By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Table tips and revelations from Mister A’s longtime maitre’d
Fine-dining etiquette allows you to eat lamb chops and bone-in chicken pieces with your hands. But grabbing a wine glass by the globe instead of its stem is gauche, with or without messy fingers.
Jerry Capozzelli knows every rule in the book when it comes to dining manners. As a longtime maitre’d at Mister A’s, he is also a master at pampering customers from the moment they set foot into the 12th-floor penthouse restaurant, regardless if they can’t figure out whether to reach to the left or the right for their bread plates once they’re seated.
“It’s always placed at the left, which is especially helpful to know when you’re sitting at a big round table,” he said. “But this isn’t to suggest that we judge guests if they get it wrong. It happens all the time. My job is to ensure that everyone leaves happy.”
Capozzelli was hired as a waiter at Mister A’s in 1984. He soon grew into the role of maitre’d during a period when the restaurant was distinguished by heavy red fabrics and a gaudy, Mediterranean motif, which equated to a formality that required strict dress codes for both staff and customers.
“I had to wear a full tuxedo at night and a captain’s jacket with a tuxedo shirt and bow tie during the day,” he recalled.
Today, the tall, well-coiffed New Jersey native greets guests on his regular, weekday lunch shifts dressed in charcoal-gray trousers, a white shirt and necktie. As of recently, his jacket became optional.
The dress code for customers has also been somewhat relaxed, compared to the days when women weren’t allowed to wear pantsuits in the restaurant and dress jackets for men were de rigueur.
For guys who arrived jacketless, Capozzelli would lend them one from a closet stocked with various sizes. Now, he is tasked with politely informing guests that flip flops, T-shirts, gym attire and baseball caps aren’t permitted. Although wearing shorts (until 4:30 p.m.) and non-torn jeans (any time) are acceptable.
“People still get confrontational about our dress code, but we do our best to make sure they know ahead of time when confirming their reservations. And there are also signs,” he said.
Despite working in one of San Diego’s most formal dining spots — founded 51 years ago by the Alessio family and then purchased and modernized in 2000 by chef-restaurateur Bertrand Hug — Capozzelli brings a comforting brand of wit and humor to the job for breaking the ice with his guests.
“If I sense someone is intimidated when asking what wagyu beef is, I’ll say, ‘it’s a hamburger.’ Or if I see that someone wants to order the filet mignon but doesn’t know how to pronounce it, I tell them to just point to it on the menu. No big deal. I’ll always go with a joke and respond to people with something funny.”
As a member of the LGBT community, he also relishes visiting the tables of same-sex couples celebrating their weddings.
“I make a big thing about it — and it brings tears to my eyes because I never thought I’d see the day when gay marriage would be legal,” he said.
Yet as a maitre’d who oversees all of the restaurant’s 51 tables while on duty and orchestrates pre-shift meetings with wait staff and their captains, Capozzelli must balance his affability with a hardline approach to detail.
On a recent afternoon before the restaurant opened for lunch, he adjusted the chairs at a lengthy, rectangular table with the precision of a draftsman, pulling every seat out halfway and with their backs in flawless, horizontal alignment.
Wine glasses and white tablecloths throughout the restaurant were spotless, even under the scrutiny of the midday sun flooding the dining room. Linen napkins were folded with intricate uniformity, each containing an inconspicuous pocket for transporting individual sets of silverware from the kitchen to the tables. It’s a maneuver that keeps the utensils organized and fingerprint-free.
Should a butter knife be missing from any table, or a floral pot set askew, he reflexively identifies and corrects such flaws in a daily, routine process known as the “mis en place,” a French culinary term for “putting everything in its place.”
But when proper restaurant decorum is ultimately challenged — that being when customers try slipping away without paying their bill — the super-composed maitre’d turns into a feisty vigilante, though fortunately only on rare occasions.
“I once caught up with two guys in the elevator after they walked out on their check,” he mused. “They claimed to have accidentally left their wallets in the car. So I went down with them and they got into a convertible and started backing up while I was standing behind it. I then jumped onto the vehicle as they were driving away. But I fell off and they got away.”
To the contrary, and without name-dropping, Capozzelli has tended to presidents, celebrities and sports figures over the years. For high-ranking politicians, he meets in advance with secret service personnel in reviewing seating arrangements, menu options and low-key exit strategies.
“Discretion is our number one priority,” he said. “We don’t make big commotions when famous people come in, so other customers generally don’t even know they are there.”
Capozzelli’s credits his “big Italian family” for sending him on a path into the hospitality industry.
“There would sometimes be 15 to 20 of us sitting around the table having dinner,” he said. “I would help serve, clear and do all that stuff from the time I was a kid. It’s a part of life that comes easy to me.”
After earning an associate’s degree in hotel-restaurant management from Brandywine College in Delaware, Capozzelli worked as a sales rep and banquet manager for Hilton in New York City. He also trained for six months at a five-star hotel in Switzerland as part of a Hilton exchange program, during which he learned how to carve meats and flambé desserts.
The opportunity, he recalled, proved advantageous for flambéing duck l’orange, steak Diane and crepes Suzette tableside at Mister A’s before they were phased out.
Upon moving to San Diego in 1983, he was hired as an executive steward at the Hyatt Islandia before working briefly as a maitre’d at the La Jolla Country Club.
In garnering a loyal clientele at Mister A’s for his consummate service, he was honored as “front of the house person” in 2014 by the California Restaurant Association. He has also sporadically taught table etiquette to underserved students through Pro Kids, an organization that promotes character development through education and golf.
“I bring groups of them into the restaurant and have a table all set up with plates and silverware — forks on the left, knives on the right and napkins on their laps. I have them practice cutting procedures on Twinkies that I buy and teach them things that many adults don’t even know.”
When pressed for additional etiquette tips, he said that leaving your fork upside down on the plate if pausing or stepping away indicates to the server you are still eating. Once finished, point the fork back up, and lay it down on the right side of your dish (not on the tablecloth) around the four o’clock mark.
His strongest piece of advice: “Never eat off someone else’s plate without being invited.”
In his spare time, Capozzelli likes to travel and throw dinner parties for friends and family members at his Mira Mesa residence. Though as a rooted, frontline employee of Mister A’s, he remains happily devoted to his numerous longtime customers, from ladies in Prada and couples in love, to families with kids and old timers who have patronized the restaurant since it opened.
“And so here we are in 2016,” he reflected, while glancing briefly out the windows at the dazzling urban view that has been part of his life for the past 32 years. “I would have never guessed.”
It’s a perk that he doesn’t seem to take for granted.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.