The case of the Venetian restaurant that charged a group of Japanese students 1143 euros for four steaks, a plate of mixed-grill fish, two glasses of wine and a bottle of mineral water has made it onto the front page of most of the world’s newspapers. A glance at Tripadvisor makes it clear that this was not a sudden aberration or a regrettable slip on the part of the restaurant; the reviews since 2012, in all languages, have been overwhelmingly negative, 83% awarding no more than one star (“terrible”). The only positive reviews come from a mere handful of tourists happy to have found a place that offered gluten-free pizzas. Otherwise the most frequently recurring word in English is “rip-off” and in Italian “truffatori” (swindlers). One Italian contributor gives his review the Dantesque title “LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA O VOI CHE ENTRATE!” (Abandon all hope ye who enter), others complain about the pizzas being frozen, the huge discrepancy between the prices listed outside and those effectively charged, the filth of the place (cobwebs in the loo), and the staff being surly at best and aggressive at worst. The constant cry is that the place must be closed at once.
Which raises the question of how it has managed to stay open for so long. Many of the reviewers mention their regret at not having consulted Tripadvisor before visiting the place, declaring that it was only tiredness or bad weather or sudden hunger that drove them there. In most normal cities a place with such a reputation could not hope to survive.
However, a Venetian restaurant of this sort can rely on a constant stream of incautious unfortunates; and if the people running it are cynical or brazen enough they can happily forget all about such niceties as courtesy or friendliness. Why bother, since you are never going to see these people again?
That, one presumes, is the explanation. But it still leaves the question of what kind of job-satisfaction there can be in knowing that you will never have the experience of hearing a customer complimenting you, or thanking you, or even just giving you a smile as they leave. One imagines no customer has ever even said “Arrivederci”…
This, it must be said, is a fairly rare case and has caused a good deal of outrage in Venice. There is a clichéd view of Venetians as hard-bitten, cynical merchants, something that goes back to the early days of the Republic. After all, a people that started out with nothing but salt and fish and managed to create a vast trading empire across the Mediterranean clearly knew a thing or two about business. But that is not the same as brazenly scamming people. After all, as Antonio – the Merchant of Venice – put it:
The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.
The outrage felt by Venetians is the slur on the reputation of the city as a whole. And it is not just the sheer dishonesty of the procedure (many Tripadvisor reviewers mention being persuaded to change from their first choice of an item with a clearly marked price to another one, whose price was never specified until the arrival of the bill), but the crassness of the procedure. In the end the restaurant was bound to come under sanctions; the shame is that it took so long.
Some Venetians, in an attempt to save the honour of the city, are pointing to the fact that, despite the restaurant’s claim, as blazoned on its window, to offer “CUCINA TIPICA VENEXIANA” (with Venetian spelling), its owners are not in fact native Venetians. Apparently (and this is not yet fully clear), they are Chinese; increasing numbers of restaurants in the centre of the city are in fact now owned by Chinese. Many of them are perfectly good, the chefs having learned to cook traditional Venetian dishes – and some of them, of course, offering Chinese food. But in the end the fault lies with the Venetian authorities, which permitted this shabby locale to go on ripping off tourists for at least six years, despite constant denunciations and complaints – and which even allowed it to flaunt on its door the certificate “Venice Quality Food”, awarded by a prestigious Venetian association.
To take up Antonio’s words again, the justice of the state has, in fact, been much impeached…