26 Sep 2011

“Pane e coperto” literally means “bread and tableware” but it is essentially a service charge that restaurants add to the bill for each guest. It is one of the most controversial issues in travel forums. I say it’s part of the Italian way of life, and we have to learn to live with it.

“Pane e coperto”: service charges in Italian restaurants

pane e coperto

Over the past few weeks, I have come across at least two discussions about cover charges in Italian restaurants, which we call “pane e coperto“.

“Pane e coperto” literally means bread and tableware but it is essentially a service charge that restaurants add to the bill for each guest.  It can be as little as 50 cents and as much as 3 or 4 euros in more touristy places. If the restaurant applies these service charges, the amount is always indicated in the menu. Please note that it will be charged at village festivals too.

Up until a few years ago, restaurants were obliged to charge for “pane e coperto“, but now restaurant owners may decide whether to charge their clients or not. As a matter of fact, many of the restaurants that cater to locals or where people go for lunch on work days don’t charge it anymore. In Pisa, I haven’t paid any service charges for a long time at either Vineria di Piazza or Osteria dei Santi.

The most common complaints I have read online are…

Why should I pay for bread if I don’t eat it or if I didn’t order any?

The fee doesn’t really have anything to do with bread per se, even if the word pane is in the name. It’s is simply a service charge. It is part of the Italian way of life… you simply have to know that you might be charged for it, so make sure to check how much it is on the menu and deal with it.

Bread is brought to you whether you eat it or not. If you ask for more bread, you will not be charged extra, similarly to what happens with water in most north American restaurants.

Why should I pay for unsalted bread that I don’t like?

Bread in Tuscany is mostly unsalted. Restaurants serving you with unsalted bread are not trying to give you the cheapest stuff they could get: that’s what people eat here. Tuscan bread is not to be eaten alone. It is meant to accompany savoury food, such as cured meats, game meat, or crostini sauces.

The charge is too expensive

Charges will be higher in the most touristy areas. Restaurants have the right to choose their own prices. The only thing you can do is avoid restaurants in very popular spots (where people invite you in, or where you can see pictures of food…) and always check the prices on the menu before sitting down. Many restaurants publish their menu outside, and there is nothing wrong with asking to see a menu if this is not the case. Most smaller restaurants or restaurants outisde the touristy areas will in fact not have menus on display because they assume you know the average price for food in the area. If you sit down and you order, you commit to paying the service charge if applied.

I had no idea that I would be charged for pane e coperto

As I always tell our guests, if you don’t like finding out about cultural differences once you are already here, you need to “do your homework“. Most guidebooks will mention these charges. Every country has its own habits: when you visit you need to adjust to the local way of life. Please see my post about “Expecting the Unexpected” for further cultural differences which might come as a surprise to you.

Being charged for service is unacceptable

It always amazes me when I hear this comment from North American guests. I always need to point out how tricky it is for an Italian to go to a North American supermarket or restaurant and find out that the prices advertised are before taxes and that tips are mandatory, only when the check comes. All in all, pane e coperto is incredibly cheap compared to adding taxes and a tip to the final bill, and this way the price list is much more transparent.

It’s the way things are done in the States and Canada though, just like pane e coperto is how things are done in Italy. As we say… paese che vai, usanza che trovi, that is, when in Rome, do as Romans do… which is particularly appropriate in this case!

But at least at home I can choose not to tip for bad service

The “pane e coperto” service charge is not a tip.  The money goes to the restaurant, not to your server. Tipping your waiter is optional in Italy. Waiters, as a rule, don’t expect tips although they do appreciate them. If you get bad service you can choose not to tip your server just like you would back home, but you’ll still need to pay the “service” charge. It’s just the way things work here.

Comments

  1. Hmmm??? I have been living mostly in Florence for over thirty years and I still haven’t gotten a grip on the whole (constantly evolving) Pane & Coperta-Servizio-Mancia thing! Basically, I just play it by ear and I now realize that if I don’t quite get it right, it really doesn’t matter! And in local places ((where I can pass for a local, that is to say), the conto is just a ballpark figure anyway (or else, they knock the fitgure down per sconto and I knock it back up…as a tip. After caffe e liquori offered by the house…of course). Unsalted bread is not my favorite but Tuscan food is usually fairly salty so it all evens out. I am not in Pisa all that often, but when I am, the Vineria di Piazza is where I normally eat. Where is the Trattoria dei Santi?

    • The thing is simple. We don’t tip (unless you absolutely want to), we pay the coperto which is included in the bill. Osteria dei Santi is in Via Santa Maria, far enough from the Tower to actually be a good place to go to. 😉

  2. Scott

    Thanks for this post, which I found by doing a Google search on “Italian restaurants coperto charge.” I just lunched at a new Italian restaurant here in Tokyo, and this appeared on my bill–first time I’ve ever seen it. The owner is Italian, so putting that charge on a bill is understandable to him (and now to me). However, just as tourists need to accept the Italian way when in Italy, the owner should not impose Italian custom when in Japan. Adding such a charge is not how the Japanese do business. Furthermore, he should have items on the receipts in Japanese. He’s welcome to do business as he likes, but adding a surprise charge in a foreign language is rather cheeky.

    • I suppose he’s allowed to do that otherwise the local authorities would have intervened…? Not sure what to say, except that at least you had the full cultural experience!

      • Scott

        Heh… Yes, I guess I can look at it that way. Thankful for your post, too, because I’m planning a trip to Tuscany next summer. Very much looking forward to it.

  3. This is really informative. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I will surely leave the restaurant if I find “coverto” on the menu. I had to pay euro 8 today for some slices of bread. The service was really poor and i feel RAPED.

    I gladely pay tip if deserved, but i will not take this !

    • You will have to walk out of many restaurants I am afraid… It is just the way it is. Different countries have different habits. 8 euros is way too much though. Usually it’s 1 to 2 euros.

  5. Bea

    Hello, thank you for your useful post. Now I am in Italy and coperto annoys me a bit bit that’s understanding. However today’s one was weired, coperto was 3.5 euros that’s Ok but at the end, the waitress told us that service is not included so I have to give her 5 euros. In English menu, coperto was translated as service though. I was upset ! Do you find that’s normal ?

    • No, you were in a touristy place for sure. That is not normal.

  6. Sue

    Thank you for this. My husband and I have traveled to Italy several times, but tonight he just swore this didn’t exist! Yours is the best explanation I have read, and a good reminder that one places’s customs differ from others, and that your hometown logic isn’t universal.

    • Thank you Sue and sorry for the late reply!

  7. Lynn aydani

    In Venice, (the second city in Italy that we had visited), we were approached by someone promoting the wonderful flounder prepared there. The price was good, although a little pricey. However, when we got the check, we found it to be the equivalent of $120.00 or more. For two people. The flounder was only promoted as twenty or so dollars each. The coperto was explained to us as for the tables, chairs, silverware, waiters, etc. we learned a valuable lesson, and went on to spend another 3 weeks traveling over Italy. What a lesson! Lol!

    • eh well, in very touristy places some people take advantage. But in fact coperto is not applied by many restaurants anymore. Anyway, we don’t tip, so in the end the cover charge, with few exceptions, is way lower than any tip you have to pay back home.

  8. Lynn aydani

    This was over ten years ago. I’m sure the prices have gone up since then.

Trackbacks

  1. […] sauce. Together with a Coke my Lunch cost just 10,00 € in total, and they did not even charge the for Italy typical coperto. The Spaghetti were al dente and the tomato sauce fruity and delicious. A super nice Place, […]

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