Heidi Geldhauser Harris

Italian restaurants have a leg up in delivering romantic experiences.

5 Ways to Rekindle the Restaurant Romance this Valentine’s Day

Often regarded as the most amorous of cuisines, Italian restaurants can capitalize on the upcoming holiday.

When it comes to romance, it’s fair to say the Italians know a thing or due. In fact, Italian eateries accounted for nearly 25 percent of Yelp’s recent list of 100 Most Romantic Restaurants.

“A romantic evening is set by details so subtle and well-executed that everything except your companion fades away,” says Valentina Imbrenda, co-owner of Nonna Beppa in New York City. “If someone is tending to your food, wine, and comfort, you really have the opportunity to tend to your partner, which is truly the essence of a romantic night out.”

Valentine’s Day also happens to be one of the busiest nights of the year for dining out, so upping the romance factor can prove difficult with longer-than-normal wait times and a backed-up kitchen. Planning for large turnout—including some newcomers who may be visiting for the first time—can help restaurants get ahead of the rush while preserving the ambiance.

Service is particularly important for Valentine’s Day dining, and prix fixe and/or shareable menus go far in streamlining back-of-house operations and enhancing the guest experience. For the front of house, assigning dedicated staff members to refill beverages and check on guests provides support for servers and guests alike.

“If your dining room is geared more toward groups and larger tables, do what you can to make them feel more intimate on Valentine’s Day,” says managing partner Natale Servino of Servino Ristorante in Tiburon, California. “Use floral arrangements to divide the tables or remove cluttered seating and bring in smaller tables spaced further apart so that guests can enjoy an intimate dining experience.”

Regardless of how fully a restaurant commits to making Valentine’s Day a special occasion, it’s paramount that the effort is genuine, not slipshod or inauthentic.

“Whatever you do, make it sincere,” says Stuart Fierman, director of operations and partner at Fifth Group Restaurants, which owns La Tavola Trattoria, a 60-seat restaurant in Atlanta. “If your servers can make real connections with guests and recognize that Valentine’s Day is not just a busy holiday, but a special night of celebration for many couples, that experience will stand out and keep guests returning to the restaurant for years to come.”

Nonna Beppa

“A romantic evening is set by details so subtle and well-executed that everything except your companion fades away,” says Valentina Imbrenda, co-owner of Nonna Beppa in New York City.

Adding ‘amore’ to Valentine’s Day service

Italian restaurants, arguably, have a leg up in delivering such an experience—just look to iconic films like Roman Holiday, A Little Romance, or even Eat Pray Love, where cuisine is elevated to a near sensual level. Food is, of course, the crux of this experience for restaurants, but as cinema demonstrates, other sensory cues also play an important role.

Sight. From dim lighting, candles, and fireplaces to exposed brick and fresh flowers, Italian eateries draw guests in at first sight.

“There’s just something about a small Italian restaurant that makes it the epitome of romance,” Fierman says. “Dim lighting, exposed brick, dark wood elements, and the open kitchen make it feel warm and inviting—much like the small neighborhood trattorias nestled throughout the streets of Italy.”

Sound. The soft clinking of silverware and pouring of wine is a welcome sound that’s muted only by atmospheric music floating overhead. “Create a space that's not too loud,” Imbrenda says. “Guests need to be able to hear each other. Have soft music in the background to keep the pace and spirit of the night without dominating it.”

Water serves as music at Servino Ristorante. “Our restaurant is situated along the waterfront of the San Francisco Bay,” Servino says. “During the day, the sounds of the water lapping against the piers lend a natural romantic element.”

Scent. The aromas within an Italian restaurant warm the spirit and prepare the appetite for a feast. The bouquet of a wood-burning oven, garlic hitting olive oil, and pasta sauce being ladled into sharable bowls set stomachs rumbling.

Taste. Menu descriptions that tell a tale of handmade pastas, locally sourced and imported Italian ingredients, shareable dishes, and sumptuous desserts tug at the taste buds. “La Tavola Trattoria’s executive chef Andrew Peterson maintains a micro-seasonal menu, which utilizes the freshest produce, blending traditional Italian dishes with more modern techniques and culinary practices,” Fierman says.

Touch. Soft textiles, natural materials, exposed brick, and cozy seating invite guests to sit back and relax. “We have a secret menu and hidden space in a small wine cellar of the restaurant; it’s specifically for couples seeking a more intimate and romantic setting,” Imbrenda says. “Couples curate their food and wine menu based on their interests while listening to smooth music playing on a vintage record player.”