Tuesday, August 4, 2009

When is an expensive menu too expensive?

One of this summer’s big news stories in Italian media  is about a restaurant in Rome, which charged a Japanese couple 695 euros for a dinner menu.

In June, the Japanese visited the fashionable eatery al Passetto, two steps from Piazza Navona. They were welcomed by a friendly English-speaking waiter, who promised to treat them to a special seafood menu with the words "Trust in me”. The couple were never allowed to see a printed menu.

Instead, they were served an antipasto consisting of two prawns and three oysters. The second course was two tasty plates of spaghetti with lobster sauce, followed by baked fish, pesce al forno, without contorni or side dishes Dessert was a delicious Italian variation on the rainbow coloured ice-cream theme. For dinner the Japanese drank a bottle of white wine and a bottle of water. That's all.

In consequence, they were taken slightly aback when presented with a bill amounting to 695 euros. Of course, oysters and lobster are costly ingredients, and of course you have to pay extra for the restaurant's superb location with outdoor seating in the centre of Rome, but still they found 695 euro a bit over the top. Especially, because the waiter had drawn 115.50 euro in tips on the Japanese's credit card without prior agreement. So after having complained about the bill at the restaurant, the Japanese couple files a complaint with the police.

Police officers then paid the restaurant a visit and found that the bill, paid by the Japanese couple, did not match the prices listed on the menu, but since the Japanese had been given a special menu, it was not possible to press charges. Instead, the Italian Food Standards Agency closed the restaurant temporarily due to inadequate cleaning and defective refrigerators.
Since then the politicians have entered the scene. The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, has promised to crack down on any attempts tourist hustling, threatening to deprive restaurants that cheat of their license, and most recently the Minister for Tourism, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, has offered the Japanese couple a new trip to Italy on the Italian taxpayers, as compensation for their unfortunate restaurant visits. This offer has been politely declined by the Japanese, who state that you can be conned in any country throughout the world.

The learning to be deducted from this is that tourists should look before they leap into ordering food at a restaurant in Italy or elsewhere. At the three-Michelin-star restaurant, La Pergola, in the Vatican a menu costs 175-195 euros, but elsewhere, prices are more moderate, and in Italy as a whole a very nice dinner for two including antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce, coffee, water and wine rarely costs more than 100 euros. In fact, there are quite a lot of places, like La Taverna del Pescatore in Avola on southern Sicily, where you can have your fill of antipasti, fresh seafood and wine for less than 20 euros per person. And in these places, the waiters are insulted if you try to give tips. If you "forget" some coins on the table, they will even come running to give it back.
The vast majority of Italian restaurants pride themselves with their honesty. At least I don’t remember being cheated at a restaurant in Italy, even if the price was not known in advance. But then again, I would never dream of sitting down at an outdoor restaurant in Piazza Navona in Rome, San Marco in Venice or Piazze del Duomo in Milan and Florence.

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