Just after settling into a cozy trattoria in Siracusa, Sicily Paolo and I were shocked to hear angry voices. “We no order bread! No eat, no pay!” A tourist was arguing with the owner in broken English. The owner was trying to explain coperto in his broken English. It was the perfect storm. Voices grew louder and it soon became apparent the customer was livid because he had “no order coperto!” Cue laughter.
In Italy, coperto is not something you order, it’s part of a deep cultural tradition that goes back to the middle ages. What follows is a quick cultural background on coperto as part of eating in Italy to help anyone visiting for the first time avoid embarrassment and mangia like a proper Italian.
Coperto in Italy
In Italian “coperto” means “covered.” Coperto has been part of eating in Italy since the middle ages when Italians would bring food with them as they traveled. If they stopped at an inn to seek shelter or cover during harsh weather but brought their own food in, coperto was paid to use shared items. Think plates, silverware, tables, and chairs. If the travelers ate food prepared by the inn coperto was simply part of the bill.
The history of coperto in Italy is explained in the video below. If you don’t speak Italian, I recommend turning on English closed captions. After the video is information about how much coperto typically costs, why it’s legal, mandatory, and not a tip.
What Coperto Typically Costs in Italy
Typically, coperto is between 1€ to 3€ per person. Locals and tourists alike pay the same amount.
So unlike what the tourist mentioned in the story above was arguing about, coperto is not a way to upcharge tourists or scam them out of money. That is unless coperto is exceedingly high and you’ve found yourself in a tourist traps. To be sure, simply look for the coperto listing on the menu and keep in mind this is a per person charge. Also don’t be afraid to ask how much coperto costs “quanto è coperto?” if you cannot find it.
Yes, Coperto is Legal in Italy
Restaurants list coperto charges directly on the menu or post it in the restaurant which means coperto is legal in Italy. Because coperto is unregulated restaurants can charge as they see fit for coperto. Coperto is set by what the local market will bear. Touristy places like Venice, Rome, and Florence can demand higher coperto.
Yes, You Have to Pay Coperto in Italy
Traveling on a budget? Keep in mind, coperto is part of the culture of eating in Italy. So even if you don’t want bread and there are no table linens, expect to see coperto show up on the bill. Coperto might seem strange but when compared to the 15% – 20% tip American restaurants expect customers to fork over, it’s a steal. Speaking of tipping.
Coperto is not a Tip in Italy
Because coperto is a restaurant charge, the funds go to the restaurant not the waiter. So coperto is not the same thing as paying a tip. Unless there is a charge for ‘servizio’ meaning service on the bill, there is no tip included for the waiter. If servizio is included in the bill, there is no need to leave a separate tip for the waiter.
Servizio has historically not been common in Italy. Unlike coperto, servizio is a bit of a tourist tax. Areas highly trafficked by tourists such as Amalfi, Venice, Rome, and Florence are seeing it show up more and more. Fortunately similar to coperto, servizio must be listed, so be sure for both before settling in.
As an American married to an Italian for over a decade who now lives in Italy, I’ve had the privilege to eat in Italy’s best restaurants and been invited to Italian family tables. that day in Sicily, I felt for the tourist trying to understand coperto in a second language and being laughed at when he lost his temper.
This experience served as the inspiration for our Eating in Italy article series. Quick bites of how to enjoy eating in Italy without the stress or frustration that can come when confronted with new cultural experiences.
Next up a brief explainer of tipping in Italy.
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