I've been asking myself what makes good service. It's not just because I've received so little of it — though a distinct lack of anything will make you question what's so great about it in the first place. There are the nuts and bolts, of course — proper wine presentation, a level of courtesy, the carefully timed arrival of plates and their efficient clearing. But truly great service rises above the obligatory. In the end, it's about care — a genuine desire to deliver a complete dining experience.
I felt that care for the first time in a long while when dining recently at Sette Bello, a year-old Italian restaurant on the northern edge of Fort Lauderdale. I was on my way back from the restroom between courses when our waiter, a large Italian man in his 40s with slicked-back hair, spotted me in the aisle. He spun around from where he was headed and rushed back to our table, where a busboy had just finished delivering our entrées. As I arrived, he removed an overturned plate from the top of my dish, set there, obviously, to keep my dinner warm. And then he apologized. "I'm very sorry," he said to us. "We should never have served the table when someone wasn't here."
To be honest, I really didn't mind — there's nothing more exciting than returning to the table to find your food already waiting to be eaten (ravenous much?). But the level of import our waiter placed on this simple aspect of service was impressive. After all, rules like "don't serve a customer when he or she isn't present" and "don't let a dish go cold" seem like common sense. Executing them properly, though, requires empathy.
If there's one intangible that the wait staff at Sette Bello has, it's empathy: the ability to discern just what a customer needs almost before he does. This isn't something you can learn; it's instinctual. An empathetic server can feel the ebb and flow of a meal. They're near the table when you need them and invisible when you don't. They know just when to fill your wine glass, when you're ready for your next course, and when you're ready to pay your bill. Mostly, they know what a customer really wants. And then, quite simply, they give it to them.
The servers at Sette Bello all seem to possess this trait, likely because they are all professionals. This dapper collection mostly of men in starched button-downs and pressed pants are not moonlighting. They're not between jobs or trying to make a quick buck. The servers here are craftsmen in the same way that the restaurant's owner, Franco Filippone, is a chef. They're his direct link to the dining room — conduits between kitchen and customer, as important a tool as a chef's tongs or his mise en place.
As such, the front and back of house at Sette Bello work in perfect synergy, best exemplified by the way our server had adopted an almost personal responsibility for everything that came from the kitchen. He didn't miss a beat when, after explaining the daily specials to my dinner guest, Donna, she asked if the house zuppa de pesce could be prepared with something other than red sauce. His confident manner turned to something consolatory. "Of course," he cooed, "I can make it with a lovely white sauce, like a sauce for a clam Vongole, but with shrimp, mussels, calamari, lobster, and a nice piece of fish."
Maybe it was just his delivery, but his command of the menu seemed limitless. "I promise you," he said, putting his fingers together in front of his face in that most stereotyped of Italian hand gestures, "you're gonna love it."
When another guest of mine, John, wanted to sample the daily-caught hog snapper Livornese ($30), he asked if the kitchen could prepare it any other way than with onions, capers, olives, and red sauce, as described. Our server — who looked like actor Danny Aiello's bigger, younger brother — seemed to weigh the options in his head for moment. "Well, I can do it oreganata with bread crumbs and a nice white wine sauce," he suggested. "Just let me make sure the chef is on board." He later confirmed the selection, and we were rewarded with a fillet of snapper so gently cooked that its milky flesh flaked slightly while retaining its vibrant, bouncy texture.
Those specials, like the zuppa de pesce and hog snapper, are a huge part of the dining experience at Sette Bello. The regular dinner menu is already extensive — consisting of a few dozen rustic appetizers, salads, pastas, and meat and seafood dishes — but Filippone adds to that nightly with nearly a dozen unique offerings, almost all of them ingredient-driven. Originally from Palermo, Sicily, Filippone knows how to let fresh ingredients shine. He's had plenty of practice. Before opening Sette Bello in late 2008, the chef did time at Fort Lauderdale's Casa D'Angelo, well-regarded for its expert renditions of Italian classics.