Seasoned travelers know that beyond the idea of paying a cover charge when dining out in a foreign restaurant, one of the biggest cultural conundrums is simply this: To tip or not to tip – what is the answer? Depending on where you go in the world, tipping your waiter can be anything from a kind but unnecessary gesture to customary to compulsory. So in Italy, which one is it?

To Tip or Not to Tip: That is the Question

In most sit-down restaurants, especially the nicer ones which have no counter service, you may find both “il coperto” and “servizio incluso” written on the menu. “Il coperto” is a cover charge, which is usually one or two Euro, this takes care of things like the before-meal bread and glass of water. “Servizio incluso” means like it sounds, that the service charge is included, in other words they have already calculated the tip for you and it’s normally around 15% – so the total due of your meal ticket includes everything.  If the servers were awesome, or you’ve had an first-rate experience, leaving a few extra Euro is a kind gesture letting the waiter know.

If you don’t see “servizio incluso” on the menu, you may still see some kind of automatic tip or cover charge on your bill, so just because you don’t see “servizio incluso” doesn’t mean you need to leave a tip. And even if you see “servizio non incluso” (service not included), you still shouldn’t feel compelled to leave a tip. Why not? It primarily has to do with the way restaurant workers are paid in Italy as opposed to, say, the U.S.

A waiter in Italy isn’t the underpaid part-time employee you might expect a waiter to be (and as they often are in the U.S.), so a tip isn’t making up the difference between their salary and a living wage. Instead, the waitstaff in Italy not only makes a living wage to begin with, they also get government health benefits and probably more paid vacation time than you do.

But does that mean you should never tip in Italy? Not exactly.

Most of the time when you’re in a foreign place and you don’t know what to do in a given situation, your best bet is going to be following the lead of the locals. In Italy, when it comes to tipping, this still holds true. But what you’ll notice when you watch the Italians is that they will often leave a small coin or two as they leave the table, and even when they’re getting their morning coffee standing up at the bar. In some cases, I’ve seen people hand over a small coin as they’re ordering coffee at the bar (before they’ve even gotten their drink) – which, if you think about it, makes even more sense. Give the barista a small token before they serve you and you’ll get better service.

The idea of a “standard” tip of 15-20%, like most Americans are familiar with when they go out to eat, doesn’t exist in Italy. Italians don’t tip that much, even when they do leave a small token, and Italian waiters don’t expect that much. I know plenty of Italians who are actually annoyed when they see tourists leaving big tips, because they’re afraid the waiters will begin to expect it – thereby ruining it for the locals. 

Still, if you feel like you just can’t get up from the table without leaving something, you can leave a few coins on the table before you go. Even if you’re paying with a credit card, don’t worry about putting a tip on the card – just a few spare coins on the table will do. And if you’re paying cash, you can just round up to the next euro and call that your tip if you’d like. (There are more specific tip amounts listed on Katie Parla’s site.)

This same rule applies with taxi drivers in Italy, too, by the way. A tip isn’t necessary and (in most cases) it’s not expected, but if you want to thank a driver for dealing with your heavy or plentiful luggage, or if you’ve had a nice chat, or whatever, you can just do a “keep the change” routine (in Italian, this is “tiene il resto,” pronounced tee|EH|neh eel RES|toh) to not get the leftover coins back from your euro notes.

I’ve heard of instances where a waiter in Italy has said to a customer (who clearly wasn’t Italian), “You can pay your bill at the register, but give tips directly to me” – assuming that a tip would be given. I’ve heard of taxi drivers in Rome being royally pissed off when they didn’t receive a tip. But the fact is that they didn’t historically get tips, especially from Italians, and the primary reason they’re expecting a tip now is decades of foreign visitors who tip generously – just like they do at home.

If you want to avoid repeating the same mistakes of tourists past – and yet also avoid the irate waiter or cab driver – then meet somewhere in the middle and go with a small tip of a few spare coins. It’s more about the kind gesture than the money, really.

What does the “cover charge” cover in Italy’s restaurants?

Some travelers to Italy are taken aback by the idea of paying a cover charge for eating in a restaurant. To many, the idea of a “cover charge” applies to nightclubs but to restaurants? Not so much. You’re going to be paying for the meal, right? What’s the cover charge covering, exactly?

Basically, the restaurant cover charge, or “il coperto” in Italian, is a per-person charge which takes care of the basics which many diners are used to getting for free at home – things like a glass of tap water or a plate of bread. It’s sometimes also called the “pane e coperto,” a bread and cover charge. When you see breadsticks propped up in a cup on your table, they might be covered in “il coperto,” but it’s also possible that you’re going to pay for whatever you eat. Be sure before you bite.

Italians don’t mess around when it comes to food, and even something as simple as bread is taken seriously. Some of the different kinds of bread you might find when eating out in Italy are:

  • Rustica – country-style bread, thick and crisp crust
  • Grissini – thin, dry, crispy bread sticks (sometimes individually wrapped)
  • Galletta – thin and small pieces of crispy bread, like a cracker
  • Focaccia – thick, flat bread, often dressed with olive oil and fresh herbs
  • Ciabatta – relatively flat, sometimes misshapen, loaf with big air holes and nutty flavor
  • Toscana – bread found in Tuscany, where it’s made without salt
  • Carta da musica – literally means, “music paper;” thin and papery, very crisp, from Sardinia

If you’re on a strict budget, avoiding the breadsticks can be a good money-saver if they’re going to cost extra. And because many Italians prefer bottled water to tap water, check to see if there’s a charge for a simple glass of tap water. If there’s not, that’s another way to save. Mind you, we’re talking about a couple Euro here and there – not necessarily big money. But as long as the Euro keeps rising against, well, pretty much everything else, every Euro counts.

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