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'A rip-off': Should you really get mad about Italy’s table charge?

Giampietro Vianello
Giampietro Vianello - [email protected]
'A rip-off': Should you really get mad about Italy’s table charge?
Two tourists enjoy a meal at a restaurant by the side of the Grand Canal in Venice. Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP

Visitors often balk at the sight of Italy's controversial 'coperto' charge on their restaurant bills – but what is the fee really for, and is it legal?


Italy is known the world over for the quality of its cuisine. But while the fresh produce, the flavours and the unique authenticity of the recipes are all likely to leave you mesmerised, you may not be as content with the mysterious coperto charge figuring in your bill at the end of your meal.

In fact, if you’ve found this article, there’s a good chance that you’re at a restaurant in Italy right now, trying to figure out what that obscure item is and why on earth you’re being charged for it. 

And a quick browse on social media will show you that there’s no shortage of people complaining about it online.

According to X (formerly Twitter) user YogLog3, “there's nothing more annoying than 'coperto' in Italy where you pay for table cover in restaurants.” 

“Alright mate I have my own fork and knife doesn't work,” he adds.

Similarly, user SummerRhapsody says the coperto is "unfair and a rip off", citing it as one of the reasons why "tourism in Italy doesn't deserve to boom".

In an effort to clear any doubts on the subject, here’s what a coperto is and what Italian law says about it.

Restaurant in Piazza Navona, Rome

Fine-dining restaurants and venues in premium locations usually have higher 'coperto' fees. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

What is it?

A coperto (literally, ‘covered’) is a fixed fee which is charged by restaurants in Italy on a per-person basis, in addition to the cost of food and drinks.

In some countries this may be known as a cover charge, while in other countries it's entirely unheard of.

With roots dating as far back as the Middle Ages, a cover charge is widely considered to cover expenses for washing or replacing cutlery, plates, napkins and tablecloths used by customers.

READ ALSO: Aperol and aperitivo: A guide to visiting bars and cafes in Italy 

Given the nature of the fee, the coperto charge only applies to seated customers (both children and adults), meaning that you won’t have it tacked onto a takeaway order (and should definitely complain if you do).

How much is it?

On average, a coperto ranges from €2 to €4 per person, and some people don't mind paying this, particularly given that there's no expectation of tipping in Italy.

But – here comes the first controversial bit – fancy, fine-dining restaurants or those in prime locations usually charge much more: you can easily be handed a coperto of €10 or even €15 per person at a restaurant in Venice’s Piazza San Marco or right by Milan’s Duomo cathedral.


This is because the premium setting, quality of service and competence of the waiting staff are often perceived by management as warranting a higher charge - though costs for washing or replacing cutlery, plates and linen may essentially be the same as in less fancy venues. 

Is all of this legal?  

For a country where nearly every aspect of life is regulated by intricate and often puzzling laws, you may be surprised to learn that Italy doesn’t actually have any specific law regarding the cover charge.

But article 180 of a decree issued in 1940 states that all items and services on sale in bars and restaurants, and their prices “must be displayed in a visible place”.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Open-air restaurant in Rome

Italy has no specific Italian law directly regulating 'coperto' table charges. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

As confirmed by previous rulings, this effectively means that restaurants can lawfully charge a coperto and can freely establish the fee’s amount just as long as the charge itself and the exact amount are included in their menus or price boards. 

Ultimately then, unless the coperto doesn’t figure in the menu (it can usually be found in small print at the bottom of the first or last page) or on a price board, customers have no legal grounds to demand that the fee be removed from the bill.  


One exception: Lazio

Lazio, which is home to the capital, Rome, is the only Italian region where restaurants are not allowed to charge a coperto.

In fact, regional law 21, issued in November 2006, banned restaurants from “applying additional costs as part of the coperto”.

But, restaurants in the region, particularly in Rome, have long been reported as frequently circumventing the ban by ‘concealing’ the fee behind other items, chiefly a bread charge (or pane), or a service charge (or servizio).

Are pane and servizio different fees?

The boundaries between pane, servizio and coperto are by no means well defined, but, at least on paper, they are all different fees. 

In particular, the bread charge is relative to the bread and breadsticks basket you’re given right after taking a seat at your table (note: you can refuse this to avoid being charged for it), whereas the service charge refers to the services performed by the waiting staff.


The greatest amount of confusion here comes from restaurants sometimes merging the bread and coperto fees into a single charge – generally indicated as pane e coperto – or by incorrectly using servizio in place of coperto.

Should you find either pane or servizio in your bill, remember: just like the coperto, they too must be included in menus or price boards in order for restaurants to be able to charge them.


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