Every once in a while you hear these kinds of stories about Italian restaurants. A waiter suggests something, a customer bites, and the charge is astronomical, a rip-off made possible because at no time was price mentioned. In this case, not only were the charges much higher than the published menu price but a “tip” was added to the bill (which should never be the case in Italy) so the restaurant was (temporarily) shut down.
The Japanese couple did the right thing. They went to the police. (I’m assuming they questioned the bill at the restaurant first).
I live in a rural area of Italy. People depend upon each other in the Lunigiana. Someone who would rip anyone off wouldn’t last long in these parts.
Thus, when I’m at home in the Lunigiana, I almost never consult a restaurant menu. Many restaurants don’t even have menus here. You get what the cook wants to cook, mostly dependent upon what’s fresh in the local markets. If you’re Italian restaurant savvy, you find out what’s fresh and good by yacking a while about the food with the waiter (See: Ordering Good Food in Italy).
I seldom spend more than Euro 25 for a meal—including wine in the Lunigiana. I certainly have never spend Euro 140 for a bottle of “Sauvignon”. Heck, I wouldn’t pay that for a case. I seldom ask for a price unless what’s offered seems rare and is likely to be expensive. I’ve never been ripped off under these conditions.
But big, tourist cities? Well, that’s another story.
So what advice to give travelers? First of all, you can get ripped off anywhere on earth, as you know. So, if you find yourself in unfamiliar territory it’s good to consult the waiter to find out what’s good, but don’t be afraid to ask the price. Keep in mind that price can be based on weight in Italy (Tuscany’s famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina is almost always charged based on the weight in fractions of a kilo, for example), so be sure to ask about typical portion size, especially if you’re on a budget. And remember the weight is “before cooking” so things can shrink a bit.
It is illegal for a restaurant in Italy to not give you an itemized bill or receipt. It’s called a ricevuta fiscale. You can learn what’s supposed to be on an Italian Restaurant Receipt and see a typical one by following the link. Do not leave a restaurant without one.
But believe me, my experience tells me that these kinds of things are rare these days in Italy. I’ve actually been ripped off many more times in my neighborhood in San Francisco than I have in Italy. I even know a restaurant I love for its breakfasts but will never return to. Why? Because I’ve never been there when they didn’t overcharge me. When I mention that the bill is wrong they snap it from my fingers and fix it without consulting me about exactly what I’m protesting. The hassle just became too much to deal with.
I mean there’s only so much cat and mouse you can play—and who wants those kinds of things in a restaurant?