When Messina restaurant in the city centre of Marbella achieved its highly merited Michelin star, it was testimony to more than just its excellent culinary offerings, whipped up by Chef, Mauricio Giovanini, with love, curiosity and a passion for long, slow, exquisite cooking processes.

It was also a symbol of the excellent customer service which Messina has built a reputation for, thanks to the keen eye, warmth and sensitivity of Pía Ninci, maître d’ of the restaurant and also Mauricio’s wife.

It seems like not so long ago that the young couple opened their restaurant, keen to bring experimental food to a savvy group of diners. Mauricio and Pía hail from Argentina and when they first arrived in Marbella, they were enticed by Spain’s reputation for cutting-edge cuisine.

They sought to be part of the culinary movement that was taking the world by storm. Both Mauricio and Pía studied to become Chefs, though Pía’s undoubted passion always lay in dealing with customers and making their dining experience unforgettable.
Much has changed since the early days.

Pía is now a mum of three, busily juggling the successful business with the needs of her children (Tiago aged nine, Luz aged six, and Emilia, just four months). Thankfully, Pía is highly organised so she ensures she has enough quality time with the children.

Sundays are bliss, since it is family day. “We squeeze in as much fun as we can,” she smiles, cradling her beautiful baby girl in her arms on our meeting at a busy café.

Pía was one of three professionals (and the only woman) asked to speak at Andalucía Sabor (the most important culinary event in the south of Spain). The other speakers were none other than Didier Fertilati, the maître d’ of Quique Dacosta’s three-starred Michelin restaurant, and Juan Ruiz of two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Aponiente.

It was the first year that the prestigious event would feature talks on customer service, and Messina was selected owing to its reputation in the sector for exquisite customer service that goes above and beyond what one would expect even at a Michelin-starred establishment.

When I ask Pía what the secret of Messina’s success is in this area, she answers, “It’s the little things, the details that turn a dining experience from good to spectacular.” Pía possesses the innate talent of a psychologist, her deep empathy (and vast experience as a diner herself) allowing her to understand what clients really need to feel happy.

“Your table should be your world,” she tells me, and indeed, it takes plenty of skill to work out what each client expects from their experience at Messina. “Some people just want to enjoy a quiet evening together, others are keen to know the processes that give rise to each dish.”

Creature comforts are big at Messina. Pía explains: “We noticed that often, people would bring their umbrella in on a rainy day and leave it in the cloakroom. We ensure that staff brings umbrellas and any other items left to the table.”

Part of the great service at a restaurant the calibre of Messina is evidently that of wine recommendations. Having been in the business for over 20 years, Pía has certainly amassed an impressive knowledge of wine and she doesn’t hesitate to recommend the ideal choice for a meal.

“You won’t catch me recommending a €100 bottle to guests – I always aim for one priced at around €30, though if diners are after something more exclusive we can also oblige.” She admits to being currently obsessed with sherry. “Sherry isn’t that well understood,” she muses. “Most people know just a couple of varieties, but there are many others that merit enjoyment.”

Pía is undoubtedly at a beautiful time in her life – with a loving husband, a Michelin-starred restaurant and an ever-growing family, she continues to cherish the same values she did when she was in her 20s, above all, regarding the value of work. “After having my children, I was never able to stop working for a full four months. We have had to work very hard to get where we are.”

Like Pía, Mauricio has reached a wonderful stage of maturity, foregoing the ‘surprise’ factor for dishes made painstakingly, lovingly, often requiring several hours of work to elicit the best flavours and textures which continue to excite us. For the talented couple, these are the busy, exciting, ever-evolving wonder years.

Words Marisa Cutillas Photography courtesy of Kevin Horn

Avda. Severo Ochoa 12, Marbella. Tel: 952 864 895.