We’ve heard story upon story of tourists being ripped off at cafes or restaurants in Italy. We’ve even experienced it ourselves. And let us tell you: Unfortunately, nothing makes you leave even a great meal with a sour taste in your mouth like knowing you paid way too much for that tiny little coffee (8 euros? You must be kidding!)… or wondering if you did (when the waiter pointedly said “Service is not included,” were you really supposed to leave that 20% tip?).
These kinds of experiences can bring your whole trip to Italy down. And many tourists think that they’re just part of the deal when it comes to traveling in another country.
But let us tell you: They’re not. And, armed with just a little bit of knowledge, you can avoid being ripped off in Italy’s restaurants and cafes. Yes, even in the touristy areas.
From where to eat to avoid a fiasco to begin with, to the magic three words that will get any Italian to fix an overinflated bill, we’re going to let you in on some secrets that not even the locals want you to know. Take notes.
The farther away from a tourist site you eat, the less likely you are to be ripped off
It’s a sad truth that some Italians see Americans, Brits, Australians and others as easy prey. And so that’s why restaurants and cafes right near the big tourist sites are the most likely to try to take advantage of you. No, not all of them will. But trust us. It’s much more likely. After all, they’re used to busloads of tourists. They’re not as used to Italians or locals who know what a restaurant or cafe should and shouldn’t do… and call them on it.
For the record, yes, high-risk establishments include those on popular piazzas, like Rome’s Piazza Navona or Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. A rule of thumb: In general, whenever you see as many non-Italians as Italians, be on your guard.
Other tip-offs that you’re in a touristy establishment: There’s a “host” outside the door asking you to come in (any Italian restaurant catering to locals, not tourists, won’t have this, since they’ll be jam-packed with diners no matter what), there’s a menu with pictures, or there’s a big sign that says “Tourist Menu” or even “No service!” or “No cover charge!”. (More on that later).
That said? If you really want to avoid getting ripped off, the sad truth is that you have to have your wits about you no matter where you’re eating.
Don’t sit down in an Italian cafe. No, really. Don’t
Unless your feet are just killing you, avoid sitting down in the kind of place that Italians call a “bar” and we call a “cafe.” Why? Because as soon as you sit down, the price of whatever you’re eating doubles, triples… or worse. That’s why you see Italians usually taking their coffee and cornetti standing up. Often, tourists will walk into a cafe and someone will immediately say, “Here, why don’t you sit?” It sounds like a suggestion, and a nice idea. And maybe it is.
But make no mistake: Even if it was their idea and you didn’t know there was a price difference, you’ll still be paying the sit-down price.
How not to get ripped off if you really have to sit down at a cafe
If you do decide to sit down, before you order anything or make yourself comfortable at the table, always walk in and look at the prices above the counter. (These prices are almost always inside, above the bar, not outside… where more people would see them). Usually there is one column for “Banco” and one for “Tavolo.” “Banco” is the price if you stand at the bar; “Tavolo” is if you’re sitting. If it’s still worth it to you, then by all means, sit — but keep in mind roughly what those prices were.
When you ask for the bill, ask for it to be itemized. (You can say “il conto dettagliato” ["eel cone-toe deh-tahl-yah-toe] or ““il conto lungo” ["eel cone-toe loon-go"). This minimizes the chance that someone will simply come up with a random price to charge you. If any of the items on the bill aren't what you ordered, or if the prices are different than what you saw on the price list inside, ask why. You know what the prices for the various items were supposed to be al tavolo, because they've been posted and, legally, that's what they have to be. Don't let the waiter talk you into anything different.
At restaurants, know what you do and don't have to pay for
Yes, you do have to pay for water. (You can ask for "acqua dal rubinetto," tap water, but it's often seen as a bit rude. Plus, those glasses of tap water will take ages to get refilled by your waiter, if they're refilled at all!). At moderately-priced places, a large bottle of mineral water for the table should cost no more than 2 euros, maybe 3 in more-expensive cities like Venice.
Yes, you do also have to pay for bread. This is the “pane e coperto” charge — more on what that is in a moment.
Yes, you do have to pay for that antipasto or foccacia. Even if the way the waiter asked you if you wanted it made it sound like it would be free. (“Would you like just a little bit of foccacia while you decide?”).
And yes, you have to pay for that digestivo of limoncello or amaro or grappa. Sometimes. Here’s how to tell: If the waiter asks you if you want an after-dinner drink after you’ve eaten but before he’s brought the bill, you’ll probably be charged. If he asks you if you want one after he’s brought the bill and/or you’ve paid, it’s probably a little “thank you” on the house. Needless to say, unless you’re a regular at a restaurant, the latter is the rarer situation.
Avoid giving the waiter the power over what, or how much, to bring
Sometimes, waiters will ask if you would like an antipasto for the table. Most of the time, this is fine. Occasionally, though, the antipasto winds up costing an arm and a leg — and you don’t realize it until you get the bill.
So instead of telling the waiter to just bring you something, order specifically from the menu, with the quantity you’d like, and be clear. “Vorrei un’antipasto per due,” you could say (an antipasto for two), even if there are four of you. That’s fine.
The other item to watch is fish. Since fish is usually charged by weight at restaurants, this can get a little confusing. You say you want the fish of the day that’s around a certain weight, the waiter brings out a lovely, fresh-caught one to show you that’s “around” that weight, and then miraculously, when the bill comes, it turns out that fish was a little heavier than you expected. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about this, other than to double-check the weight a few times with the waiter before you agree to have them cook it.
Getting the bill at a restaurant
When your waiter brings you a bill (remember, you have to ask for it!), make sure that it’s itemized. (Again, ask for “il conto dettagliato” or ““il conto lungo“). Sometimes, restaurants will just write a total number down, or even just say it. In that case, ask for the itemized bill. It’s the only way to know if you’re being charged what you should be. Plus, if you wind up being ripped off despite all your best efforts, it puts the power in your hands. We’ll tell you why in a little bit.
What’s that “pane e coperto” charge on my bill?
When an Italian restaurant charges you for bread, it’s generally not per basket. Instead, the price is usually per head. It’s typically about 1.50 euros per head, perhaps 2 or 2.50 in pricier, more-touristy places like Venice or Sorrento. That said, some regions have apparently passed laws, including Rome’s Lazio region, saying that this “pane e coperto” charge is against the law. That doesn’t mean that most restaurants are paying attention. And yes, most Italians are paying for pane e coperto as well — not just tourists. So in general, we let it go and pay.
But there’s a caveat. This charge should be written on the menu. Maybe it’s in small letters, maybe it’s on the back page, but it should be there. If it’s not? We make a fuss. And the charge gets taken off.
What about a charge for “servizio”?
If an item has been added, probably 10 but up to 20 percent, called “servizio,” that’s “service.” You see this often in Venice, the Cinque Terre, and Amalfi coast, and at more-touristy establishments in Florence and Rome. Something to know about servizio: Although it seems to be legal, it should be written on the menu, as should pane e coperto. (It’s often, of course, in small print and/or on a back page). Few Italians actually have to pay this servizio, and sometimes, it’s only written on the English version of the menu.
If the servizio hasn’t been written anywhere, ask for it to be taken off if you see it on your bill. If everything about the servizio seems to be as straightforward as possible — you knew, from the menu, it’d be 10% extra, and sure enough, it was — then pay it. But do not add a tip on top. That is the tip! Countless Americans wind up being double-charged on tips because they don’t realize this. And that’s exactly what these restaurants count on.
Note: Some restaurants try to attract tourists by saying, “No service charge!”. That’s fine… but it means the place is pretty touristy. (A place that catered to Italians probably wouldn’t have servizio, and wouldn’t make a big deal about not having it — especially not in English). And so, in general, since you have the least chance of being taken advantage of at non-touristy places, a sign proclaiming no servizio isn’t necessarily a good thing, either.
To tip your waiter… or not to tip your waiter?
First, one thing to keep in mind: Waiting tables in Italy is much different than waiting tables in the States. Many Italian waiters are paid off the books, meaning they’re not paying taxes. If they are on the books, then they get paid vacations (some six weeks per year or more) and paid sick leave. And they have national health.
Second: That tip probably doesn’t make it into your waiter’s pocket anyway. Often, it goes to the owner.
Furthermore, if servizio has been added to your bill (see above), then leave nothing on top. Rest assured knowing that, since most Italians won’t even have this servizio on their bill and won’t tip, you’re still tipping quite a lot in comparison.
So if all that’s been added to your bill is pane e coperto, or nothing at all, and your service has been good, then maybe leave something. But not 20 percent. Not 15 percent. Not necessarily even 10 percent. A few coins, or rounding up, is sufficient.
While that makes many Americans grimace, remember: Italy is a different culture. And it’s a different tipping culture, too. Adjusting to it is not only part of the experience, but shows respect for the locals.
Note: Often, a waiter might make the point of dropping a bill off to a table of tourists and, if servizio isn’t on the bill, saying, “Service is not included.” No, this is not his helpful way of clueing you into a local tradition. He would never, ever say anything like that to a table of Italians. Instead, he’s learned that those magic words get English speakers, especially Americans, to take out their wallets and leave an extra 20 percent… without realizing they don’t have to (and possibly shouldn’t).
Think you’ve been ripped off anyway and want to take action?
When presented with a confusing or ridiculous bill, 90 percent of people won’t do anything about it. They’ll pay and leave. But for the rest of the day, they’ll be seething — and it does a disservice to future tourists, since the restaurants learn that foreigners won’t speak up.
So remember: You do have control in this situation. Here’s what you do.
First, simply point out the discrepancy to the waiter and ask, politely but firmly, for it to be fixed. This is why you got that itemized bill. Even if he doesn’t speak much English, you can point to the specific item. For servizio or pane e coperto, the most useful phrase is often “Non è scritto sul menu” (this was not written on the menu – “Nohn ay skree-toe sool meh-noo”). Often, that’s all that’s needed.
If he argues with you, show that you know what you’re talking about (you saw the “banco” versus “tavolo” prices so you know what a cappuccino costs sitting down, etc.). He still won’t back down? Don’t give up. Here’s where you pull out all the stops.
If you’ve been ripped off and they won’t fix it, bring out the big guns
Your polite requests haven’t done anything to remove that 20 percent servizio that was added to your bill unannounced, or to get the proper tavolo price for your cafe meal instead of tacking on 20 euros more? You’ve still got power. In fact, a lot of power.
This is what restaurants, cafes and bars in Italy really, really, really don’t want you to know: A vast majority of the time, the receipt they’re issuing you is not a real receipt. That means they’re not paying taxes on the meal you just had. It’s off the books. And that’s illegal.
So, before you stomp off from the restaurant in a huff, look at the receipt you were given. If it looks like any of the following, it’s not a legal, fiscal receipt:
And it goes without saying that what many find to be cute and Italian — like writing a number on the tablecloth — is absolutely, positively not legal.
Instead, here’s what a fiscal receipt looks like:
Often, by the way, what many visitors assume is the “real” receipt but isn’t is the preconto. Here’s what happens: The waiter brings you something that looks to you like a receipt, so you leave the cash and walk away. What you don’t realize is that the waiter is the one who’s supposed to take that first “receipt” and the cash, then bring back change and the proper (fiscal!) receipt. Some of what you see above were the “preconti”… but, even after bringing back change, the waiter never brought back the proper conto.
How does all of this give you the power? Because, if an establishment has taken advantage of you, it’s more than likely that you’re holding one of these illegal receipts in your hand. And in that case, here’s what you do.
Show them the receipt… and say the following three words:
“Guardia di finanza.” ["Gwahr-dee-yah dee feeh-nahn-zah."]
These three words are enough to scare any Italian business-owner. Why? The guardia is like Italy’s I.R.S. … with guns. They mean business. And they can do everything from levy huge fines to shut businesses down.
With those three magic words, your bill should be fixed. Quickly.
If you really had a horrible experience, of course, you can go one better: Say nothing, leave, and then hand the “receipt” over to the nearest guardia di finanza (shown above). They’ll probably be, erm, interested. And if enough people do this, then that restaurant will learn they can’t keep ripping off tourists… the hard way.