The Maitre D appeared seconds later carrying a huge white China platter. I almost expected to see the severed head of John the Baptist on it. The well-done steak that he deposited in front of me took up most of the dish.
Some time ago, my wife, daughter, and I spent two delightful weeks in Rome, the eternal city, where I learned a critical lesson on the importance of reading the fine print. Though I was born in Italy, I immigrated to Canada in the 1950s at the age of twelve. For many of us born on farms in the then united province of Abruzzo and Molise, Italian was a second language. We used it in school, but at home, we continued to speak our regional dialect. When I left Italy, even though I had almost completed grade five, my grip on my regional dialect was considerably stronger than on formal Italian. Little or nothing has happened since to change that significantly.
When I moved to Canada, my mother and I settled in the small, one-traffic-light town of Rossland in the interior of British Columbia. As I learned English, I continued to speak the dialect that my mother spoke. For my mother, who had been forced to quit school one month into grade one, this language was the only one she knew.
On our third day in Rome, we were strolling along a crowded, narrow street near the Fountain of Trevi. Since it was getting close to supper time, we stopped to examine a posh, open-air restaurant near the famous fountain that has been featured in many Hollywood films: Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita, Three Coins in a Fountain, and others. As we gazed at the clean white plastic tables covered with checkered green and white tablecloths, and shaded by colourful awnings, a well-dressed, imposing gentleman in a dark blue pin-striped suit, approached us as he straightened his silk tie.
He displayed the mannerisms of the typical Maitre D of a major restaurant, hotel, or cruise ship. He was delighted to learn that we were from western Canada; he had a cousin who lived in West Vancouver. He escorted us to one of the tables by the crowded street, and returned a few seconds later menus in hand. As I looked over the menu – all in Italian – I found what I interpreted to be a Florentine steak at only 7.99 euro. Because this seemed more than reasonable and because I was famished, I decided to order it without bothering to read some fine print beside the price. With my help, my wife and daughter ordered pasta meals, each of which cost around 20 euro. I was a surprised to note that the pasta dishes were more than twice as costly as the steak, but I did not think any more about it.
About 20 minutes later, a young, good-looking, dark-haired waiter set in front of my wife and daughter two aromatic pasta dishes. He said in a broken English that was at least as good as my broken Italian, that he was from Montenegro and that he had lived in Rome for the past eight years. He stated that it was his responsibility to ensure that we were served with the utmost respect. I decided, at this point, that I would leave him and the Maitre D a reasonable tip.
The Maitre D appeared seconds later carrying a huge white China platter. I almost expected to see the severed head of John the Baptist on it. The well-done steak that he deposited in front of me took up most of the dish. It looked wonderful and it tasted absolutely exquisite. It was by far the most delicious meal I had ever had. I could not understand how a restaurant could serve such an extravagant portion for less than 10 euro. I fantasized that when I returned home to Canada I would refer this meal as one of the main attractions of the city of Rome – an attraction that could compete with the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Roman Forum and, of course, the Fountain of Trevi.
We ate our meal in comfort, keeping intermittent tabs on the boisterous street behind us. Occasionally, our young waiter came by to ask if we needed additional bread, wine, water, and tea. After three quarters of an hour, we had mostly finished our opulent meal. It felt good to be satiated in such a simple, outdoor venue. I could not stifle my inclination to hum quietly one of Dean Martin’s famous songs, “Sotto il Cielo di Roma.”
After we assured the waiter that we had been well fed and that we had drunk sufficiently and well, he brought us the bill on a small side plate. When I looked at the total, I felt a mild shock. The sum was slightly over 125 euro which, translated to approximately 165 Canadian dollars. This was way more than I had ever spent on meals in Canada. I waved to the gentleman in the silk tie as he walked by. I said to him that there must be a calculation error because I recalled clearly that the steak I ordered was less than 10 euro, certainly way less than the 60 plus that was on the bill. He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with the menu. With his right index finger, he pointed to the price of the Florentine steak. There it was, 7.99 euro. In very small, almost illegible print, was the Italian notation for per hundred grams.
“The smallest steak we had today was just over 800 grams,” the Maitre D explained in good clear Italian. “I personally made sure that you were served it. I hope that you did enjoy it, because our clients are very important to us. This was the best we could do for you.”
Needless to say, I felt somewhat embarrassed. So I added a twenty euro tip and paid the bill without further ado. I attributed what was, in fact, an outrageous marketing strategy to the cost of living and learning. At the very least, I convinced myself, I had enjoyed a superb meal and had learned an important and enduring lesson. Because of this meal, for the rest of my two-week stay in Rome I paid very close attention to what I now consider to be the fine print of life.
Joseph Ranallo has been a teacher, administrator, and a college and university instructor. His writing has been published in Canada, the US, Australia, China, and Italy. He is also a licensed acupuncturist.