So-called “tourist trap” restaurants in Venice have long been a bone of contention for visitors to the Italian city.
But in recent months there’s been a sea change in attitudes towards these establishments with locals and officials looking at ways to help travelers avoid rip-offs.
Previously, despite some protestations, the city seemed largely indifferent to their plight.
When a British tourist publicly complained about being charged €526 ($653) for a light lunch for three people in November 2017, the city’s mayor immediately went on the offensive.
Famed for his Trump-style outspokenness, former businessman Luigi Brugnaro took to Twitter to announce that the complainant, a university lecturer, was a “cheapskate” for objecting to the charge of 297 euros ($369) for a one-person platter of grilled fish.
Brugnaro also mocked tourists who arrive in the city with so little knowledge of Italian that they cannot understand they are being conned until the check is presented.
Widespread condemnation of the mayor – and of the restaurant, Trattoria Casanova – followed on social media, so much so that Brungnaro tried a different tack when a similar incident happened in January.
On this occasion, four Japanese students filed a complaint after being billed €1,100 ($1,366) for four steaks, a plate of mixed grilled fish, and bottled water at Osteria da Luca, another “tourist trap” restaurant, near Piazza San Marco.
“If this shameful episode is confirmed, we’ll do all we can to punish those responsible,” the mayor tweeted.
Although no action was taken on the actual issue of overcharging, City Police Chief Marco Agostini quickly uncovered breaches of health and safety, and food hygiene regulations at the restaurants.
Commercial code infringements – such as the inaccurate description of dishes – were also leveled.
Faced with fines believed to total at least €14,000 ($17,303) Osteria da Luca is expected to close temporarily.
Shift in attitudes
The mayor’s shift in attitude brings him in line with many Venetians and top restaurateurs who hope to re-establish their city’s reputation for fine dining and reasonable prices.
Marco Gasparinetti, spokesperson for the Venetian civil rights association Gruppo 25 Aprile (April 25 Group), has announced the publication of “a user’s guide for visitors on how to survive in Venice, with details on what kind situations to avoid.”
According to Gasparinetti, only 1% restaurants in the San Marco area are owned and operated by locals, which has led to a rise in tourist trap restaurants.
Among those Venetians running well respected restaurants in the city center are Benedetta Fullin and her brother Luca, who recently opened Local, a trendy and stylish new restaurant in the Castello area.
“I have been getting very upset about all this negative press on Venice,” she says.
“There are many tourist traps and they are not run by Venetians. Most of the time they are run by foreigners who don’t know what being a restaurateur means.
“They don’t have a kitchen, they don’t have chefs, or use local suppliers. All they have are tables, cutlery, a microwave to heat up a frozen lasagne at ridiculous prices – and boards outside with pictures of the food.
“These are the places to avoid! They have never been reviewed by any guide and never been visited by any journalist, because they are not restaurants. You can recognize them because there is always someone outside trying to get people in”.
Spotting a tourist trap
Benedetta advises visitors to use guide books rather than sources like TripAdvisor when looking for a restaurant in Venice.
This point is echoed by Raffaele Alajmo who is the co-owner of Ristorante Quadri, a famous Michelin-starred eatery on Piazza San Marco itself.
“Personally, I suggest using established guide books rather than the web,” he says.
“These guides are produced by professionals and not your average Joe with a computer and internet connection.
“If you use a reputable guide, you have almost no risk of ending up in a tourist trap. And I am not just talking about the guides to fine dining restaurants, but those for osterias or “lower cost” establishments as well.”
And according to Benedetta, the best restaurants are always very happy to recommend other good places to eat.
“Once you find a place you like, run by a Venetian, don’t be afraid to ask for advice on where to go next time!” he adds.
“We are always full of suggestions as we want our guests to leave with a beautiful memory of their trip, and come back many times because Venice is a city to love!”
But in the short term, the best advice seems to be – if there is a man outside urging you to come in, walk on by. Especially if there are photographs of food.
Where to eat
While Venice’s restaurant scene may have attracted a wave of bad press, there are many eateries in the city that offer good food at affordable prices. There are also plenty of fine dining establishments worth the hefty price tag.
Here’s our pick of six of the best:
Expensive but worth it
Antinoo’s Lounge and Restaurant at Centurion Hotel, Dorsoduro, 173, 30123 Venezia VE, Italy; +39 041 34281
Club del Doge at Hotel Gritti Palace, Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, 2467, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy; +39 041 794611
Cheaper but not cheap
Al Giardinetto da Severino, Salizada Zorzi, 4928, 30122 Castello, Venezia VE, Italy; +39 041 528 5332
Local, Salizzada dei Greci, 3303, 30122 Castello, Venezia VE, Italy; +39 041 241 1128
CoVino, Calle Pestrin Castello, 30122 Venezia VE, Italy; +39 041 241 2705
Antica Locanda Montin, Fondamenta de Borgo, 1147, 30123 Venezia VE, Italy ; +39 041 522 7151
Adrian Mourby is an Oxford-based novelist and broadcaster who has traveled the world writing about his experiences for the last 25 years.