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.”
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.