A Final Ciao for Morandi’s World-Class Maître d’

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Roberto, middle, next to the author (on the right) and his husband on their wedding day. Photo: Trey Pentecost

Arriving for a meal at Morandi, Keith McNally’s 13-year-old trattoria on Waverly Place in the West Village, almost always began the same way: “Ciao!” For regulars, the exclamation bellowed by the restaurant’s general manager and head maître d’, Roberto — always “Roberto,” with no need for gratuitous formalities like last names — was typically followed by a question about how a spouse or kids or parents were doing. Many times, it included a welcome embrace. “We shared many big hugs,” says Andy Cohen, one of Morandi’s many neighborhood regulars. As a regular myself, I heard many of these “Ciaos!” over the years, always happy, familiar in all the right ways. It certainly never crossed my mind that, when Roberto greeted me during what would be my last pre-pandemic meal at Morandi, in January, the exuberant ciao would also mean good-bye.

This summer, while Morandi was still closed to diners due to the pandemic, Roberto moved back to his native Italy without the chance to offer a final ciao to his guests and friends. “I am crestfallen to have not been able to give him a big hug good-bye,” says Cohen. “Roberto always made me feel like I was at home — always warm with a big welcome, even when he was packed to the rafters and I showed up unannounced.”

Roberto’s fans also include Sarah Jessica Parker, Cohen’s West Village neighbor and a frequent Morandi date. “Roberto was the portrait of hospitality,” Parker says. “His devotion to his guests is not effort, but a natural-born gift. I loved his wild gesticulation, helping him convey enthusiasm, affection, and his love for his job. He greeted every customer as if they were the only guests he hoped to see.”

As a non-celebrity, I can vouch for Parker’s sentiment that Roberto chose to treat every customer, not just the famous ones, as next of kin. My husband and I got married at Morandi in 2019, about a decade after I first started dining there, and every aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, or childhood neighbor who has spoken about the event since manages to mention Roberto and some random encounter that he somehow made unforgettable. McNally, known for his untiring eye for detail, tells me it was this natural charisma that led him to bet on Roberto from the very beginning: “I first met Roberto a month before Morandi opened in 2007. He was applying for a job as floor manager, but because I was swept off my feet by his phenomenal charisma, he left the meeting as my working partner and head maître d’.”

The year before my husband and I got married, we took a trip to the Amalfi Coast. Before we left, Roberto taught us the phrase that came to define our trip: Ciao ragazzi, which roughly translates to “hi, boys.” (But when pronounced, as Roberto taught us, heavy on the “ga,” it’s more like “hi, boyyys.”) These sorts of tips, always freely given, were something else Roberto shared with his chosen family of patrons, according to Parker: “I vividly recall telling him about a trip we were hoping to take to Italy and asking if he had thoughts about where we should visit and, of course, where we should eat. He shared delightful stories of his hometown and all the places he loved we should be certain not to miss. Before we left, he offered a detailed, handwritten list, in exquisite script which I still keep in hopes of fulfilling.”

As Roberto tells it, his last day at Morandi, in the early days of the pandemic, was more or less like any other. He didn’t yet know the events to come would lead him and his wife, who is also Italian, to return to their home country before the restaurant reopened, and he says that was probably for the best. “I remember closing the place on Sunday, March 16 — that day we were on the phone deciding what to do, and then Monday was the official shutdown,” Roberto told me on a phone call from Milan, where he now lives. “In a way, this spared me from actually saying good-bye, something that would have been traumatic and brought me much more pain and stress.” He added that any formal good-bye he would have given would have been more of a “ciao for now,” regardless. “I’d be lying if I said New York still isn’t on my radar. I am giving myself a couple of years,” he says. “I’m never afraid to get on a plane and move back across the ocean.”

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