As a European, I would like to alert North Americans to a common scam at restaurants in Italy which is common especially in the South. A hefty service charge can mysterioulsy appear on your bill. In most restaurants, the service charge will be zero and no tip will be expected. It may be assumed that the prices quoted for the food include everything. However, some touristy places may charge you for even the table cloth. That is legitimate and not a scam, but is rare in non-touristy restaurants. A more profitable scheme is adding a large service charge. A friend of mine from the Isle of Man who lives in Southern Italy and speaks Italian fluently, but with a strong English accent gets scammed this way all the time. They sometimes put as much as €8 service charge on her bills. Yet, I have less Italian, but speak it convincingly with an Italian accent and don´t get any service charges on my bills. The more foreign you seem, the more likely it is to happen. My friend also has blue eyes. Mine are darker. As a general rule, a service charge of this sort is a tourist scam and all you can do about it is negotiate that it be lowered. Refusing to pay it will probably land you in more trouble than them. However, if the charge is just €1 or roughly 10%, you should simply pay it. They are extracting a tip from you even though tips are not expected in Italy.
But to clarify, coperto and servizio charges are only not legitimate (or "scams" as you've put it) if they've not been noted on the menu. As with anything else, it's good to read the fine print!
You may like to read this article at http://www.consumerismo.it/truffe-al-ristorante-e-alla-fine-arriva-il-servizio-il-vecchio-coperto-1649.html.
It is in Italian, but it states that "coperto" has become illegal in Italy.
That article refers to a Regional Law n. 21 del 2006 (Disciplina dello svolgimento delle attività di somministrazione di alimenti e bevande) che vieta il cosiddetto “pane e coperto”.
I thought that that only applied in Lazio? Or has it become generalized to all of Italy?
I have it from an American who is in the restaurant business in Italy that neither are illegal as long as they're clearly posted. But I should have clarified that a coperto charge IS illegal in Lazio but pane e coperto (bread charge) is not: there's a difference. To avoid the latter in, say, Rome, simply wave away the bread. Bread, however, is not an extra fee in regions for which a coperto charge is allowed, if posted.
You are right. This is only for Lazio. I have just noticed that it mentions Lazio towards the end. However, my point is rather different from this. It is how this article states the way that restaurateurs are getting round the law. Words like "illegitimate" "scam! etc are just words. Words are unimportant. There is always a way round the rules and restaurateurs will continue to find loopholes. If I and my friend's Italian boyfriend don´t get charged "servizio", but my Isle of Man friend does in the same restaurant by the same servers, then this is not a question of regulation. It is one of culture. This happens in Southern Italy. The area where this episode happens on a daily basis to my friend is in Puglia. She is now nearly afraid to eat out. Your readers probably don´t go down that way anyway.
Absolutely some RS readers go to Pugila! And it's unfortunate indeed that your friend was overcharged. :O(
The "S" word puts me over the edge sometimes as some of us spend so much time allaying the fears of nervous travelers instead of giving them one more thing to worry about! It's probably a personal thing but "scam" is a word I try to avoid in favor of language which is less alarming. Or I save it for the big stuff which involves more than the loss of a few euro, if that makes any sense.
You were all three at the same restaurant, and they singled out her to charge the service charge? Why did not your Ialian boyfriend protest? Or are you saying she was at the same restaurant but dining alone when this happened?
We were in Italy about 4 years ago, Rome and Florence, and sounds like things have not changed much with the pane e coperto charges. What everyone says above is correct.
1. Coperto (service) is generally included in the price of the food, and to be charged, must state explicitly on the menu, that service is not included. Look over menu carefully and know the Italian for service not included.
2. Pane(bread) will be charged if you accept the bread. Must state clearly that you do not want the bread. Have one bite and it's all yours.
3. Charges for coperto and pane are usually per person, so can add up.
4. The above rules only applies to the region of Lazio, which includes Rome. Did not apply in Florence, since outside of Lazio.
5. If they still hassle you in Rome and they will not listen to your arguements, then look at the receipt carefully. Odds are it is not a legal receipt for tax purposes. If it is not, you can pull the nuclear option. You can mutter something about "Guardia di Finanza" and see how quickly they respond. Or you can really get them by paying the bill, and taking the illegal receipt and handing it to a :Guardia di Finanza that you may see on the streets while walking around Rome. The Guardia di Finanza are the most feared police organization in Italy. Think IRS with big guns, and a "huge fines" mentality. Here is a link if you want to read more about it.
You can also check out previous posts on this topic in Rick Steves Forum.
If it's a small amount, I just think of it as doing my bit to help the local economy :-)
She was dining alone mainly when she was "overcharged", but she says it also sometimes happens to her when she's with her boyfriend, but doesn´t happen to him when he´s on his own. Her boyfriend works in a bar/restaurant himself and is familiar with this practice and is rather un-Italian in that he's a little bit of a mouse in situations like this. He says it's best to pay up.
The day that I went to a small café with her and I paid, I noticed they charged me about 30 cents more than I was expecting compared with the previous day when I went in on my own. That was my only experience of this in 2 weeks in Italy, but I also accepted the situation and just paid up just like her boyfriend does. I have lived in Asia where the discrimination is far worse than this. I was though a little surprised to have to go into my pocket for extra.
When our family went to Rome, there were four of us. We were charged upwards to 3-4 euro per person for pane e coperto. So that comes out to 12 euro per meal. Figure two restaurant meals per day, 7 day vacation, that comes to 168 euro or $210. That is not small change. So needless to say, we were very aware of the law, and made it clear that we were not going to pay it and insisted that they delete the charge. When we pointed this out to them, they did delete the inappropriate charges. By the way, I don't think that I ever received a legitamite fiscal receipt at any restaurant in Rome. Something else you can hold over them if they are disagreeable. By the way, we are clearly not Italian by outward appearances, so we knew what to expect.
Yes. This is what they do. All they have to do to stay within the law is put a footnote somewhere in the menu stating that prices exclude "servizio, pane e coperto". Then, they can vary the amount as they wish and can choose who to charge it to and who not too. I have often seen menus stating that "servizio" is excluded, but when the bill turns up, "servizio" is stated as zero. However, some other unfortunate sole may get €8 added on. I have even been in restaurants in Italy where they bring me a drink I didn´t request and when I turn it down, they tell me it's for free. That's really nice. That's then the opposite scenario. In fact, this particular restaurant was surprisingly enough in Rimini which is a place that has a reputation for being overpriced generally and caters mainly, if not nearly exclusively, to Italians and Russians. The menu at the restaurant was in Russian as well as Italian as so many are there and the waitress was from Moldova (hired for her Russian skills). The food and service were excellent and not expensive. I stayed there in order to visit Ravenna, about an hour away by train. I found a hotel there that was even more of a bargain again. It was only €14 with the best breakfast I had ever had in Italy, maybe because the owners were Serbs. As a general rule, it can be wise to steer well clear of restaurants recommended in guidebooks. Once they are in guidebooks, they become arrogant and unscrupulous and become accustomed to ripping off tourists. They know the customers will keep on coming.
Really? EVERY restaurant tried to upcharge you EVERY time?
Guess I'm pleased to say that "they" have never unexpectedly or excessively upcharged us in any Italian restaurant we've yet been to, nor have we eyed "them" with suspicion of trying to do so. Could it happen? Possibly. In which case we'll very politely enquire about it. Or enquire in advance what the pane e coperto charge will be if it's stated to expect one and we're concerned about the amount. As we only eat one restaurant meal a day, bread - even if billed for it - has usually been welcome!
In the meantime, I'm happiest assuming that the entire country of Italy isn't out to rip us off - as has thankfully been our experience so far. Very sorry that it hasn't been yours.
Thank you, Kathy, for a few words of common sense. It must be burdensome travelling with a suitcase full of suspicion and cynicism.