I'm with Dario - an inexperienced tourist should not go into a place that does not have a menu posted or does not present you with a menu. I'd be curious as to WHICH restaurants refused to provide a menu. (The only one I know of in the area is Hostaria Dino e Toni but they most often use a fixed-price experience).
As a guide working in Rome, I've probably done 250+ tours in the Vatican (Yes, I used to know where all the bathrooms were). Sometimes after a tour, my famished and exhausted clients did not want to walk a few blocks to "my lunch suggestions" so we dropped into a Vatican-area dining experience. I usually had just espresso as the food at these places didn't appeal to me. But even Ristorante Cucina Italiana - perhaps the most perfectly located tourist trap - had menu boards posted outside. So do all the tourist spots on Borgo Pio. When pressed to go to a lunch spot with a short walk from St. Peters, I often opted for L'Insalata Ricca, on Piazza Risorgimento (part of a small Roman chain of restaurants). Great focaccia and sometimes you just want a salad!
Yes, Rome does have a few less-than-honorable restauranteurs. There's no doubt that well-publicized scandals - like the one in 2009 at Ristorante Passetto near Piazza Navona - have given the city a black-eye. But that's the exception, certainly not the rule. Many people think the Rue des Bouchers in Brussels has a far worse reputation than Rome!
Years ago, Walks of Italy put together an article called The Dos & Don't of Eating in Italy. It's a basic primer on how to avoid getting ripped off. A good read for first-timers to Italy.
I know many restaurant owners in Rome. One of our friends closed their 150+-year-old family restaurant last year as he could not afford the soaring taxes. I know how hard they struggled to avoid losing their business. Thus, I guess I get defensive when I see broad statements like:
- The Vatican is surrounded by horrible tourist gouging restaurants and bars
- Another Italian trick is to...
- They are notorious for outrageous bill padding
- ...a reputation for hosing tourists by not having giving a menu and then charging outrageous prices.
- Rome is the one place we have most consistently found attempts at bill padding and such petty thievery in dining.
In this thread, I've tried to offer specifics, locations, photos, names of restaurants, a helpful article link, etc. If restaurants are doing this, please give us the names. I've not traveled to Europe for the last 60 years (that's pretty remarkable - congrats) but I have lived in Copenhagen, Rome, and Europe for more than 17 years. Some of our closest friends are Italians, living in Rome, and working in the service industry - some operating near the Vatican as that's where we lived. I think many of them would be offended by these broad, generalized statements. They're passionate, loyal, and honorable people.
Perhaps you are going to the wrong restaurants?