Advice for Eating and Drinking in Italy

It occurred to me that if I were to give someone advice about eating it Italy, it would have nothing to do with what kinds of foods to eat, or what varietals of wine grapes to drink, or even what Italian food words to learn to order. It would be explaining the difference between sitting and standing.

In coffee bars, bakeries, quick cafes, and small eateries, you almost always have the choice between eating standing up or sitting down. If you stand, you pay less. If you sit, you pay more, and not in the form of a tip, but for the food and drink itself.

The increased price is a tax, and we do something similar in the United States, but most Americans don’t pay attention due to our culture of eating out, as well as the way we add tax upon purchase, rather than in the displayed price.

For example, if you go to a deli and order a pastrami sandwich—either to go or to stay—the cashier will ring you up and add tax because the food was prepared. That means you’re enjoying a dining out experience and a luxury or non-essential food, even if you take it home with you. If, on the other hand, you buy a roll, a quarter pound of pastrami, and two mustard packets, the cashier cannot charge you tax because those foods, which are “unprepared” are considered groceries, or essentials. I’m not an expert on sales and food taxes, so there’s probably a little more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.

In Italy (and a few other places in Europe), cafes will display two prices: one for dining in and one for taking out. It’s hard to come to terms with this if you’re American. Your first instinct may be to never sit in a café, to take everything to go and just find a bench in a park somewhere, just to save yourself the extra 50 cents.

However, when you do sit in a café or coffee house, the proprietors intend for you to stay there for at least an hour, and that’s really what you’re paying for. I remember talking to a guy from Eastern Europe last year about the coffee shop culture in his country, and he said “I would be downright offended if my friend met me for coffee and didn’t stay for at least an hour and half.”

When you pay that extra 50 cents or 2 euros, you’re not paying to rest your feet for 20 minutes You’re paying for staying! Plan to be there at least an hour. In fact, leaving too soon could be seen as rude, or that there was something wrong with the food, atmosphere, or service.

And speaking of service, all across Europe, no waiter or waitress will ever just bring you a check at the end of a meal. As soon as you butt is in that seat, you are allowed to stay as long as you damn well please, and waitstaff know better than to interrupt you or rush you out. Occassionally, a well-traveled server will recognize Americans and bring the check soon after the end of the meal, but it is always with the caveat, “Please take your time. There is no rush.” And they mean it.