How to Ruin the Perfect Meal: An Open Letter to Rome Restaurants

A great meal in a Rome restaurant, gone sour

I had lunch today at a Rome restaurant I'd never eaten at before: Divinare, a chic (and cleverly-named) wine bar in Testaccio. The food was delicious, from a pasta with fiori di zucca and guanciale (above) to a super-fresh and gourmet salad.

But I can't recommend Divinare to hungry travelers. And boy, is that frustrating.

It's not that they did anything that I haven't seen a hundred times before. But I'm just too sick of it by now to put up with it any more, even the smallest instances of it.

Familiar with Rome's food scene? Then you know where I'm going with this.

Like one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, L'Asino d'Oro, Divinare has a lunch special: 13 euros for a primo, glass of wine, water, and coffee. Not a bad deal. And there's no mistake that that was supposed to be the total; the menu clearly says "servizio e coperto incluso" (service and cover included). My companion and I even commented to each other how much we liked the rare sight of a restaurant that didn't charge coperto.

He ordered the special; I had a 10 euro salad. We also ordered the (included) water for him, plus one for me, asking for due acque piccole. Our very polite and friendly server, who also may have been the owner, brought one large water instead. That made sense. He also brought bread. This made sense, too.

What didn't make sense? Our bill. Thirteen euros for the menu (correct). Ten euros for the salad (yep). A charge for my coffee (fine). Plus… a charge for the whole bottle of water, plus a 2 euro "pane" charge (wait, what?).

It was a difference of three or four euros. Still, I didn't understand where it came from. We should have been charged for half of the one large bottle of water, and for no "bread and cover" at all. When we said something, the server/(owner?) tried to "explain" to us how Rome restaurants charge for bread separately. Yes, we said, but if you bring the bread without us ordering it, which you did, it seems that would be part of the "coperto" charge. Which should be included.

And what about the water? Oh, he said, it's always tough to figure out these things when one person gets the full menu and one person doesn't. (Really? It seems pretty simple: Just charge for half the two-person bottle).

To be fair, he was nice about it. He knocked the charges off for us. And, for all I know, he always charges for "bread," the lack of clarity on the menu is an honest mistake, and nobody else has ever said anything. It's definitely possible.

But, needless to say, we still left a delicious meal with a bad taste in our mouths. And what a shame that is.

I don't mean to lay all the blame on Divinare. Because here's the thing. This "tacking on" of extra, not-quite-corretto charges happens all the time. Food blogger Katie Parla has written about the selective service charge at Grano that's applied to tourists only, and she just wrote about how Roma Sparita has started sneaking a 15% servizio onto tourists' bills, although their menu clearly says service is included. Similarly, Roma Sparita didn't charge me for service or coperto in June, proving their sometimes-charge is an unfair sleight-of-hand for unsuspecting tourists that's led me to update my own blog post about Roma Sparita accordingly. At other restaurants, waiters lean over when tourists are paying to "remind" them that service wasn't already included on their bill (hint hint hint!).

As for most others I've spoken with, it's not the automatic inclusion of a charge, whether servizio or pane e coperto, that bothers me. It's the shady way that it's never clear if it's going to be added or not—even when the menu seems to make it so clear. And it's the way that it seems to be targeted primarily at English speakers, although Italians can feel free to correct me on this point.

So look, Rome restaurants: I have a request. For the love of your own business, cut the bullshit. Please. You know what's fair and what's not. Charging for bread, when it was brought to a table without being ordered and the menu says coperto incluso, is shady. Charging for a large bottle of water for two people, when one person was supposed to get their water included, is not right. Charging some people service, when the menu says servizio incluso, is not okay. But what's crazy is that you already know that. And guess what? So do many of your clients!

Sure, all of this is small-change stuff. Three or four extra euros is hardly the end of the world. But, when it comes to restaurants with great reputations like Roma Sparita and Divinare, that's part of what blows my mind the most. You'd really rather go to the trouble of making a client an amazing meal and still risk them leaving less than 100% thrilled with their experience… just for the sake of some pocket change?

And, dear restaurants, here's something else you need to keep in mind. You might think that, if your client is a tourist who's in Rome for a day, it doesn't really matter if they love your food or think the bill is fair. But guess what? Tourists, too, have brains, friends… and access to TripAdvisor and Chowhound. Plus, with smartphones and iPads becoming more and more prevalent, future would-be clients now can access lousy reviews online more and more easily while they travel.

Not to mention that, every once in a while, that "tourist" happens to be a Rome-based blogger, travel journalist, or guidebook writer. Or even all three.

So please. You're smart people. You've figured out how to start a business in one of the world's most challenging countries for entrepreunership, not to mention a food establishment in one of the most restaurant-saturated cities on earth. So you tell me. Is it really worth the small change?

For more on the frustrations of Rome's food scene, check out my earlier piece on the demise of Rome restaurants like Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, which go downhill as soon as they hit it big.

It's also useful to know how not to get ripped off eating at restaurants in Italy—this is a post to print and bring with you on your trip (or download from your smartphone).

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  1. One quick reminder if you’re paying a supplement through the coperto (cover charge)on your restaurant bill. The cover charge has been prohibited a Regional Law in 2006, but in fact, however five years have passed, there are still many restaurant apply the charge. The Regional Law No. 21, dated November 29, 2006, Article 16, paragraph 3, is clear:” If the meal or drink is served at the table, the price list has to be made ​​available to customers before ordering and must show clearly any eventual service chrge. It is also forbidden to apply any additional cost for the coperto (cover charge)”.

  2. That’s a great point, Monica. Sadly, despite the illegality, everyone still seems to charge pane e coperto (just as almost every restaurant still gives out illegal, not-fiscal receipts). Still, gives us diners something else to fight this kind of shady money-grubbing back with.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. The coperto charge is illegal; a bread charge is not. Since Lazio is only one of 20 regions in Italy, most preprinted bill forms say “pane e coperto” and some bill computers are even programmed to say “coperto”, but in Lazio the charge is for the bread. In my experience, although I most often do take the bread and pay the charge, if I have waved the bread away when it was brought to the table, I have not been charged.

  4. Thanks, Zerlina. The key thing to remember with all of this, I think, is this: If it’s not written on your menu, it’s illegal (same goes for servizio). Charges tacked on after the fact that you were unaware of, therefore, are not only annoying, but against the law. Say that, and they should be removed.

  5. Hi Amanda,

    Like most things in Italy, there’s a law prohibiting an “action” but that doesn’t mean it’s enforced. This is the biggest problem. These restaurants will take advantage of it if there are no consequences and that’s why it’s great that you and Katie are pointing out these places.

    I refuse to eat in a few places which are good because they give non-fiscal receipts. It’s a real pity! As for the cover-charge, fortunately I haven’t been a victim (yet!)

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Browsingrome–

    You’re absolutely right—this is just one of a million illegalities you encounter in Italy that are overlooked. When it comes to coperto being illegal, I’ve always overlooked it, too. And in general, I haven’t had your fortitude in avoiding places that don’t give fiscal receipts. If I feel that a restaurant is taking advantage of me, though, as at Divinare, THEN I’m going to make it clear that I know the law (and the phrase “guardia di finanza”) as extra leverage.

    Christine—thanks! I’m definitely hoping that if we all band together on this, things will change.

    Thanks, both of you, for your comments and support! 🙂

  7. I agree, this is so frustrating, especially for tourists who are trying to do the right thing, but no one wants to feel like they are being taken.
    I’ve been going to Italy for 20 years and never more than on this last trip, to Naples and Rome, have I been told by more waiters that service or “tip” was not included in the check, “hint, hint”. I found it massively irritating and disappointing and know they only said it because we were American.

    BTW, we had a very good meal at Taverna dei Fori Imperiali. I think “dad” was back in the kitchen and both the son and daughter (or son’s wife?) were on the floor. Our two pastas were very good, but I did think the very small artichoke alla romana was a little overpriced.

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