Maria Bianchini is Griffith’s longest-serving waitress, having worked her way up Banna Avenue’s stalwart establishments over the past 43 years.
She started at Bertoldo’s Bakery in 1980 before opening her own pizzeria, California, then moved on to the cafe Chittery Bit, Italian favourite La Tavola and its reincarnation Giuseppe’s before appropriately ending up on the top block at Griffith’s oldest restaurant, Belvedere, where she plans to serve out the rest of her career.
Her colleagues say her simple job title doesn’t do her justice.
“Maria’s a lot more than a waitress,” Belvedere chef Cathy Sergi says. “She’s a PR agent, a bouncer, a barista, a saleswoman, a counsellor; she is like the town’s mum.”
It’s not surprising Maria developed such a reputation, as her career was shaped by a matriarch of Riverina hospitality.
“Mary Bertoldo [bakery owner] was my first boss. I started working for her when I left year 10,” Ms Bianchini said. “Beautiful lady, she became my mentor, she’s now 93 and I still catch up with her. I helped bring up her youngest daughter, she was always in the shop … Mary worked us hard. In those days, when your boss spoke, you listened. Whatever they said, you did.”
Maria stayed with the iconic bakery until she became her own boss in 1995, then was an employee again for five years at Chittery Bit before trying to escape the hospitality trade in 2005.
“I spent five months setting up Magna Mart, which became Bunnings. But I didn’t like that. So I walked into the restaurant La Tavola on Mother’s Day, I went up to the beautiful chef Melina Puntoriero, asking if she had any work. She knew about me and asked, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’”
Ms Puntoriero would go on to run a world-renowned culinary school in Italy, while Ms Bianchini was retained by the new owner, who renamed the establishment Giuseppe’s, where she stayed until 2017. That’s when she again attempted something different.
“I thought I’d retire from hospitality but after six weeks, I wanted to return. So I walked into Belvedere on a Friday and the manager had me start on Saturday. They’re like my family now. My boss, Maria Sergi, could be my daughter. But she’s amazing, she runs it like a well-oiled machine.”
Over four decades, the senior Maria has seen it all – from high-powered celebrity dinners to political manoeuvrings to awkward first dates to couples breaking up.
“There are times I’ve seen women crying, and I go over and try to comfort them if needed. We need to look after each other,” Ms Bianchini said.
She is known for her great people and PR skills as much as her waitressing.
“Maria will sell the specials like no-one else. She can sell sand to the Arabs,” Cathy Sergi, the owner’s aunt, said.
Ms Bianchini said: “There was a guy who would come in only to eat scotch fillet, for years. His wife said, ‘There is no way you can make him eat anything else.’ I told him, ‘You need to try our venison and if you don’t like it, I’ll pay for it.’ He loved it. From then, he would only eat what I suggested. His wife said, ‘I don’t believe it.”’
While in an often-thankless industry, her dedication occasionally gets noticed.
“I once served a well-known chef, as I normally would, and didn’t think anything of it. He came up after dinner and told me he was proud to see how I served the floor. About an hour and a half later, he walked back in with a humungous bunch of flowers for me.”
Sometimes, though, the waitress has had to transform into the bouncer.
“I’ve had a chair thrown at me. There were some guys fighting outside, and I had old ladies walking into the shop so I had to go outside to stop them and they decided to launch.”
As she approaches her 60th birthday, she has no plans to slow down.
“I know I’m truly blessed to do something I love. God willing, I will be here for as long as I can. I love my job because I love people. If you’re not a people person, it’s not an industry to enter.”
Not that she’d be allowed to go.
“Maria is the best person, greatest friend and a beautiful woman. She can’t ever retire, we won’t let her,” Ms Sergi said.