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No Free Lunch for Italian Senators—but It's Close

Food inflation may have been an abstract concept for Italian senators up until last week – that is, before the public got hold of a copy of the Senate restaurant menu that has reignited the debate over parliamentary perks.

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The privileges enjoyed by Italy’s political class range from the doubtfully useful (chauffeur-driven car and public transport passes) to the eccentric (access to VIP boxes at football matches; free entry to health clubs, theatres and cinemas).

But it’s the impossibly low prices charged for a meal at Palazzo Madama that have stirred the public’s anger.

At 1.60 euros, a plate of spaghetti with fresh anchovies is cheaper than a cappuccino. A beef fillet carpaccio will set you back 2.76 euros, about the same amount an ordinary Italian would pay for a beer at a bar. The veal entrecote or the grilled swordfish steak are definitely a bargain at 3.55 euros, a dish that would fetch over 20 euros at any other restaurant. Throw in silver waiting service and the luxurious surroundings of the Senate palace and you’ve got yourself a five star meal at soup kitchen value.

It’s hardly surprising Italians are outraged by their senators’ “free” lunch. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has adopted new austerity measures aimed at balancing the budget by 2013, but the package has been widely criticized by economists, business and union leaders alike for weighing too heavily on the middle class and lacking any growth-oriented steps.

With the menu gone viral on social websites and blogs, Italy’s parliament is now at the receiving end of thousands of protests and calls to end MPs’ privileges. Over the weekend, the Senate has been forced to publish a press release pledging to charge appropriate prices for its meals. Senators may be left with a bitter taste in their mouths, and there won’t be any bargain Brunello di Montalcino around to wash it down.