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Bibiana's General Manager Francesco Amodeo

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Welcome back to The Gatekeepers, a feature in which we roam the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
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[R. Lopez]

General manager Francesco Amodeo has been with Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca since it opened in 2009 to glowing reviews and praise for chef Nicholas Stefanelli's cooking that has led to nods from the likes of the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine. So, naturally, there are still plenty of people clamoring to get into the dining room at this downtown Italian restaurant. Here now, Amodeo shares the scoop on how to get a table, which celebrities you might see in the dining room and, oh yeah, that one time someone tried to bring a pony to the restaurant.

Say it's 8pm on a Saturday night. What's my wait for a table here?
Probably an hour or an hour and a half.

Is there anything I can say or do to make my wait shorter?
It all depends how fast people leave. If a table comes out, reservations are coming later, so I can give you a table and I can have other guests waiting at the bar for 15 minutes for a cocktail. It all depends. If I can seat, it's not a problem. And oftentimes I can't. People are very nice to understand that. So they don't mind sitting in the bar or the lounge because we do offer [the entire] food menu full-service.

What is it like in the bar and lounge at 8 o'clock on a Saturday?
It comes and goes. It depends how busy Saturdays can be. But the turning time in the lounge is a little bit faster than regular dining room.

How many seats do you have in the lounge?
We can seat about 20 people in the lounge and 12 more at the bar. So the restaurant goes up to, let's say, 140 max capacity. Plus we can open the patio, too. I personally don't like to say no. As my grandmother used to tell me, "We're working in a restaurant, but we still need to feed people." So, for me, I can't let anybody leave hungry otherwise I can't sleep at night. That's who I am. I'm going to keep the 8 o'clock to 7:30 table available for any VIP that decides to show up.

Does that happen often?
It happened, for example, last Saturday. You get the phone call at 7:00, "I need a table for three, I'm coming at 7:30." They also understand, well, I don't have 7:30, can do 7:45. But we always try to say yes.

How do you deal with VIPs if you don't have a table, if you gave the table away?
It comes down to what kind of story I can make up. Usually I use this trick that works all the time: "I do have a table right now, but it's not really one of my favorites. If you don't mind waiting a little bit at the bar, maybe a couple sips of a cocktail. I would really like to give you a better table because I don't like where you're going to sit. It's not your standard seat." So they are at the bar and then a half hour goes by and they're still having fun. Buy them a small plate so they can munch on something while they wait.

What kind of VIPs do you get here?
Our VIPs tend to be more repeated guests. We have a lot that have come more than 60 times. I have a lady, she's leading up to 75 web reservations, without counting the times she's shown up without it.

Do you get politicians or celebrities?
We do, time to time.

Can you name any names?
Let's say Gabrielle Union is probably our most regular. Politicians, it's hard to say because I don't really follow politics. I'm here to feed people. I can't care less.

So you don't try to study up...
We do have names and I do have the most popular ones. We do follow up with that.

So have you ever had anyone try to slip you money or gifts to get a table faster?
They do. But there's nothing I can do really. Money doesn't buy time.

Do you accept the money?
I tend to not accept money because if you give me money, you're trying to buy me. I'm not here to be purchased. I'm here to serve, give you service, and to represent Italian culture. $20 doesn't buy you 15 minutes, $50 doesn't buy you a table, $100 doesn't buy you... I can't go to a table and say, "Hey, this guy gave me $20, you need to get out." It doesn't work very well with my karma.

Do people usually understand when you decline?
They're actually surprised when I say I appreciate your gift but unfortunately I can't accept. They look at me weird.

Does it work elsewhere?
It does because I used to work in a restaurant which did it all the time. Usually $20 does the deal.

And so what's the most outrageous request that anyone has asked that you have been able to accommodate?
The most absurd one was so we have the semi-private area that only fits 12 guests because you have two tables that open up. So this guest who has been following me since 2007 came. He knew the maximum was 12. There were 26 all around that table. That was a tough one, but we made it work. It's hard for me to not make things work. There's always a solution for everything.

Are there any requests you have not been able to accommodate?
Nothing really crazy. Besides the guy that wanted to bring a pony in the restaurant.

What? OK, that's crazy.
He asked me to put balloons on the table, which balloons I can understand, flowers I can understand. But he wanted us to put a pony here and wait for the girl to come in. He wanted to put a pony here [in the lounge]. I was like, "I don't think I can do that. I can leave the pony outside."

Did he bring the pony outside?
No, he didn't want to come because he wanted to find a place that [would accept a] pony. I said good luck. I didn't think the owner would really love the fact that a pony came in the restaurant.

And so where are you eating when you're not here?
My house. My theory behind me not going anywhere is not because I don't like to try [but] because I've been in this business for 15 years and I'm every day in a restaurant. The last place I want to be on my day off is a restaurant. Because my eye always going to catch the server that's leaning, the server that doesn't do this... I can't really shut my brain off to not pay attention to service and what other people are behaving in a restaurant. So I get very distracted.

What do you eat at home?
My grandmother [was an] executive chef, grandfather [a] winemaker. I think I can manage to cook something myself at home, which I can get in any restaurants but paying triple the price. Plus I enjoy cooking to relax me.

What do you like to make?
I mean, pasta is always going to be one of the dishes that I will never going to live without because I was born in Amalfi Coast, so pasta is one of my favorite things. And it all depends on the mood.

And so what do you think is the most important gatekeeper tool?
Smiling. Just be nice to people. See the thing is this, that people that come in expecting something. And the moment you're not going to be able to give them what they want, they start to be upset. You just need to find a way to be nice. You have to speak with your heart. If you speak with your heart and just tell them the truth, they're going to understand it, they're going to appreciate it and they're a little more patient waiting. If you give them an attitude then it's kind of like you lost them completely. There's nothing you can do, not even if you bring an appetizer or wine or nothing. ... You have to put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they had a bad day. Maybe it's my job to make them forget about the bad day.

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