Thursday, January 25, 2018

Did a Venice restaurant really charge four tourists $1,418 for lunch?

What would you do if presented a bill for 1,143 euro—which today converts to $1,418 or 1,001 British pounds—for an ordinary restaurant lunch? That’s exactly what happened to four Japanese tourists who ordered one mixed fried seafood platter, four bistecche (steaks) and a bottle of water in an osteria in Venice December 5, 2017.

This incident has outraged Venice residents, tour guides and merchants, who are concerned that the widespread news coverage in Italy and throughout Europe is damaging the city’s reputation.

The Japanese tourists, who had taken a break from their studies at a hotel school in Bologna for some sight-seeing, were understandably not to happy about the bill either. They reported it to their tour guide, and at her urging, they filed a complaint with the Guardia di Finanza in Bologna. Now the media is reporting a heavy fine issued against the restaurant—20,000 euros, the equivalent of $24,783. In addition, the restaurant has since been investigated by the local police for sanitary and administrative violations and faces an additional 9,000 euro fine.

When I first read about the incident, I had some doubts about its veracity, based on the incredible price tag, but I’ve since confirmed the truth of the initial reports and discovered further details.

The tour guide, who has asked to remain anonymous, said the students showed her the credit card receipt at the end of the day. They thought that there had been an error, that the bill perhaps should have been for 114.10 euro and an extra zero had been accidentally added.

The tour guide called the restaurant and was met with hostility and implicit threats.

With a menacing tone,” she said, they asked me, ‘Who are you? What do you want? Come here, come here.’ ”

Corriere Dalla Sera columnist Massimo Gramellini explained that seven Japanese students originally entered the restaurant, which is just a stone’s throw from the famous Piazza San Marco. ‟Four of them ordered steak,” he wrote. ‟The other three sniffed a rip-off and sought escape in a pizzeria.”

The students were not given a formal scontrino fiscale for a receipt as required by Italian law, but they were given a printed copy of their credit card receipt to show to authorities.

It had become common practice in bygone years for merchants to cheat on their taxes by not reporting sales, but the Guardia di Finanza cracked down on that practice by requiring all customers to be given official receipts, which the customers must retain upon exiting a business. A customer leaving without a scontrino is also subject to a fine, a provision enacted to encourage customers to always request receipts.

Savvy travelers are usually aware that they will pay a premium price to dine near a major tourist attraction. In my earlier days of travel in Italy, I paid both a coperta (cover charge) and a servizio (service charge) while dining in Venezia. Combined with an order of two servings of water, Lucy and I paid almost $20 beyond the already overpriced primo piatti of pasta. Lesson learned for me, but not in such a painful way as that suffered by the unfortunate Japanese tourists.

The four students have since been invited back to Venice by the Venetian Hoteliers Association, which offered them two free nights in one of the city’s luxury hotels in an effort to counteract the “grave damage that the episode is doing to the city’s image.”

Even the three who left the first restaurant endured their own measure of injustice. According to Gramellini, ‟It is not that the three who went to the pizzeria had it much better. They spent 115 euros each for plates of spaghetti.”

The first news accounts held back the name of the restaurant, but social media is relentless, and I found not only the name of the restaurant but a copy of the credit card receipt on a Facebook page frequented by Venice residents. While the locals now know to avoid the Osteria da Luca, tourists are still largely oblivious.

Journalist Igor Petruccioli of Il Gazzettino visited the Osteria da Luca undercover this week. He found it be almost full at lunch time. ‟To see the restaurant from the outside, it would seem more the showcase of a bar, with sandwiches on display,” Petruccioli wrote. ‟It is located on one of the most traveled streets near San Marco. Inside, foreign waiters and a couple of Italians work there. We were received cordially but were asked immediately if we were journalists or normal customers.”

Petruccioli didn’t confess to being there on assignment, but he might have aroused some suspicion when he selected the same dishes ordered by the four Japanese students.

‟I asked for a mineral water, fried lobster, squid and scampi (10 euros per 100 grams) and a beef steak, indicated at a price of 18 euros,” he wrote. ‟At the bottom of the page it is specified that prices will be increased by 15% for the service. The total was 82.80 euro, without coffee and liqueurs: 50 euros for frying lobster and squid, 18 euros for beef steak, 4 euros for the bottle of water plus 10.80 euros of table service. At the time of payment, we put the banknotes in the holder and the waiter immediately returned the change, but without a receipt. On our request, we were then given a receipt.”

Luisella Romeo
Venice tour guide Luisella Romeo says she has never dined at the restaurant in question, though she passes it every day.

‟The price they paid is scandalous,” she said. ‟Rents are very high, and quality is the first victim. This happens in all touristic towns.”

Gramellini also pointed out that many restaurants in the town are now owned by foreigners. The owner of Osteria da Marco is from China, and the manager is Egyptian, he said. Admitting that even Italian owners are not above ripping off tourists, Gramellini opined that foreign owners have even less at stake.

‟Almost all the beauty that surrounds us no longer belongs to us, yet the way of mistreating it has not changed,” he wrote. ‟The new owners immediately adapt to the bad habit. They know that even if the seven Japanese should discourage any sane friend from coming to Italy, others will arrive anyway, and others, until the stock runs out. Beauty produces a very bad effect on its owners. You will rarely find a great restaurant in a pleasant place. Where there is a beautiful view, there is often a burnt steak and a hot bill.”

This does not mean that one can’t find a good meal at a reasonable price in Venice. After all, the locals eat out as well, and they’d all be bankrupt if they dined at the wrong places.

‟Many very good restaurants exist that don’t charge you too much and offer an excellent service,” Romeo said. ‟Not too far from the restaurant of the article, there are two places that offer great food and every day are packed with gondoliers and other locals.”

Romeo said that tourists should ask their local guides or city residents for recommendations. My own rule of thumb: The best restaurants are on the narrowest and most obscure streets. They have to be good to survive, and they thrive on good reputations and reviews.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Living in My Ancestral Village Changed My Life

Note: I first visited Montecarlo, the village of my ancestors, in 2002, exactly 100 years after my grandfather left it to come to America. In 2015, I bought a home there. I’ve thought about trying to describe what that feels like . . . and then I read this account by Michelle Fabio. Beautifully written, it captures many of the same feelings I’ve experienced, and so I’m reprinting it with her permission. Paul

A guest post by Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso and author of 52 Things to See and Do in Calabria.

As the car wound its way up the two-mile serpentine hill, I smiled to myself, daydreaming about how I would feel when, within minutes, I would be the first in my family in nearly 100 years to breathe the air, walk the narrow streets, and step inside the churches of my great-great-grandfather’s village in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot.
Badolato, Calabria

Although the logic of avoiding motion sickness told me to focus straight ahead, I couldn’t. I was mesmerized by the groves upon groves of olive trees lining the hillside in perfect rows, their leaves glistening so brightly I could’ve mistaken them for being covered in snow if it weren’t June.

Some of those trees simply had to have been there when Papù made his way down the hill that last time toward his ship of destiny in Naples; many of the thick, gnarled trunks easily showed a century or more. Now I could feel the trees watching me, and I imagined that their shimmering dance in the breeze was the olive tree version of smiling. And I smiled right back.

Whenever everything and everyone seem to be smiling upon me, I know I’m on the right path.

My stomach flipped and flopped around each bend, but it was worth every bit of queasiness to arrive at that random “S” curve halfway up the hill when suddenly, literally out of thin air, it appeared: Badolato and its ancient stone houses clustered together one on top of the next, in support or conspiracy or both, precariously perched on a hill, anchored by a church in the center – just as it had been for a millennium.

Is it possible for your heart to leap with joy and simultaneously sink with heaviness for everything you didn’t even know you were missing just moments ago?

Mine did. And then it did again when I stepped out of the car in the piazza and felt a century’s worth of lost time collapse into a single heartbeat.

Quite simply, I was home.

I know that sounds trite and probably unbelievable, but just as people describe love with the phrase “You just know,” I just knew.

Old door in Badolato
That was 2002, less than a year after the death of my grandmother. She was the first to be born in America, although she was as (southern) Italian in spirit and temperament as they come. Despite having other heritage mixed into our family, Italian always ruled, especially on the dinner table. Never underestimate the power and influence of a nonna.

So there I was, standing in the village of my great-great-grandfather, the one he had left in the early 1900s for a “better life” although truth be told he traded the back-breaking work of a peasant farmer for that of a coal miner; either way he was digging himself an early grave largely for the benefit of someone else.

I’ve often wondered whether he regretted changing his scenery from the brilliant Calabrian sun to the deepest, darkest depths of the earth, but as far as I know, he didn’t – or at least no one ever asked.

And yet just a few generations later, I was back in his town, feeling nothing but calm and goodness and warmth wrap around me – as if my ancestors had huddled around me, just like those houses on the hillside, and welcomed me home.

I have been fascinated by family history from the time I would stay up way past my bedtime, eyes at half-mast and head resting on my crossed arms on the kitchen table, absorbing my grandmother and great-aunt’s re-telling of stories of the generations that had been born in Italy. The desire to connect only grew over the years as I compiled family trees and meticulously recorded birth, marriage, and death dates.

But documents are cold, and I needed the warm touch of my roots – in person.

Indeed, just a few days into that first visit to Calabria, I knew I had to move there and live as my family once had (albeit with Internet and some modern conveniences). My plan was solidified when I discovered I was eligible for Italian citizenship as our blood line had never been broken according to Italian law. After more document collection and many phone calls to the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia, I proudly reclaimed something my family didn’t even know it was entitled to and now hold all the privileges and responsibilities of an Italian citizen.

In August 2003, I set off, making the return journey Papù never did. The original plan was a year, maybe two, but now eight years on, I can’t imagine leaving this place behind for anywhere else.

My soul has found its home.

A year and a half into my Calabrian experiment, I met and fell in love with my husband Paolo, a true paesano as his family and mine are from the same small quartiere in our village (and it’s where we now live). He’s introduced me to so much I didn’t even know I was looking for when I set off to learn more about my heritage.

We keep a garden, raise goats and chickens, and this past February we made our own sausage, pancetta, capocollo, supressata, and guanciale from a pig we had raised. Wine-making will come in due time (pian piano, slowly, as the Italians say), but for now, our proudest accomplishment is our little piece of land with olive trees – and our own olive oil.

Whenever I walk through our grove, returning the smiles of the leaves flickering in the sunshine, I wonder what Papù would think. Were these the same olive trees he took care of for the Baron but couldn’t dream of ever owning? Could he have imagined that one day his granddaughter’s granddaughter would even have the choice to return and reclaim his family’s heritage?

For the better part of a decade, I’ve gradually entrenched myself in an old-fashioned way of life that has been re-branded as “homesteading” and is all the rage in the United States. But here, eating organically, locally, and in-season aren’t trendy fads but a lifestyle that’s been around for centuries – most of what we consume that we don’t grow or raise ourselves comes from local farmers and butchers, who are the familiar, smiling faces at the weekly outdoor market.

Indeed, one of my favorite aspects of living here is that Calabrian life revolves entirely around being in tune with nature. Even if I didn’t have a calendar handy, I’d know the time of year by village’s activities, whether it’s vendemmia (grape harvest) in September, olive-picking in November, sausage-making in January and February, or brush clearing and burning off in May and early June.

Through this intimate relationship with the world around me, I’ve come to savor the simplicity of it all and realized just how little we truly *need* to survive. With the help of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, I have come to identify and name this desire to appreciate and be present in each moment: mindfulness. It’s a wonderful thing.

This move has been the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.

My journey to discover my roots has helped me better understand where I come from, but it also continues to shape me into the person I was meant to be. It has re-rooted me in this terra that I couldn’t love any more had I been born here.

Though I’ve come up our winding hill hundreds of times, I’m still to this day struck by the vision of the village around the random bend in the road – I can never remember exactly which “S” it is, and I hope I never do; I like to think that such small mysteries, along with thousands of still-hidden secret pleasures, keeps my relationship with this ancient place alive.

I’ll also never know whether Papù regretted his decision to go to America, but I love that just in case he did, I’ve replanted a small part of him back here. I like to think this would make him proud, and in fact, I often feel him, his wife, his daughter (my great-grandmother), and other ancestors envelop me in warmth, just as I did that first day in the piazza – but never more strongly than when I’m among the olive trees in our campagna, drinking in their dancing, shimmering smiles.

Yes, I am home, and I’m smiling right back at them.

Michelle Fabio is an attorney-turned-freelance writer who has lived in her ancestral village in Calabria, Italy since 2003. She writes about savoring simplicity one sip at a time at Bleeding Espresso and about raising goats at Goat Berries.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Italy: Is it a state . . . or a state of mind? A poetic thesis about what it means to be Italian

I’ve written a couple of articles about those DNA tests that help people discover their ethnic backgrounds. The comments I’ve received range from gratefulness to bewilderment to anger.

Some are thankful to understand why their own tests came back as less than 100% Italian (or less than 50% for those with one Italian parent). Others wondered why I even bothered to write the articles, since ‟everyone knows” that Italians are a blend of many cultures and ethnic identities. And some feel that DNA tests are a waste of time. ‟Why should I take a test when I already know I’m 100% Italian?” some readers ask.

I doubt that anyone will show up to be 100% Italian genetically (although a few readers did claim their DNA tests proved just that). I suppose a person could make a case that if one’s ancestors have been in Italy since the unification in 1861, they are 100% Italian. But rather than elaborate or argue about the value and purpose of genetic testing, now I’d like to forget the science for a moment and speak to the heart and soul of what it means to be Italian.

I wrote previously that there’s a big difference between ancient ethnic origin and culture. To be Italian, I said, can refer to either a region or a culture—but I may have been leaving something out.

I recently read a splendid thesis by Enzo Camilleri, an Italian American writer born in Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Italy, and now residing in New York. Camilleri is a decorated veteran of the United States Army. He is also a cousin of famed writer Andrea Camilleri.

Porto Empedocle
The thesis came in answer to someone’s comment on Facebook, and I don’t know if Enzo considers it prose, poetry or just a response to another person’s comment—but I love it and consider it exquisite poetry.

He wrote it in Italian, but he’s graciously consented to translate it for me. I’ll include a copy of the Italian version in the footnotes.

Italians are complex people who are quick to complain about their crazy culture—and quick to defend it as well. They are proud. They can be both reverent and irreverent at the same time. But enough of my pontificating. Here are Enzo’s elegantly expressed thoughts. Give me your reactions.

Italy is not a country: Italy is an emotion . . .

There are countries that do not have geography and even less borders. It took several trips to different Italian cities to convince me that Italy is not a country in the conventional sense.

Italy is an emotion that does not leave you even if you are on the other side of the earth. Italy is something you bring inside you. Everywhere you go. It becomes a part of you, a lifestyle, an intoxication that takes you away in the moments when you are in apnea, a beauty tattooed on your eyes that projects you, in the blink of an eye, well above the ugliness that surrounds you.

Italy is a personal score written in your DNA, a hymn to life, a prayer, a permanent reminder that tickles all your senses and invites them to a journey of initiation, even if you do not move. Your body can be placed anywhere in the world, just close your eyes to let the colors, smells, tastes and all the pleasures that Italy offers you flow. Generous, cheerful, elegant, mother of all arts, mad, Roman, Florentine, Tuscan, Sicilian, Milanese or Neapolitan, Italy is a multiple personality that has a unique magical power. When you have tasted the divine, how difficult it is to return to earth!

Italy is an earthquake full of emotions from which nobody comes out unscathed. It penetrates your genes. It flows in your veins. It lives in you. It lights up inside you.

Italy is radioactive, nuclear, titanic, volcanic. It’s a wave that drowns you to enable your rebirth. It is a melody that caresses the eardrums, a masterpiece that leaves you speechless, a sweet that will become the salt of your life . . .

Italy is not a country, Italy is an emotion that hits you in the heart and will never leave you again.

Italy, my love.

Enzo Camilleri

Lonely tree on Sardegna


Enzo’s original version, in Italian

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione....

Ci sono paesi che non hanno la geografia e ancor meno i confini. Ci sono voluti diversi viaggi in diverse città italiane per convincermi che l'Italia non è un paese nel senso convenzionale.

L'Italia è un'emozione che non ti lascia anche se ti trovi dall'altra parte della terra. L'Italia, te la porti dentro. Ovunque tu vada. Diventa una parte di te, uno stile di vita, una ebbrezza che ti porta via nei moments in cui sei in apnea, una bellezza tatuata sui tuoi occhi che ti proietta in un batter d'occhio ben al di sopra delle bruttezze che ti stanno attorno.

L'Italia è un punteggio personale scritto nel tuo DNA, un'inno alla vita, una preghiera, un richiamo permanente che solletica tutti i tuoi sensi e li invita ad un viaggio di iniziazione, pure non muovandoti. Il tuo corpo può essere posizionato in qualsiasi parte del mondo, basta chiudere gli occhi per far scorrere i colori, gli odori, i sapori e tutti i piaceri che l'Italia ti offre. Generosa, allegra, elegante, madre di tutte le arti, pazza, romana, fiorentina, toscana, siciliana, milanese o napoletana, l'Italia è una personalità multipla che ha un potere magico unico. Quando hai gustato al divino, quant'è difficile tornare sulla terra!

L'Italia è un terremoto carico di emozioni dal quale nessuno esce indenne. Penetra i tuoi geni. Scorre nelle tue vene. Vive in te. Ti si illumina dentro.
L'Italia è radioattiva, nucleare, titanica, vulcanica. E 'un'onda che ti annega per meglio farti rinascere. É una melodia che ti accarezza i timpani, un capolavoro che ti lascia a bocca aperta, un dolciume che diventerà il sale della tua vita …

L'Italia non è un paese, l'Italia è un'emozione che ti colpisce al cuore e non ti lascerà mai più.

Italia, amore mio.