More than $20 for an individual-sized pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana? $34.95 for fried calamari at Cipriani? $?? (I couldn't even find the price) for linguine with clam sauce at Il Mulino? $250 for lunch at Per Se? $350 for dinner at Masa? We all have a little cash register-computer in our heads that is constantly ringing when it comes to food and drink. It silently rings when we are being fairly charged for food and drink and it loudly sounds the alarm when we feel we are being ripped off. But everybody's food-and-drink cost alarm is calibrated differently. We all bring a different set of expectations when it comes to something like the cost of food. Let me tell you mine. Then you can tell me yours.
Delicious, handmade food made with love, passion, and great skill by one person is priceless and maybe even a bargain
Small pizzas costing more than $20 made in this way by Anthony Mangieri at Una Pizza Napoletana do not feel like a rip-off to me. Anthony uses superb ingredients, he makes every pizza that's ever been sold at his restaurant, and he believes in his pizza so much there is nothing else on his menu, not a salad, not a vegetable, not a slice of salumi, to distract his customers. I once suggested he add a salad to his menu to add a little variety and to increase his check average. Mangieri demurred. He didn't want anything to get in the way of his pizza. We need more people like Mangieri making food for us, not fewer.
Motivation matters. I know when I'm being ripped off
When restaurants like Il Mulino or Cipriani charge an outrageous amount for linguine with clam sauce or a plain risotto, it just feels wrong, because it has nothing to do with the price of the ingredients and the skill of the person making it. Rather, it's all about restaurateurs taking the measure of their customers and deciding what their traffic will bear. Cipriani customers are almost gleeful about being overcharged. In fact, they feel it is a sign of their status. As Frank Bruni said in the New York Times, "Besides, prices are the point of Harry Cipriani, which exists to affirm its patrons’ ability to throw away money." Il Mulino buries its customers with "freebies" like chunks of cheese and salami so they won't notice how ridiculous the prices are for items on the menu they are actually paying for. And yet many people love Il Mulino. Why is that?
I don't mind paying more for something that is truly special and delicious
Peach growers like Ron Mansfield of Gold Bud Farms in Placerville, California, don't pick peaches until they are at the peak of ripeness. As a result, the crop yield is much lower. So Mansfield charges more for his supremely delicious peaches. And I happily pay for them.
Artistry, obsession, and the diner's experience matter
A meal at Masa in New York costs $350 before beverage, tax, and tip. And yet all serious critics who have eaten there have appreciated Masayoshi Takayama's artistry and the experience of eating at his restaurant. More important, they don't feel they're being ripped off. That tells you something, namely that the 20 people who Takayama cooks for every night feel they are experiencing something unique, special, and worthwhile. Diners eating at Per Se in New York and Alinea in Chicago feel the same way.
People making or growing great food by hand don't get rich doing it. That is not their primary motivation
Mangieri could make more money selling hundreds of lesser quality pizzas at a lower price. Mansfield isn't getting rich growing his special peaches. Money is not what principally motivates them, and that's important to me.
The values of the people making or growing my food inform my perception of the value of their end product. And that's my bottom line.