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.