Handy tips on tipping customs, shopping hours, restaurant etiquette, taxi and transport, and more
One should perhaps not take too seriously rules about how to behave. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to be totally ignorant about local customs and traditions when travelling in a foreign country. So here are a few half serious, half light-hearted tips about how things work in Italy. What are the Italian customs for tipping? How do you get a taxi? What should you do and not do in a restaurant or a café to get the best service? Etcetera.
But take it with a pinch of salt.
Tipping in Italy
Tipping in Italy is entirely optional, but can be done if service is good.
Tipping in restaurants
You are not obliged to tip in restaurants in Italy. Tipping is always included in the prices on the menu. Nevertheless, it is becoming more common to tip, especially if service and/or food have been good. But you won’t be frowned upon if you don’t tip.
How much to tip depends, of course, on the total amount on the bill. You would normally tip well less than 10%. But it would, of course, be nice to avoid ridiculously small tips.
Tipping in cafés and bars
It is very unusual to tip in a café or bar. It can be done if you are seated at a table or at the outside seating. But if you have a coffee at the bar counter, like most Italians, it is better avoided. It could even be taken badly, perceived as an insult if you leave just a few copper coins on the counter.
Tipping in taxis
You typically don’t tip in a taxi. You can if you want. Rounding up to a “convenient” total can be good, if service is good, of course. (NB: see the taxi advice also.)
Tipping in hotels
Typically, hotels in Italy don’t have porters. Only very luxurious ones do. You can tip a few euros but are not obliged (as a function of the cost of the room of course).
Almost everyone takes Visa (and MasterCard) although most prefer cash, especially for smaller sums. Italian law stipulates that paying with a credit card should always be an option if the sum exceeds 30 euro. If it is less, then the shop / restaurant can refuse a card payment.
Fewer merchants and restaurants take American Express but it is becoming more and more common, but travelling in Italy with only AmEx would be difficult.
What they charge to the credit card is always exactly what it says on the bill. You cannot put tips on the card and you cannot ask a shop to charge more to your card than what you bought in order for you to get some cash.
Restaurants and restaurant etiquette
All restaurants have a menu outside so that you can see what they offer. It is either the full menu (often) or a sample.
Except in the very, very cheapest restaurants, you would always wait to be seated by a waiter. You don’t just walk in and sit down, that’s very rude. (Even for outside seating.) As always, there are exceptions.
Many restaurants have fixed price menus in addition to the “à la carte” menu. It is often very good value. The fixed price menu is called menu del giorno or menu degustazione, as opposed to à la carte.
A traditional Italian gourmet meal has four stages: 1) starter (antipasto), 2) first course (primo), which is often pasta/risotto/soup, 3) main course (secondo) with a side dish/accompaniment (contorni), like potatoes or vegetables; you always have to order the side dish separately, otherwise you get just the main ingredient (eg a fish but no vegetables), 4) dessert (dolce). Coffee is served after dessert, not at the same time. Of course, you are not expected always to eat all this in a restaurant.
For example, you can take only a secondo (only an antipasto could be strange), or two, three or four “modules”. You can also take only a stand-alone vegetable, contorni, as a dish on its own, for example after (or together with) a primo. Overall, Italians tend to organize their meals pretty much any way they want. Just like the country. However, if you are invited to dinner, you should be prepared to suffer the entire four-step rocket.
Italians eat bread with the food, usually with the main course. In many Italian restaurants abroad, bread is served before the meal starts, together with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, to be dipped in the oil. You would NEVER do that in a restaurant in Italy. The only time you put olive oil on bread in Italy is when this year’s new freshly pressed virgin olive oil, novello, arrives in November. It is considered not polite to use the bread to suck up the last sauce on the plate, known as “scarpetta“, but sometimes it is so delicious that it is not possible to avoid it.
A bread basket will always be on the table, from the beginning until the main course is finished. The quality of the bread varies from place to place, not least because all Italian regions have their own type of bread. The better the restaurant the better bread. You never put butter on the bread, so there will be no butter on the table. There is no extra charge for the bread.
You never get a carafe of water on the table. Instead, you buy still mineral water (acqua naturale) or bubbly (acqua frizzante). Often in ridiculously small individual bottles.
If you want coffee after the meal, you’ll get it after the food. In Italy, you never serve coffee with the dessert. Usually, you take a caffé (which means an espresso). It is very odd to have a cappuccino, or worse, a caffé latte after a meal. Sometimes the waiter refuses to accept such an order because he considers it will spoil the entire dining experience.
You usually have to ask for the bill (il conto). Curiously that is often the item that takes the longest time to arrive on the table. It would be very rude of the waiter to bring you the bill without you having asked for it (unless he’s going off shift) so you do have to ask for it. There are exceptions of course…
You cannot add tips on to the credit card charge if you pay with plastic. If you want to tip you have to do it in cash. However, you can without a problem split a bill on several cards. Just tell them how you want it split, e.g. 50/50 or specific amounts on each card. Italians would never bother to do a detailed calculation of how to split the bill but instead do it alla romana, just split it straight without bothering about what each one has had. It would be considered penny-pinching to do so. It will anyway even out in the long run, is the reasoning.
It is good manners to say hello (e.g. buongiorno or buonasera) when you arrive and goodbye (arrivederci) when you leave. Ciao is very informal and is best not used to people that you don’t know.
Restaurant opening hours
Lunch hours are usually between 12.30 and 15.00.
In the evening, restaurants usually open at 20.00 (sometimes 19.30). If you have an “emergency” you can usually find an open restaurant (e.g. near a train station or tourist district) that has service all day long.
Italian food is, of course, the best in the world. Joking aside, food plays a very important role in Italy. You can still find many open-air markets where people shop for food, but even in supermarkets the food range and quality is often impressive.
In Italian cooking, it is the basic ingredients that play the leading role. Compared to some other food cultures (e.g. Scandinavian or American) Italians put less spices on the food and much less salt. Marinating meat is unusual. This is because the ingredients themselves (for example the meat) are of good quality and it is their own flavours that should be emphasised and not be covered in excessive spicing and salt.
This sometimes leads to that foreigners can think Italian food lacks in “flavours”. This is a mistake. In fact, the food is cooked to bring out the delicate and delicious flavours of the ingredients. Adding a spicy barbecue sauce or too much spices and salt would be like putting too much makeup on or body-building with steroids. Not good.
The chef has created the food for you, according to how he thinks best. You often have to ask for salt and pepper in more luxurious restaurants and that can be taken as a negative sign, that the chef has not done a good job.
The black market and the bill
There is supposedly a curious law in Italy about restaurant and café bills. Anyone who leaves a café/restaurant must have a bill or a receipt showing that he has paid. A tax inspector may wait outside the café/restaurant and ask to see the receipt and if you don’t have one you’re in trouble. The idea is, of course, to fight the black market cash economy where no receipts exist.
In practice this is probably totally irrelevant, considering the number of receipts that end up on the floors in cafés.
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink, although Italians usually don’t drink it. In some places, the chloride contents are high and even if it safe to drink, the taste is not fantastic.
Coffee in Italy
An Italian always stands up and drinks coffee (except after food). There is no café culture to sit down and chat “over a cup of coffee”. No, rush to the bar, dump the sugar in the cup, stir it and gulp it down, and the coffee is gone. The whole rite takes only a few minutes to complete.
In bars, there are often only a couple of tables with seating. So then it is important to know that there are two different prices categories.
At the bar, there is a fixed price applicable to the whole country, but if you sit down, it is the café owner who decides the price. Countless visitors have paid big money for a small espresso on famous piazzas in Venice, Rome or Florence.
If you want to drink the coffee standing in the bar you pay at the cashier before you get the coffee, and then you show your till receipt to the person making the coffee. If you sit at a table you pay to the waiter.
So it is wise to check prices before sitting down. If you want to behave like a real Italian, you should rather be in the crowd near the counter pushing and bustling to get to the counter to order. Sometimes it’s so crowded that the only way is to raise the arm so that the man in the bar sees that there is some poor guy who has not had anything yet. As a foreigner, and especially if you like organised queues, this can be a critical moment. But most of us learn to get to the counter after a couple of times without coffee…
There are strict rules regarding the consumption of different types of coffee. Cappuccino and caffelatte are only in the morning. After 11 o’clock, it is simply forbidden. NEVER after a lunch or after a dinner. The milk causes the taste buds to go numb, thinks the traditional Italian. After enjoying a delicious lunch or dinner, you want the flavours to linger in your mouth, plus the cappuccino or caffelatte is seen as a dish all on its own (ie breakfast). So, not something to drink after or with dessert. It may even happen that the waiter refuses to accept your order if you go against the above rule.
After 11 AM it is all espresso in various shapes and forms. For example, you can “macchiare” – make spots on – an espresso for those who like a small dash of milk. For those who cannot be without a longer, not so strong coffee, the tip is to order a “caffé americano“. It is an espresso that is mixed with hot water in a larger coffee cup and is the coffee most similar to a “brewed” coffee.
Espresso – a mini-cup with 2.5 cl of coffee or less. What you get if you ask for un caffé. Will disappear in one or two sips.
Doppio espresso – you guessed, a double espresso, bigger cup (although it’s not really needed)
Cappuccino – an espresso plus 1/3 milk foam, 1/3 hot milk (about 70 degrees)
Caffelatte – espresso plus hot milk but no foam (about 70 degrees)
Ristretto – even smaller than an espresso, and therefore stronger. Italian stimulant.
Lungo – a little more water than an espresso, but not like an americano
Corretto – an espresso with a splash of brandy (grappa) in it
Macchiato – espresso “stained” with a small flesh of milk
Caffé con panna – coffee with whipped cream
Caffé freddo – coffee with ice and sugar
Caffé Americano – an espresso with hot water (is the most similar to Swedish/American/British brewed coffee)
Taxi in Italy, and alternatives
You can not hail a taxi on the street. Instead, you have to call for one or take one at a taxi stand. There may in some cases be a surcharge (compared to the initial fee shown on the meter) for ordering a taxi, or for two suitcases or more, or for train stations or airports. (But not always.) This is not a case of the driver trying to rip you off; it is just how the pricing is defined. The rules are usually posted on one of the back-seat car windows. The extra charge is usually added at the very end, on top of the meter charge for the distance and time. Sometimes the fare to/from the airport is fixed-price.
Important: Most taxis still only take cash, no credit card. If you want to pay with a card, make sure you say so when you call for the taxi or check before you step in.
Currently, Uber exists in just a few cities in Italy: Milan, Rome and Turin.
Shops usually open at 9.30 or 10.00 and close at 19.00 or 19.30. In smaller towns and in southern Italy there is often a lunch break between 13.30 and 16.30. In bigger cities, like Florence, Milan and Rome, shops usually don’t close for lunch.
Most shops are open six days a week, Monday to Saturday. Saturday has the same hours as weekdays.
Sundays: Most shops are closed. In tourist areas, they may be open and some food and grocery shops are often open on Sunday mornings. But don’t count on doing any other shopping on Sundays. Unless you go to a Sunday (morning) market.
Specialised food shops (butchers, fish etc) are often closed on Monday morning or on Wednesday afternoon. Some other shops close on Mondays too.
It is still common with food markets. Larger cities have several, in smaller ones, there is always at least one. Within easy walking distance. It can be a real experience in food, colours and aromas to visit a food market, well worth an hour or two if you have time. The markets are usually open one or a few days of the week, in the morning. Often the market is open-air, on the town square, but there are also indoor markets. Ask someone about when and where the nearest market is.
So now you know it all. Welcome to Italy on a wine tour with us at BKWine to enjoy some of the world’s finest wine and food.
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