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I was in a restaurant in Rome and after I got the bill I saw that beside the regular 8€ for spaghetti I ordered there was an additional position that said:

una persona 1.5€

When I asked the waiter about it he explained me that this is for the bread (indeed the menu listed it for 1.5€, but I did not order it), for the table (which sounded less convincing) and everything (that really raised my concerns). If it was for a starter, the bill should list a starter and not something that cryptic in my opinion.

Maybe I am not an expert but I have been in a few restaurants before and have always paid only for what I have ordered from the menu. After my complaints he tried to persuade me that this is a common practice which was again not convincing. The day before I had been in another restaurant and have paid only for what I have ordered.

So it is a legal practice or a pure rip-off and how to deal with it? If it is a legal practice I would like to know it in advance whether I am going to be charged additionally. Does leaving the started untouched changes anything? Or ordering a drink?

The same thing happened to me in Milan a few days later. I was charged 2€ but got no starter.

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From anecdotal experience, it's common in Southern Europe. I've been treated similarly in Spain and Portugal. If you are used to Western Europe mentality, this is somewhat hard to swallow the first few times.. but then again, I returned recently from a trip to USA and was never ever charged what the menu said. There were always service or I don't know what taxes applied (apart from the expected tip). –  mindcorrosive Oct 5 '12 at 6:35
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It is common practice in Southern and South-Eastern Europe. So if you don't want to pay for that just don't touch the bread. In a lot of cases this will suffice. –  RoflcoptrException Oct 5 '12 at 7:53
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Once I went to US and didn't like to know that everyone expects a tip just because he/she did exactly what I expected to be done: drive a cab, bring my food at the restaurant etc... –  woliveirajr Oct 5 '12 at 12:17
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@woliveirajr: The reason for this (at least in food service) is that in the U.S. it is legal for restaurants to pay their servers much less than minimum wage, with the expectation that the "majority" of their wage will come from tips. Our current minimum wage is $7.25USD/hour for "non-tipped" employees, and $2.13USD/hour for "tipped" employees. –  Justin ᚅᚔᚈᚄᚒᚔ Oct 5 '12 at 14:35
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@Justinᚅᚔᚈᚄᚒᚔ :) yep, and I agree with that (giving tip). I just wanted to point out that there are so many countries where you are charged for things that aren't exactly "included in the price that you pay".. –  woliveirajr Oct 5 '12 at 15:19
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4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It's common practice in Italy. It's called "coperto" (cover charge). Even though it's sometimes phrased as "pane e coperto" (bread and cover charge) but even if you don't touch the bread you are still required to pay for it. It is usually stated somewhere on the menu, although in some cases not very prominently.

So this does not only happen to tourists. To be fair, traditionally in Italy tips are not expected unless the customer is particularly happy with the service. Most of the time only small change is left as tip (as opposed to the 15/20% expected tips in some other countries).

My feeling is that, over time, cover charges are slowly starting to disappear, especially in informal restaurants (pizzerie, etc.).

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I looked at this in another restaurant (pizza) and indeed the price was on the first page in the menu. However I was not charged. How to explain it? Is there any rule behind it? –  mithy Oct 6 '12 at 11:46
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@mithy maybe they simply forgot to add it but it is quite unusual. There is not a particular rule: if it is reported in the menu you have to pay it. I would say that 90% of the italian restaurant have the "coperto" voice and those which haven't it have similar voice like "10% service" –  shard Oct 6 '12 at 17:33
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In your individual case, this could of course have been a ripoff.

However, historically, it has been quite common practice, particularly but not only, in south western Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal), to charge a small fee for sitting down at a restaurant. In essence, you could argue this is to cover, say, the bread and butter you receive but did not ask for, but it's simply a cover charge. It's more likely this is a leftover from a time when tipping was less common while sitting down at a restaurant means not being able to 'sell' the same seat to another person for the time the seat is occupied. There's a brief but adequate explanation available near the bottom of this Wikipedia page.

Similarly, still, many southern European cafes will charge you a supplement for your drinks and food when you choose to sit down, as opposed to standing at the bar.

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It is common practice in Italy to charge for the dish on top of the dinner.

It is common practice in Portugal to charge for water, bread, olives on top of the dinner.

It is common practice in the USA to charge for service and taxes on top of the dinner.

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yeah, US business listing prices pre-tax is total rip-off, which is illegal in Europe. –  vartec Oct 5 '12 at 12:43
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It's just what you are used to. USians think not getting a free refill of your coffee is a rip-off. –  DJClayworth Oct 5 '12 at 13:01
    
In the US I've seen the server add the tip to the bill automatically for apparently European customers because the server believed that the customers would expect that instead of a more traditional at will model. This, at least, comes down to social norms. –  Joshua Drake Oct 5 '12 at 15:03
    
Also it has been the custom in the US for many years now to get free refills for any soft drinks (Coke etc.). As a result, the charge for a soft drink is pretty high, anywhere from $1.75 to $2.50 or more. –  tcrosley Oct 5 '12 at 20:39
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@vartec Listing pre-tax prices is inconvenient and annoying, but not a ripoff. It's a prevalent practice, and in a competitive market, one business cannot afford to list prices 5-15% higher than competitors. If you care, you can ask the staff for tax rates that apply. –  dbkk Oct 7 '12 at 3:22
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Well yes, probably, but it can be defended as a cultural thing.

I've seen places in Poland charge a per person cost for "sauces" too, something like $2.50 a head (regardless of whether or not you've actually used any of course!). In that case my waiter's defence sounds similar to the your's.. "It's standard and it's listed in the menu". He was right too, it was in the menu... down the bottom on page 12. But I guess that's warning enough.

Any business where most of their customers are tourists will be tempted to use tactics like this. Once you figure it out it's too late and you were probably never going to be a repeat customer anyway so they lose very little. (That's my theory at least.)

Caveat emptor!

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-1 This has nothing to do with tourism really, it's the traditional and, in my view, quite reasonable way to charge for service and other fixed costs which otherwise need to be “hidden” in the menu prices or even not explicitly mentioned at all (case of service in the US). –  Relaxed Sep 25 '13 at 5:56
    
@Annoyed I'm not saying it isn't normal, traditional OR reasonable but, you must admit, not every restaurant does this, even in Italy. I'm simply suggesting restaurants that have a lot of tourists amongst their customers might have more incentive (due to less repeat business) and more opportunity to take advantage of cultural ignorance. –  Molomby Feb 4 at 23:41
    
Well I don't know about every single restaurant in Italy but I was under the impression it was really widespread and not limited to touristic areas. If it really is, I don't think it's fair to say they are “taking advantage” of anybody or using any specific “tactics” as they are really just following local norms. –  Relaxed Feb 5 at 7:34
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