The WWT has discovered a new universal constant, the
cost of an Italian dinner. An Italian Dinner costs $50 (or more),
regardless of where you are. You can pay more, but no less. If you order
fettuccini Alfredo, 50 bucks, pepperoni pizza, 50 bucks. I have eaten in
Rome, Milan, and San Diego; all cost 50 bucks. I made the mistake of
thinking that this was not true many times before I finally discovered the
One of the objectives of the WWT is to invest in and pay for mistakes in such a way that costs can be offset by sharing the information gained from the mistakes with you the reader. There was the $100 money change scam in the Prague railway station, the $100 Soiree scam in India, and the pickpocket in Barcelona. After countless Italian dinners, it took three sequential Italian dinners each escalating in overall cost to teach me the $50 Italian dinner scam.
I hardly noticed it in Rome when two of us had a rather light snack in the mid afternoon for $100. Three dollar meal advertisements splattered across the windows did not resemble what was in the menu or mouthwatering visible on the tables. I had no idea how much the meal cost until hours later when I discovered how much a wad of the play money was really worth. I simply thought that I had gotten cheated by a conniving waiter who took a hapless tourist. In Milan, at a sidewalk cafe, I was almost relieved when I discovered that 300,000 Lire was only $300 dollars for six people. The 300,000 scared me so bad that I did not observe the $50 dollar phenomenon. I would probably never have noticed it until one enlightening night in San Diego I bought Italian meals for 28 people with my Visa card. You who know statistics know that twenty eight is a statistically significant number.
We needed a setting for the annual Holoknight ceremony, a ritual that takes place somewhere in the world during an international optical meeting. Each year the holoknight from the previous year selects an optical scientist, who is well known throughout the community for his contributions in the field of holography and for his reputation as an international host. The idea is to promote international cooperation through a brotherhood that commits to promoting friendship and technology exchange between countries. The current holoknight presents the new holoknight with a sword and parchment and takes the oath of the brotherhood. The venue was the annual meeting of the International Society for Optical Engineering held in San Diego during the first week of August.
As the holoknight from California, I accepted the responsibility of arranging and hosting the dinner, a rather formidable task. After checking out many restaurants and menus we settled on what seemed like the best of a lot of unreasonable restaurant offers, an Italian Restaurant named Ristorante A Itri, which was a short walk from the convention center where the optical meetings were being held. A simple pizza and pasta menu seemed perfect for the occasion. The restaurant gave us a special menu with a limited selection of three pastas and five pizzas to cover vegetarians, meat eaters, Jews, Mormons, and children, and these entrees ranged from $7-$15.
The restaurant placed a few demands on me. First they wanted one bill, paid by credit card, second, they wanted to add an 18% tip, and third they wanted to add a surcharge of 15% to reserve an entire room for us. Now this latter charge seems rather bizarre when you realize that the more we spend the more they charge us for the room we are using. This is exactly opposite of what makes more sense, namely, the more we spend, the less they should charge for the room. Being not in a good negotiating position I accepted their conditions. With taxes, these additional charges add another 50% to a bill. If we had an average of about $10 for an entrée and say $10 worth of beer or wine my total would add up to $30. Unfortunately I did not do the math and simply guessed that $25 per head should cover the average meal. I collected $25 from each attendee and let the non drinkers off for $15 (In my experience the non drinkers always bitch when the meal cost gets divided equally). I figured, what the hell, so I miss it a little, it is all for a good cause, and even at $25 I was afraid someone would complain about such an expensive pizza.
To keep the wine costs down, I made a second mistake by telling the manager to serve just the house wine, a red and a white. I was assuming that the house wine was stored in fifty gallon drums and drained off into a pitcher for a few dollars a liter. I had forgotten that some restaurants get their house wine by sending the wine steward to Napa Valley for a week end. There he cuts a deal with a winery to bottle a special label and sell it only to the restaurant so no one can even guess how much it should cost. Unfortunately this was such a restaurant.
I knew I was in a little trouble when the first bottle crossed the table and I saw the label. When I tasted the wine, I knew I was in more trouble. It did not take a connoisseur of wine to tell that this was no Gallo jug wine.
At that point the financial situation began to escalate and I began to wonder how bad this could get. We had invited about 30 scientists from all over the world expecting 15 to 20 to show up. Twenty-eight showed up, and we had to set another table.
The dinner that should have started at 7:15, was delayed until 8 leaving everyone with nothing to do but drink wine and chew on foccacia. Every two minutes I would hear someone yelling, "We need more Cabernet". Seeing the situation becoming more and more grim, I consoled myself by imagining what a great story this was going to make. I felt some relief seeing a few non drinkers sipping water and more when a few lower priced pizzas began to arrive.
The program, which was scheduled to begin at 8:00 started at 9:30. I had scheduled six speakers to give a five minute, light-hearted sketch on their lives and loves in the field. It was called "How I got into this and where I am taking it (or where it is taking me)". Werner Juptner from Bremen Germany led off (he took 15 minutes). Others were averaging about 10 and Wolfgang Osten presented an amazing 30 minute PowerPoint presentation. To make sure we didn’t leave anyone out we then began asking others to speak, even though they were not really prepared. Enough Chardonnay makes almost any speech tolerable (and possible), so no one complained even when we began to hear life stories. It was almost 11 when the knighting ceremony began and most of us were roaring drunk. I had enough cabernet in me by this time that I had even stopped worrying about the financial debacle.
We had chosen as the millennium holoknight, Professor Malgorzata Kujawinska, from Poland. It was a touching, tear-jerking service with the reigning holoknight, "Mitsuo of Tokyo" touching her shoulders with a Samurai sword as she kneeled before him. She exclaimed that it was the best award she had ever received. We all had to toast her, and more bottles were opened. I could see a lot of half filled bottles sitting around everywhere. Wo is me. I started to worry again.
I figured finally, I had better take my medicine and hand over my Visa card to the manager. It was getting so late I thought he may be ready to kick us out anyway. He then asked me "How about dessert"? I responded quickly with a negatory, imagining that this crew is so full of wine by now there cannot possibly be room for dessert. "Okay, then how about at least coffee", he responded.
"Okay, what the hell, a few cups of coffee can't make it much worse than it already is" I reasoned. So I headed to the bathroom to drain off some of the cabernet.
Upon returning from the bathroom the scene almost threw me into cardiac arrest. Two waiters were passing through the crowd with lush dessert carts with desserts that were more works of art than dessert. At this point some of the people were wondering "Wow, what a deal!" while a few of the more naïve were still trying to make sure they got their $25 worth. One of the most popular dishes had about a gallon of ice cream stacked into a mountainous pyramid of scoops with all sorts of protruding decorations. One of these could easily have served five people. In addition, dessert coffees, cappuccino, and liquors began arriving. I wondered if the cashier might have a gun hidden under the counter that I could shoot myself with.
Finally, nearing midnight, the manager seemed satisfied to bring me the bill. The first thing I noticed was the cost of my lesson, a neat $1500 figure at the bottom. The next think I noticed was that the tip space had been left blank. “Didn't you already add 18%?”
"Yes," he replied, " but you do have the option to add a little more if you would care to".
“Give me a break, sir!”
Upon analysis of the bill, I could see that we had consumed 24 liters of wine, which with not too great a surprise went for $28 a bottle. I had not collected enough money even to pay the bar bill.
But this did make me realize once and for all that an Italian meal cost $50, no matter where you get it or what you eat. I now have enough statistics to prove this.