Several Japanese students studying in Bologna visited Venice and ate at a restaurant close to St Mark’s Square where, they report, they were charged $1,347 for a steak dinner for four. Some other students reported being charged $285.79 for seafood pasta for three.
Eating in the tourist areas of Venice can get pretty expensive, but $336.75 for a steak dinner, or $95.26 for seafood pasta, is pretty extreme, even when you add in some wine and the ubiquitous coperto (“tablecloth”) and servizio (“service”) charges.
So how do you avoid this? Well, first, try to avoid eating in the big tourist spots around the Rialto Bridge or St Mark’s Square. According to a spokesman for a Venice resident’s forum called Gruppo 25 Aprile, “only 1.1% of restaurants in that part of Venice are owned by locals, and the figure is 50% in the historic centre as a whole” (BBC). We strongly encourage you to get into the back streets and order from smaller restaurants; bring your dictionaries and translation programs with you, though, because the locals might not speak fluent English (and food terms can get especially confusing). You can do some research, searching for information like “The Best Restaurants in Venice, According to the Locals,” or you can just wander over to quieter neighborhoods like Castello or Dorsoduro, or hop across the canal to Guidecca, and look around for a smaller place to eat. You might not recognize everything on the menu — probably no hamburgers or pizzas! — but you’ll find great food at reasonable prices.
Also, pay attention to the menu. If you sit down to eat, you’re likely to pay a charge called coperto or, sometimes, panne e coperto, which is basically a fee for taking up a table, and/or servizio, which is a 10-20% tip. That’s one reason many Italians drink their coffee standing up at the bar! Both the coperto and servizio charges are required by law to be printed on the menu, so look for them. (“No Service Charge!” on a restaurant sign means it’s been built into the food prices….). If you don’t see it on the menu but you see it on the bill, you may be getting scammed; getting scammed is much more likely to happen in touristy restaurants — probably not owned by Venetians — than local restaurants in Venice. The servizio charge basically covers the tip — Italians, in general, do not tip.
Paying attention to coperto charges is ESPECIALLY important if you plan to, say, sit down and drink some coffee at one of those lovely outdoor tables in St Mark’s Square. You’re going to pay for that privilege — let’s say, for the sake of argument, $10 coperto and that much again for your cappucino. At that price, you’d better plan to hang out and enjoy the view for at least an hour or more! St Mark’s Square is a lovely place to sit and talk, especially in the evenings, but be aware of what you’re getting into, or it’ll be an unpleasant surprise when the bill comes. The last time we went, Prof. Terry and I decided to sit in the Square one evening, and the white-uniformed waiter discreetly tapped the exorbitant coperto charge on the menu as he handed it to us; it was nice of him to warn us, although we were quite aware that it was going to be an expensive evening’s indulgence!
The food prices also matter, of course; I’d love to know what prices were listed on the menus for the steaks and seafood pasta those students ordered. I’ve never been scammed quite that badly — though I’ve had waiters in Rome and Florence try to pad my bills with unnecessary charges — but if I were worried about it, I might photograph the menu/prices and hang on to the photo until I got the bill, just to be sure.
Finally, remember that water isn’t free in Italy; you’ll have to pay for bottled water, either with or without gas. But we’ve found that the biggest meal charges for students are their sodas; Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Light are expensive, especially if you’re drinking more than one at a meal. That’s why we won’t cover your drinks when we buy group meals; it digs too deeply into the food fund. Want to save money while you’re traveling? Buy sodas at the grocery stores and drink them in your rooms, and stick with the sparkling water at mealtime.
I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about any bills this high unless you’re actually ordering a ridiculously expensive meal, but it’s just one more reason to study a little Italian before you go.