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Food and Drink For Members

What to do (and avoid) when paying a restaurant bill in Italy

Elaine Allaby
Elaine Allaby - [email protected]
What to do (and avoid) when paying a restaurant bill in Italy
People eat in a restaurant in the Murazzi by the Po River, on May 8, 2024 in Turin. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

If you have plans for dinner out in Italy, here's a look at the etiquette over the bill - from where and how to pay to the culture around tipping.

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If you go out to eat in Italy, then there are a few things you should know about paying the bill afterwards.

This sounds like it should be straightforward, but the etiquette may differ from your home country.

Uncertainty around how it all works in Italy leads some visitors to worry about causing offence, or to wonder if they've been overcharged (which is thankfully rare, although it does happen.)

But becoming familiar with a few local norms should make dining out in Italy a stress-free experience.

How to ask for the bill - When you're ready, try to catch the waiter's eye and ask for the bill (possiamo avere il conto?). You can always ask for the bill while they clear your plates.

Unless you're in a very busy or touristy place the bill is not usually presented until you ask for it - this is deliberate, as Italian waiters normally don't like to hurry their customers and once you've finished dinner it's perfectly OK to linger and chat over the dregs of the wine.

If you're in a place that runs two service periods at night (usually one at around 7.30pm and one at 9pm) then you may be asked to clear your table by a certain time, but this should be made clear to you when you book or when you arrive. 

 

If it's getting late and the place is emptying out the waiter may bring over the bill and ask you to pay so they can close up the till - but they're not necessarily saying that you have to leave. If they start stacking up chairs, however, then that's your cue to go home.

What to expect on the bill - On top of the cost of your food and drink, in many places you can expect to see an extra fee for coperto, or a cover/table charge, on your Italian restaurant bill.

Coperto is a a fixed fee which is charged by restaurants in Italy on a per-person basis, in addition to the price of food and drinks, to cover expenses for washing or replacing cutlery, plates, napkins and tablecloths used by customers.

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.

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

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It's usually around €2-€4 per person, but can rise as high as €10 or even €15 per person at major tourist sites such as Venice’s Piazza San Marco or right next to Milan’s Duomo cathedral.

Coperto has been banned by regional law throughout Lazio since 2006, so you shouldn't see it listed on your bill in a Rome restaurant, though it may be snuck in in the form of an extra charge for bread (pane) or service (servizio).

There's nothing illegal about charging these fees, and a restaurant could in theory add all three to your bill - but they must be clearly listed on the menu or price board, and you can refuse bread when it's brought to your table so you don't have to pay an extra charge for pane.

Where to pay the bill - One major difference between Italy and other countries is that many restaurants - usually more casual ones - will expect you to walk up to the cash register to pay the bill.

This means that once you feel ready to go you can just walk up and pay at the counter, rather than waiting for the bill.

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You can always double check with the server by asking paghiamo qui o alla cassa? (do we pay here or at the counter?)

In many cases, the answer will be 'either' so it's really up to you - but be prepared to wait a while for both your bill and your change if you want to pay at the table.

Tourists sit in the shade of umbrellas at an open-air restaurant on a street in central Rome, on July 19 2022. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

How to split the bill - If you dined with a friend or friends, then you may want to split the bill. Some Italian restaurants use smart tablets that allow servers to click each of the items you ordered and then inform you of exactly how much you owe individually, while others will expect you to do the maths yourself. 

The waiter will likely ask how you want to pay (come volete pagare?). In response, you and your friend can tell the waiter vogliamo dividere il conto (we want to split the bill) once they come out with the card reader.

READ ALSO: How to spot the Italian restaurants to avoid

If you want to split it, you can say possiamo dividerlo in three/cinque? (can we split it three ways/divide it by five?). If there's two of you can also say paghiamo metà a testa.

If you don't want to do an equal split - let's say your friend had the bistecca alla fiorentina and was drinking wine while you had a salad and a water - you can just do the maths yourself and then tell the server exactly how much you want to put on each card when they come out with the card machine.

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How to leave a tip - Italian wait staff aren't reliant on tips to get by like they are in many parts of the US. As is the case elsewhere in Europe, they are paid a standard wage and tips are viewed as an added, and optional, extra.

Italians may tell you they rarely leave a tip, or only do so if service was exceptional.

While tipping is always appreciated, then, it’s entirely at the customer’s discretion (beyond ‘servizio’ charges on the bill).

READ ALSO: When and how much should I tip in Italy?

If you don't see servizio listed on the bill, you might want to leave one or two extra euros per person, and if there's a group of you paying the bill together, you'd want to round up to at least the nearest five.

If you're paying by card, bear in mind that not many places will be able to add a tip to the card payment - so you might want to carry some change or small notes so you are able to leave something behind.

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