On Tuesday, Venice hit the headlines when a British family was charged €526 for lunch.
Luke Tang, a 40-year-old university lecturer from Birmingham, was eating at Trattoria Casanova in the central San Marco district with his parents. They say they ordered one pasta dish and two sides. They were duly brought that – along with 20 oysters and 3.5kg of fresh grilled fish, which our tourist says he didn’t ask for. They ate it all, he says, thinking that it was included in what they ordered.
When the story broke there was fury among Independent readers. This is why you shouldn’t go to Venice, some said. This is Italy all over, said others – they’re always trying to rip you off.
So, how does one avoid being ripped off in Italy? In exactly the same way one avoids being ripped off anywhere. Venice is no different to Paris, Barcelona, Moscow, New York or Buenos Aires. Or London, for that matter. Avoid tourist traps, be vigilant, check prices and look those gift horses in the mouth. Without wanting to indulge in any kind of victim-blaming, extras like oysters, let’s be honest, are unlikely to be free.
Having said that, there are a few things to remember in Italy that can save you from trouble. And, this being Italy, they mainly revolve around food.
Whether you’re in the most touristy bar in Rome or a tiny cafe in a Calabrian village, standard practice is to charge more for customers who sit down than those who stand up. Some places waive this; most don’t (many moons ago, I worked in a village bar in a remote part of the Marche and we still charged 20 cents extra for a seated cappuccino).
By law, all bars have to state their different prices for bar and table service. Look – or ask – for the “listino prezzi”, and compare “al banco” to “al tavolo”. Sometimes the difference is very little, sometimes it’s vast – at somewhere like Quadri in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, for example, the coffee that might cost you €2 at the bar will be more like €15 sitting down. There might even be a music charge for sitting outside.
Sometimes, it’s absolutely worth sitting down – you’re tired, or you’re in a place so iconic that you want to do it for the hell of it. That’s fine, but just inform yourselves first. See what a seat is worth to you.
Avoid the fish
Fresh fish in Italy is usually charged by weight, so unless you’re prone to carrying scales around with you, you’re at the mercy of the restaurateurs. The vast majority will price it fairly, but like anywhere, the odd bad apple will take advantage. I’ve been scammed this way, even with fluent Italian.
This doesn’t mean you can’t order fish; it means order fish with care. Specify what kind of size you want – tell them you’re not hungry and they’ll pick a small fish. Ask how much it’ll be, roughly – they’re usually happy to weigh it. And don’t be shocked if it’s expensive – it is, after all, fresh fish, prepared for your sole delectation, and is almost certainly worth it. Just check the price in advance.
The same goes for meat – although most cuts will be charged by dish, some, like a fiorentino steak, will be done by weight. Check the small print – if it says something like “€8 all’etto”, or “100g”, you’re being charged by weight.
Check the extras
Most restaurants in Italy will charge a coperto, or cover charge. It might be 50 cents, or in a really posh place it might be €4. You can’t get around that, but if you’re offered anything else – bread, bruschetta, olives – it pays to check whether that’s included. Bread is usually included in the coperto, but sometimes not. Lots of restaurants will finish dinner with limoncello on the house – but if you’re in a touristy place, best check it is indeed on the house. If anyone tries to tempt you with extras – oysters that just came in today, vegetables that go beautifully with the meat (meat and fish is usually just that, meat or fish – sides are extra), a tiny portion of dessert (that one got me once – I was given a tablespoon of tiramisu and charged for a plateful) – check. It might be a present, or it might be charged. A friend who lives in Rome tells me he’s noticed a creeping trend to offer diners antipasti. “Just a few pieces of ham”, they may say – and bring a giant platter covered in €24 worth of ham. Always check what you’re getting.
If they bring a 3.5kg platter of fish along with your spaghetti, question it. If you’ve asked to share something (“in due” is how to order that) and it looks huge – check it’s only one portion. Question things the minute they arrive, not once you’ve eaten them. It might not be them trying to screw you over; it might be a simple language barrier.
Compare the menus
Check the English version of the menu against the Italian one, which is always posted outside, and see if there are glaring differences. No restaurant will be stupid enough to price the menus differently, but I’ve been to a couple of places where the English menu states “SERVICE NOT INCLUDED” and the Italian includes it in the coperto.
Get a receipt
It’s illegal in Italy not to be given an itemised receipt. So you should always get one anyway – but if you’re suspicious about something, make absolutely sure you get it. Don’t accept a receipt that just shows the total - ask for it to be itemised. That way, you have evidence.
And one for the road...
Getting a taxi home? Check the official prices. Roman taxi drivers in particular have a bad reputation – the guys at Ciampino airport who insist on quoting astronomical prices for a trip into town, when the fixed price of €30 is written on the door – but there are ways to get around it. Check the official prices – which are always clearly displayed in a cab. Check the tariff for the time of day. Use an app like ItTaxi so you have a record of the driver and the route they took if there are problems later. Always take official taxis – always! Avoid the airport chancers asking you “Taxi?” in arrivals, and queue with the other sensible people.
And if the worst happens? You can try reporting it to the city authorities, as our Brummie family did, or, if you have time, you can approach the police to make an official “denuncia”. Most importantly, try not to let it ruin your trip. You may have been unlucky enough to taste a bad apple, but the vast majority of others on the tree are really very sweet.
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