I haven't been posting much because I've been running around like a crazy person getting the Cantina open for the season. We opened Thursday, but it's always a bit hectic. Since the flood a few years ago filled our cute little windowless stone restaurant with about 6 feet of water, we have taken to dismantling every single thing (even the oven in the kitchen) and putting them in a garage up the mountain in the event that, God forbid, it should happen again. Though the streets and canals have been cleared, and grates built to help water flow in the case of heavy rain, our water came from the stairs behind the Cantina that lead up to apartments on the mountain above. These stairs are exactly as they were the day of the flood - which means that if it rains that much again, our Cantina will be again full of floating furniture. Better to leave it empty, no?
So, the night before we opened, we finished setting things up at about 10 pm, and in no mood to even think about cooking dinner, we grabbed a pizza to take home at the place down the hill from our house. There was a table of sweet American girls who, as we were waiting for our pizza, started asking our friend (the owner who also waits tables) about the bill. His face showed a bit of panic as he started explaining the mysterious coperto in his not-so-great English, and he threw me a "save me" sort of look, so for the 5 millionth time in my life here, I explained one of the most frequently asked questions about dining out in Italy. I remembered with a flash this blog entry that has been buzzing around my head for a few years.
Then, we opened the Cantina on Thursday, and the very first table I waited on paid the check and asked, with a conspiratorial whisper, from "Canadian to American", to explain, really, what the deal was with tipping in Italy, and I was reminded again about the second most common question asked while dining out.
So, from one former American bartender and waitress who is now doing the same job in Italy, here's the deal.
The coperto is an old Italian charge you see on almost every bill dining out in Italy (expect at bars, which will usually charge different prices for sit-down service as opposed to standing up and eating and drinking at the bar). Coperto is most usually translated as "cover charge", but I find it better to explain it as "overhead". It's not just paying for the seat or table at the restaurant, it goes towards the napkins, table linens, ketchup packets, olive oil (Italians do not eat bread with olive oil and vinegar before their meal. This is a totally foreigner thing to do, and olive oil costs quite a bit of money, if you think of how many bottles you go through a day because people like to sop it up in their bread), and so forth. I know that in our restaurant, we have a 1 euro coperto that we use to cover all of these things, like dry goods, napkins, and so forth. It might seem a little odd, but many small businesses in Italy are very much struggling to keep themselves afloat with sometimes 47% taxes, and even a euro added a head covers the cost of doing business. The coperto also varies depending on where you go. Places with nice table linens and fancy napkins might charge you as much as 3,50-4 euro a head for the coperto. Less formal places usually charge less, from 1-2,50 euro. Legally, you will find it written on the menu.
The coperto is also sometimes referred to as pane e coperto, which is that famous "charge for bread" you hear about. This is where it gets tricky. In the region of Lazio (Rome is located in Lazio, to give you an idea), the coperto is illegal. You cannot put it on a check. What they do instead is charge for bread in many cases, which is why you hear stories of travelers waving bread away to avoid an extra 2 euro or so a person on the check. Here in Liguria, as well as in most of the rest of Italy, bread is included in the coperto. So, when you wave away the bread basket here and wink at your friend because you just avoided paying a euro each, all you really did was miss out on yummy fresh bread baked by Manu's uncle down the street. You pay the coperto anyway, whether you eat the bread or not.
The coperto is not a tip. It does not go to the waiter. It goes directly back to the restaurant. Which is fine because (are you ready for this?)...
you do not need to tip in Italy.
Take a deep, American/Canadian/Australian deep breath with me, and let go of your tipping guilt. You don't need to do it. Really.
We make a monthly wage here in Italy, which is unheard of in the US service industry. In my 11 years bartending and waiting tables in the US, I received a paycheck as a tax formality every week, made out to the sum of "0 dollars and 0 cents". Seriously.
For those in the service industry in Italy, in most cases, your meals are included and depending on where you work, you can make a pretty darn good living waiting tables, especially since the economy here is the pits. Some waiters in fancy places can make up to 2-2,500 euro a month. Not a bad deal.
In many cities, though, you might see a service charge (servizio) or tip added on to the check, anywhere from 10-15%, which is legal as long as it is stated on the menu, and you have to pay it. However, I have only had this happen when dining out with American friends visiting, where we are happily chatting away in English. Going out with Italians, I have seen service charges written on the menu, but when the check is presented, that charge has always been waived.
I've also heard waiters tell tables "Service is not included" as they drop off the check, and had it happen as well when out with groups of non-Italian speaking people. You do not have to leave anything if you do not want to. This is, again, people getting used to tourists tipping and overtipping, and shame on those waiters I've seen standing there as a couple pays the check, scrambling for extra euro to leave the waiting man a tip. You don't need to pay anything if it's not written on the menu (and then will be included in your check). When going out to eat, we will usually leave a small tip if it was a nice meal - for example, if the service was good and we had a nice, long dinner, we would leave something like a 5 euro tip on a 150 euro meal. Nothing even close to the 15-20 percent tip expected in the United States.
So, I hope this helps make a foreign thing a little less foreign for those of you gearing up to visit Italy this summer :)