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Johnny Romoglia at your service

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001

Twenty-five years ago, when Johnny Romoglia waited tables at Ma Maison, Rex Harrison was one of his regular customers. Harrison insisted that Romoglia looked just like Toulouse-Lautrec — except that the famous French Post-Impressionist was a foot or two shorter. To remedy this discrepancy, Romoglia always knelt to take Harrison’s order.

Today, Romoglia is director of service for Wolfgang Puck’s fine dining establishments, and he works five days a week at Spago Beverly Hills. That’s him — with the distinctive shaved head, black-framed glasses, Hugo Boss suit, gorgeous polka-dot tie — roaming the room, making sure that everything that can be done to make the guests happy is being done. At lunch recently, as a friend and I were served the meat course of a tasting menu — roasted rabbit — Romoglia stopped by to check on us. "Oooh, lookee," he said, pouring Evian. "You’re eating widdle Thumper! Awwww . . ." Then something at a nearby table caught his eye. A busser had cleared a plate while others at the table were still eating. Romoglia’s jaw set. "Enjoy," he said to us, then turned and followed the errant busser into the kitchen like a heat-seeking missile.

Johnny Romoglia is a mischievous perfectionist, a whimsical professional, a disciplinarian capable of blatant silliness — he’ll pull the porcelain covers off plates with a flourish, then pretend they’re cymbals, or earmuffs. He can be funny and frighteningly proper at the same time. Just look at him: the elastic face, the impeccable grooming; the officer’s upright bearing, the spirited glint in his eye. He often refers to his "big mouth" ("You know me and my big mouth . . .," "Of course, I had to open my big mouth . . ."). But the thing is, he knows exactly when to open that mouth, and what should come out. He can be goofy, outrageous, antic, yet remain the soul of discretion. Anybody hoping for some dish about Spago, some gossip or inside dirt, will hear nothing from Romoglia. Over weeks of interviews, he never uttered one disparaging or vaguely dark word about the restaurant or anybody who works there. He’s a company man through and through. Although he does do a drop-dead, thrilling imitation of his boss — nailing the Austrian accent.

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Like many people who make a career in the restaurant world, Romoglia had no intention of doing so. His father was in the military, so he grew up "everywhere and nowhere," attending high school in Germany and receiving a B.A. in psychology at Arizona State University. After college, he taught first-, second- and third-graders for two years, then returned to ASU for a master’s in child psychology.

"I still use what I learned on a daily basis," Romoglia says, then repeats, "On a daily basis."

While in grad school, Romoglia bluffed his way into a waitering job at an upscale French restaurant in Scottsdale, the Bistro. (Did his summer job at a bar really count as wait experience?) Luckily, an older, seasoned waiter named Jean took Romoglia under his wing, taught him the mechanics of waiting tables, shielded his mistakes from the management. Romoglia took to the discipline and formality — he’d been born and raised around the military, after all — and Jean proved an apt mentor. The two were hired together "off the floor" of the Bistro to work at a chic new Continental restaurant, Avanti.

Avanti ran at a different pitch: high-speed service with a lot of table-side food preparation — and flagrant showmanship. Romoglia would make all his own orders of fettuccine Alfredo, caesar salad, steak tartare; he’d fillet fish. If one owner, Franco, came by when a caesar salad was in the works, he’d cry, "Johnny never puts in enough lemon!" and squeeze more into the bowl. Another owner, Ramon, would "check" the preparations — he’d taste a big forkful of the pasta or salad Romoglia was making, then kiss his fingers, give his okay. "It was all very showy, and it happened very quickly. The place was always packed to the gills," says Romoglia. "They’d do 400 covers a night. I learned how to use my personality more, and I learned expedience and speed, and great economy of movement. I learned, for example, never to leave the dining room — or come back into the dining room — empty-handed."

In due time, Romoglia finished the thesis and coursework for his master’s, but he changed his mind about wanting to teach, and in 1976 he moved to Los Angeles to study interior design at the Fashion Institute. He’d brought with him a letter of recommendation from Avanti to La Scala, but nothing came of it. He applied at all the better dinner houses: Le St. Germain, Bruce’s Le Restaurant, and L’Ermitage, where he was hired, but only as a runner at lunch. "Then I was walking home along Melrose one day, and I passed this restaurant with this tacky fence and all these Rolls-Royces, and a sign that said ‘Bistro,’" says Romoglia. "Me, Johnny No-Stone-Unturned, walked into the kitchen and started talking to a cook. He looked about 12 years old and was very friendly — we must have talked for 20 minutes as he chopped vegetables. He told me to ask the maitre d’ about a job. I thought, ‘What a cute, friendly little prep cook.’"

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