My latest Italy guidebook was published last week. I covered Florence and half of Rome for Frommer’s EasyGuide to Rome, Florence & Venice 2014. Seeing the book reminded me of a night, last May, when I went to hunt down a restaurant I had wanted to eat in for a while. I fully intended to list it in the guide, if the quality was up to its rep. But the evening didn’t turn out quite how I expected.
It wasn’t a great start: I had booked for 9, and was running behind. I called ahead to let them know I’d be 10 minutes late.
“No problem,” a cheerful, slightly frazzled voice replied.
When I arrived at 9.10, I was met with a request to wait “cinque minuti,” 5 minutes. The waiter pointed at a chair and I sat.
And I carried on sitting. Nobody offered me a drink, or an appetiser, or even the menu so I could plan ahead. The place was charming; it looked like it had been plucked from central casting’s “Italian trattoria” section, and was half-empty. I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t just eat where I was sitting. But, no, these tables were reserved. After 15 minutes, someone led me downstairs to another table and handed me a menu. No apology. No explanation.
It would get worse.
Not the food, though. That was great, well cooked and served with a smile. The only sign of what was to follow was a snippet of conversation I overheard between a waiter and some Americans at a nearby table. “Was the tip included?” one of them asked, in English. “No,” came the reply. The menu, I had noticed, clearly indicated a €2 “pane e servizio” charge added to the bill. This is the point where I normally jump in, but it was late and I was hungry. I passed, I’m afraid. So perhaps what happened next was karma.
The trouble began when I came to pay. I offered my credit card to the duty manager.
“No credit card,” she said.
“But the Americans at the next table… they paid with a credit card,” I said.
I asked where it was written—on the menu, on the door—that cards were only accepted with a minimum €30 spend. “It doesn’t have to be written.”
So, I paid cash and continued to chat, a little frostily but fairly amicably. Then I mentioned I’d paid at several places that week with my Visa card; €10 here, €16 there, without a problem. It comes with the territory when you travel alone on a guidebook job. Not every meal—heck, not many meals—top €30.
She grumbled about credit card charges, and I sympathised. I noticed those “reserved” tables from earlier, still unoccupied.
“You really should write something in the window,” I suggested. “Let diners know that there is a minimum spend of €30 to use plastic.”
The answer: “Di solito non conviene che la gente spende solo €18.” Translation: usually it’s not suitable that diners only spend €18.
I was a bit taken aback. It’s the natural state of an urban dweller to be brusque, and Romans are no different. I quite like their style, in fact. But that was plain unpleasant. My €18 had bought a bottle of water, a bowl of pasta, a glass of Tuscan red wine, pane e servizio. Not exactly cheap, especially as I was a little away from the tourist heart of the city.
My Italian just about held up: “Meglio che non vengo la prossima volta,” I offered. Better I don’t come next time, then?
“Yes,” she said.
And that was that. That’ll be me and the several million monthly visitors at Frommers.com, too, I guess. I didn’t say that last bit. I didn’t tell her I was on assignment. I almost never do. People who read my guidebooks won’t get the journalist treatment, after all. They’ll get treated like that.
I won’t name the place. I can prove I was there—I have the receipt—but I can’t prove the night panned out in the way I tell it. As it happens, the signature dish was very good. I would have happily recommended the place in my new Italy guidebook. But I didn’t, and I never will. And I’ll be sending them a link to this post to let them know why.