay, it's too easy. I'm looking for the very scared young chef with some jeans that comes in. I don't care about the money you have in your pocket. I want just to show you my best. This is a big business, but we are talking about dreams. To be a big restaurant manager, a great guy needs to be very open.
The new generation of Italian restaurant managers are working this way. In the 90s, in the 80s, everybody was focused on fancy car, limo service and [the] very old and rich man that came in with beautiful blonde girls. Now it's turned. Nobody cares about this kind of [person] in the big restaurant. Everybody is looking for the gourmet [who wants] to live your dream with you, wants to understand, wants to spend a beautiful lunch. If someone wants us to go up to the table, we go in. If someone wants to spend a few hours alone with his wife or his friend, we stay away. Every service is a different story.
I have to be very open, very rock 'n roll. Why [does] everybody say between one dish and the next you have to wait 20 minutes? I don't care. If I go out with my wife and I want to enjoy a restaurant, I don't want to spend four hours with someone saying, "Shut up! Don't smile! Don't kiss. Don't use your phone. Don't take a picture." Come on, a big restaurant is a place where you go, you eat very good food, you choose a beautiful bottle, and are happy. You pay an expensive check. You go out and you say, "I want to come back as soon as possible." That's a good restaurant.
There is a big revolution in Italy and I am part of this revolution. I'm very involved, but it is not easy because in Italy you live in an open museum. We have 2,000 years of history, so we are very closed. If you want to change something, it's very complicated in Italy. You come from a different culture and you live in a different culture. The US is my favorite place where everybody is open, is ready to change. In Italy, some people don't want to change. I want evolution. I don't want to relive the service in the same way the service was 20 years ago. It's different. People are different. Timing is different. The world is different.
Let me also ask about some of the strange requests that you've gotten over the years. What interesting things have people asked for?
A few months ago, a family of four they booked a table for Friday night and Saturday night as well. Mother, father and two sons, I think between 8 and 14. They came the first night, they would like to have four tasting menu Sensations. I am talking about a 13-course tasting menu. The day after, they came back, "We go with Classics for four." [That's the] second tasting menu we have, 10 courses. I saw in the face of the kids, "Please, I don't want to eat [that]." So I told him, "What do you want to have?" And he told me, "I would like to have a pizza."
With the three Michelin stars, Amy, I take the phone, I give a call to the best pizzeria in Modena, I order a pizza, it arrives in Francescana with a taxi and we served this kid a beautiful pizza. It was the most happy kid I ever see and I ever had in Osteria Francescana. Now we understand what it means to make the revolutions, to change the service. I am sure that little kid will never forget me. In 10 years, in 20 years, I am sure I will see him coming in with a beautiful smile like this remembering us for one pizza.