- A former hostess and server returns to her old workplace to uncover the secrets of excellent restaurant service at O Sole Mio in Stony Brook, New York.
- Sal Maggio and Victor Todaro, the restaurant’s co-owners, think of their “regulars” as “any customers who return more than once” and treat them accordingly.
By Jolee Sullivan
My first job was a hostess position at O Sole Mio, a local Italian restaurant-pizzeria in Stony Brook, New York, and I spent most shifts sandwiched between an all-too-familiar crowd of hungry customers. The place was small, but that never stopped people from squeezing their way inside to grab slices or wait for a dinner table, pressing themselves against the walls to make way for the hustling busboys carrying trays of pizza high over their heads. They’d worm through the crowd to come ask me, “Can you make sure John is our server? If he’s not here, Nelson’s fine. Or Roberto.”
Almost always, O Sole Mio was a zoo. Still is a zoo, I should say. There, I learned plenty about communication, time management and Italian food. I also learned to dread the phrase, “I know the owner.”
With such a small dining room and a long wait list, customers were constantly—and impatiently—inquiring as to when their table would be ready. Many of them—most of them—tried to charm me with that phrase, name-dropping one or both of the owners, eyeing my scribbly wait list and anticipating that they’d be moved to the top.
In response to “I know the owner,” I was always desperate to reply, “So does everybody else.” While one customer was telling me they’d known co-owner Sal Maggio forever, I’d look over to see Sal sitting at another customer’s table, catching up and asking how they liked their wine.
It wasn’t always easy, plastering on a smile of surprise when it would have been so perfectly, deliciously ironic to shut them down with an unimpressed “get in line.” But if there’s anything I learned from the owners of that restaurant, it’s that it doesn’t matter if the customer is right, wrong, or rude—it matters that the customer feels special.
With more than 15 years in business, perched at the corner of an unassuming suburban strip mall next to a few takeout spots, a liquor store, a dry cleaner and a movie theater, O Sole Mio welcomed crowds of customers nearly every day of the seven years I worked there.
“They’re Our People”
“It’s an Italian thing,” Sal says with a warm grin, giving his partner, Victor Todaro, a friendly elbow to the ribs. “We treat everybody like family.”
There are more than 20 pizzerias and Italian restaurants within a five-mile radius of O Sole Mio, yet people travel from an hour away just to dine there. The food is great, and the ambiance is cozy. But why, exactly, has this place been so very beloved for so many years, surviving a recession, plenty of local competition, a pandemic, staff shortages and more?
“We really care about the customers,” Sal tells me, his eyes smiling through his square glasses. “They’re our people.” While that endearment may seem trite, I can attest that it isn’t. Victor and Sal, who worked as managers for 11 years before taking a rightful spot as co-owners, take customer service seriously.
“We get a lot of regulars,” Sal continues, “and we joke that our ‘regulars’ are really just any customers who return more than once.”
“There’s a lot of people who work at the hospital or in these shops,” he says, referring to the Stony Brook University hospital down the road and the neighboring strip mall stores, “and they’re coming in for their lunch break or after work. We wanna make that a good part of their day.”
He explains that the pizza-makers and counter staff (most of whom have worked at the place for several years) excel at remembering orders, providing quick service, taking special requests, and being sure to “always have a positive attitude. No matter how crazy busy it gets up there [or] how much is going on, we always smile. We ask them how they’re doing.”
While Sal and Victor—both 5-foot-6 in matching black trousers and black collared shirts embroidered with the sunny O Sole Mio logo, both sporting identically shiny bald heads—are a popular duo in the neighborhood, so are most of the staff.
Attack, Be Amazing, and Work as a Team
During my seven years at O Sole Mio, I worked alongside the same crew of counter help, busboys, pizza makers, chefs and dishwashers. While others came and went, I also worked with the same six or seven servers over the years; I even joined the server force for a short while. Post-pandemic, a few of the original crew remain, but even the newer members of the staff are well-versed in going above and beyond for customers.
“We want the people who…they’re not shy,” Victor explains, when I ask him how they make sure to hire service-friendly staff. “We can teach them the menu, the computers, the tables, but they gotta be nice. They gotta smile,” he says.
“We hire a new waiter, they gotta be at the table like that.” He claps the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “There can’t be any fooling around, no standing in [the enclosed waiter station] on their phones or messing around. They gotta be out here with a smile, excited to help whoever comes in.”
“You mean they have to ‘attack’?” I say with a smile, and Victor laughs, agreeing. We both know that, when hiring a new hostess, he trains her to “attack” the front door so that the minute a customer steps inside, she’s there to ask, “How can I help you?”
Sal grabs a passing waiter by the shoulder. “Roberto here, he knows.” Roberto, a stout, jolly man with infectiously positive charisma, smiles without missing a beat. “I don’t know what I know, but yes, I do!” We laugh, and I ask him how he keeps his customers happy.
“Well, here’s the thing,” he begins, raising his eyebrows. “I work a lot, and I see a lot of people in the day. But no matter how tired I am or how much I want to go home and see my kids, when [customers] ask how I am doing, I simply say, ‘Amazing.’”
He’s telling the truth. I’ve never heard him describe his mood using any other word.
Teamwork also helps the staff provide great service, and I mention that, as a server myself, I always appreciated that. “Yes,” Victor says, “you walk by a table, and they need more water, it doesn’t matter if that’s your table or his table. You go get the pitcher, and you give them more water. We all work together. The customer doesn’t know it’s your table or his table. They just know they had great service.”
“What about you, as the owner?” I ask. “What’s your role during the dinner rush?” I already know just how involved Victor and Sal are. They’re not the kind of business owners who pop into their shop now and then. They’re there every day, working just as hard as their staff.
“Oh, come on,” he says, smiling. “I’m bussing the tables, I’m checking the line, I’m running the food, I’m making you drinks.” While Victor’s always on hand to make sure things run smoothly in the dining room, he’s also putting in special orders for customers, sending an appetizer platter to a large family with children, or a visually stunning sample of a new dinner special to one of the regulars—always on the house, of course.
I ask Roberto how he juggles the numerous regulars who request his service, specifically at dinnertime. “Oh, it’s easy,” he says. “I am happy to see them, and they are happy to see me. I am busy, but when we are all happy, they don’t mind if they wait a little longer.”
“When I come to their table with their wine before they even order, they are happy, they feel special, they want to stay and spend more money. He raises his palms and shrugs. “And then they want to give more money to me!”
Charity, Social Media, and Authenticity
Roberto, who has worked as a waiter for most of his life and at O Sole Mio for more than a decade, is often the man behind the camera shooting content for the restaurant’s Facebook page.
If you check out O Sole Mio on Instagram, you’ll notice that the last photo was posted in February 2020. But their Facebook page features more recent activity, including photos of dinner specials and a live video of Victor putting together baskets for charity. There are no professional-looking graphics, special announcements or follow-us incentives.
“Do you worry about people looking up O Sole Mio on social media?” I ask Sal and Victor. They look at each other, apparently wondering whether they should worry about that.
“I had Roberto over here the other day,” Victor says. “He posted my gift baskets for the hospital. You saw the baskets on Facebook?”
I did see the baskets on a Facebook Live video, which now has 1,000 views. The no-frills three-minute video, shot on an iPhone, shows Victor at the back of the restaurant. “So what are we doin’ over here, Victorio?” Roberto narrates. As Roberto shoots, Victor uses a heat gun to shrink-wrap a cellophane basket filled with boxes of pasta, containers of olive oil and pasta sauce, a bottle of San Pellegrino and a bottle of Chianti.
Giving back to the community is important at O Sole Mio. It’s another way of saying, “We love you guys,” to their customers, who are the teachers, doctors, students and parents that make up the community. Whether it’s an impressive food donation, a handwritten check, a handmade basket, an in-house fundraiser or a flyer on the window, Sal and Victor have always been adamant about supporting local causes.
I point out that many restaurants use social media for profit and that customers use it to become familiar with businesses or to get updates. “It’s something we gotta work on more, but look at us,” Sal says, with a laugh, referring to his and Victor’s age. “I got no idea what I’m doing.”
I ask them whether they intend to invest more in social media, and they tell me it’s in the works. “We won’t be here forever. I’m getting old,” Sal says, with a chuckle. He considers hiring a social media person, acknowledging, “We definitely want to make sure people see our food online when they search for us, that we have someone here who’s good with that stuff.”
Despite their somewhat minimal online presence and lack of trendy content, what they do post on Facebook gets impressive engagement. Many posts rake in long strings of comments from customers, often directly mentioning Sal, Victor or one of the waiters.
Branding is important for making social media effective, and it strikes me that the O Sole Mio brand and personality do come across in their social media. They post no-frills, unfiltered content that portrays a family-like staff who share a cheerful camaraderie and a love for Italian food.
So, while the restaurant industry has faced innumerable challenges and changes over the years—adapting to newer technology, navigating social media marketing, incorporating third-party delivery services, and operating differently due to the pandemic—I wonder if customer service has been and always will be a core value.
“Sal, you’ve been doing this forever, working in the pizza business,” I say. “How much did you value customer service then compared to now?”
“Oh, I mean, that’s where I learned it,” Sal replies. He grew up in a pizzeria owned by his family, he notes. “Back then, you didn’t have a website or anything. It was word-of-mouth and your regular people who kept you in business. And it was just a pizzeria, but you still wanted to give great service, get to know the customers, have a friendly relationship with them.”
“And this was Brooklyn,” he adds, laughing, “but my father always taught me to be personable, be nice.”
As we’re chatting, a woman smiles and waves politely as she walks past with her family. I watch as both Sal and Victor immediately stand up. Sal gently hugs the woman, and Victor messes up her son’s hair, asking him when football season starts. The boy’s father is two full heads taller than Victor, but that doesn’t stop him from giving an enthusiastic handshake and yanking his guest in for a hug.
They all talk like old friends, and, while I want to say I am amazed by it, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before—countless times with countless people—at O Sole Mio. Whether you’re ordering a plain slice on your lunch break, placing a holiday catering order, sitting down for dinner, or asking for a donation, you’ll likely never step foot inside O Sole Mio without a solid handshake from the owner or at least a genuine smile from the staff. And while there are plenty of places to get pizza in town, there aren’t many that will make you feel like family.
Jolee Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer and content specialist who’s passionate about culinary creativity and great restaurants. She writes for a slew of food-related media outlets, including Cozymeal and Tasting Table, combining her background in the restaurant industry and her education in literature to make content that fun-loving foodies like herself can devour.