How to Ruin the Perfect Meal: An Open Letter to Rome Restaurants

A great meal in a Rome restaurant, gone sour

I had lunch today at a Rome restaurant I'd never eaten at before: Divinare, a chic (and cleverly-named) wine bar in Testaccio. The food was delicious, from a pasta with fiori di zucca and guanciale (above) to a super-fresh and gourmet salad.

But I can't recommend Divinare to hungry travelers. And boy, is that frustrating.

It's not that they did anything that I haven't seen a hundred times before. But I'm just too sick of it by now to put up with it any more, even the smallest instances of it.

Familiar with Rome's food scene? Then you know where I'm going with this.

Like one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, L'Asino d'Oro, Divinare has a lunch special: 13 euros for a primo, glass of wine, water, and coffee. Not a bad deal. And there's no mistake that that was supposed to be the total; the menu clearly says "servizio e coperto incluso" (service and cover included). My companion and I even commented to each other how much we liked the rare sight of a restaurant that didn't charge coperto.

He ordered the special; I had a 10 euro salad. We also ordered the (included) water for him, plus one for me, asking for due acque piccole. Our very polite and friendly server, who also may have been the owner, brought one large water instead. That made sense. He also brought bread. This made sense, too.

What didn't make sense? Our bill. Thirteen euros for the menu (correct). Ten euros for the salad (yep). A charge for my coffee (fine). Plus… a charge for the whole bottle of water, plus a 2 euro "pane" charge (wait, what?).

It was a difference of three or four euros. Still, I didn't understand where it came from. We should have been charged for half of the one large bottle of water, and for no "bread and cover" at all. When we said something, the server/(owner?) tried to "explain" to us how Rome restaurants charge for bread separately. Yes, we said, but if you bring the bread without us ordering it, which you did, it seems that would be part of the "coperto" charge. Which should be included.

And what about the water? Oh, he said, it's always tough to figure out these things when one person gets the full menu and one person doesn't. (Really? It seems pretty simple: Just charge for half the two-person bottle).

To be fair, he was nice about it. He knocked the charges off for us. And, for all I know, he always charges for "bread," the lack of clarity on the menu is an honest mistake, and nobody else has ever said anything. It's definitely possible.

But, needless to say, we still left a delicious meal with a bad taste in our mouths. And what a shame that is.

I don't mean to lay all the blame on Divinare. Because here's the thing. This "tacking on" of extra, not-quite-corretto charges happens all the time. Food blogger Katie Parla has written about the selective service charge at Grano that's applied to tourists only, and she just wrote about how Roma Sparita has started sneaking a 15% servizio onto tourists' bills, although their menu clearly says service is included. Similarly, Roma Sparita didn't charge me for service or coperto in June, proving their sometimes-charge is an unfair sleight-of-hand for unsuspecting tourists that's led me to update my own blog post about Roma Sparita accordingly. At other restaurants, waiters lean over when tourists are paying to "remind" them that service wasn't already included on their bill (hint hint hint!).

As for most others I've spoken with, it's not the automatic inclusion of a charge, whether servizio or pane e coperto, that bothers me. It's the shady way that it's never clear if it's going to be added or not—even when the menu seems to make it so clear. And it's the way that it seems to be targeted primarily at English speakers, although Italians can feel free to correct me on this point.

So look, Rome restaurants: I have a request. For the love of your own business, cut the bullshit. Please. You know what's fair and what's not. Charging for bread, when it was brought to a table without being ordered and the menu says coperto incluso, is shady. Charging for a large bottle of water for two people, when one person was supposed to get their water included, is not right. Charging some people service, when the menu says servizio incluso, is not okay. But what's crazy is that you already know that. And guess what? So do many of your clients!

Sure, all of this is small-change stuff. Three or four extra euros is hardly the end of the world. But, when it comes to restaurants with great reputations like Roma Sparita and Divinare, that's part of what blows my mind the most. You'd really rather go to the trouble of making a client an amazing meal and still risk them leaving less than 100% thrilled with their experience… just for the sake of some pocket change?

And, dear restaurants, here's something else you need to keep in mind. You might think that, if your client is a tourist who's in Rome for a day, it doesn't really matter if they love your food or think the bill is fair. But guess what? Tourists, too, have brains, friends… and access to TripAdvisor and Chowhound. Plus, with smartphones and iPads becoming more and more prevalent, future would-be clients now can access lousy reviews online more and more easily while they travel.

Not to mention that, every once in a while, that "tourist" happens to be a Rome-based blogger, travel journalist, or guidebook writer. Or even all three.

So please. You're smart people. You've figured out how to start a business in one of the world's most challenging countries for entrepreunership, not to mention a food establishment in one of the most restaurant-saturated cities on earth. So you tell me. Is it really worth the small change?

For more on the frustrations of Rome's food scene, check out my earlier piece on the demise of Rome restaurants like Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, which go downhill as soon as they hit it big.

It's also useful to know how not to get ripped off eating at restaurants in Italy—this is a post to print and bring with you on your trip (or download from your smartphone).

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The Demise of a Once-Good Restaurant in Rome: Taverna dei Fori Imperiali

Once my favorite Rome restaurant...

Once upon a time, I had a favorite restaurant in Rome.

This restaurant wasn't five-star. It wasn't fancy. But it was everything you'd want from a Roman trattoria: Good, fresh dishes, particularly the pastas; dad cooking in the back, kids serving out front; convenient location (a stone's-throw from the Forum!); moderate prices; checkered tablecloths.

Sadly, this is also everything tourists, understandably, would want from a Roman trattoria. And where the tourists go, the quality flees — at least here in Rome.

It's a sad story. But it's not a unique one.

In fact, you see it again and again in Rome: A place becomes a local favorite. Then someone writes it up. Then it winds up in a guidebook. Then, just as the deluge of tourists really starts, once the place has really made it, once you'd think the owners might work all the harder to maintain that success and re-invest and be creative… that's exactly when the quality slumps. The cooks change. The servers get surlier. The food gets worse. And the prices go up.

I never thought I'd say this about the restaurant that, even a year ago, made me wax poetic about truffle ragu and eggplant, the one where I took every single guest who visited, the one I could count on to be easy on the palate and (almost) as easy on the wallet. But Taverna dei Fori Imperiali has, it seems, taken the same path as countless Roman restaurants before it.

The seeds of demise probably were planted back in 2006, when Frank Bruni wrote it up in a glowing restaurant review for the New York Times. (A "real find," he wrote). The taverna started doing so well that it changed locations, moving into a tonier and bigger spot (like the old place, right across from the Forum). Other reviewers started writing it up, too, including myself — I included it as a pick for lunch my article for the Guardian last summer, "Eat Like a Local in Rome." When that article came out, the food was still great, the price still good, and the place was still packed nightly with lots of tables of Italians. (Almost always a good sign).

But over the next few months, the menu changed. The prices rose; no longer was I shelling out 25 euros for a dinner, but 30. Thirty-five. I could understand that — hey, the place was getting popular — but the pastas, usually so delicious, seemed to lack a certain something. Still, I had to give them credit: I never saw the restaurant without Dad cooking in the back, either his son and daughter serving clients themselves, just like always.

In the meantime, the restaurant climbed to nearly the top of Tripadvisor. That's when things really seemed to change.

So, after a couple more mediocre meals there, I went back again last week. It was one last shot. I still felt like I could almost taste that first ragu I'd had here. Trust me when I say it was a taste worth fighting for.

It was lunchtime. There wasn't a single table of Italians. While the son was in the restaurant, we were served mainly by waiters I didn't recognize; the daughter was nowhere to be seen. And Dad? He was still there. But, in all my meals there, it was the first time I'd ever seen him in "civilian clothes," without his chef's hat. Nor did I see him enter the kitchen once throughout our entire meal.

Needless to say, not having the same cook, the one who before had seemed so proud of making his creations personally, is a big change. And, of course, chefs don't remain chefs forever. They train new cooks. They move on. They retire. It's understandable.

But here's the thing: This was a change we could taste. And it wasn't good.

My companion and I ordered a starter of liver patè. The patè was fine… the toast it was slathered on, burnt. The cost? Eight euros.

Well, on to the pastas, always Taverna's fortè. Portions seemed to have shrunk. The main menu's puttanesca (9 euros) was fine, but nothing particularly special. I had a carbonara that was served lukewarm, salty, and seemed to be swimming in liquid — uncooked egg? Fantastic. Not the worst food, or even the worst carbonara, that I've had. But definitely not great, especially for 13 euros.

The bill — which came with a receipt only when we asked, and not with a smile — with water, no wine, came to about 18 euros each. Not terrible. But not worth it.

(And let me just say it kills me to write that. Oh, Taverna! How I once loved you! How I wish I still could!)

It's a sad tale. But I share it because it's also a cautionary tale. And I think we can all learn from what it tells us: If you're visiting Rome and trying to figure out the best local places to eat, don't rely on TripAdvisor, don't rely on guidebooks, and don't even rely on articles written more than 6 months ago. As even Anthony Bourdain said in his "No Reservations" Rome episode, to "out" a restaurant as being good, to expose its brilliance to the masses, is to kill it.

And in Rome, that happens quickly. So quickly that you have to let go of that memory of aromatic, delicious, heartstrings-pulling ragu… and go in search of a new favorite restaurant to replace it.

(Anyone have suggestions?)

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