No (Fiscal) Receipt? No Party: How Tourists Can Help the Campaign Against Tax Evasion in Italy

Tax evasion is a huge problem in Italy. By knowing how important a fiscal receipt is, and what it looks like, here’s how tourists can help.

Even delicious food might not be legal in Italy
Everyone knows that tax evasion is one of the biggest issues facing Italy's economy. But very few tourists to Italy know that they have the power to do something about it.

And should.

That's because tax evasion in Italy doesn't just happen in accountants' offices behind closed doors. It happens every time a product, meal, or coffee is sold. Why? Because Italian stores and restaurants have a book of "fiscal receipts" issued by the government—and legally, they need to give the customer a fiscal receipt (ricevuta fiscale) for each interaction. Each time they use a ricevuta fiscale, the government knows about the purchase… and the interaction is taxed.

Without issuing that ricevuta fiscale, it's like the interaction never happened. And, therefore, it's untaxed.

And so, guess what: You hardly ever see fiscal receipts in Italy. Especially if you're a tourist.

Restaurants and stores know that tourists have no idea what a fiscal receipt looks like versus a non-fiscal receipt. They also know that tourists have a tendency to think it's "cute" when their waiter does something like, say, scribble the total on the tablecloth or a napkin. Guess what? That's not a fiscal receipt. And that's not cute. It means that your meal isn't being taxed. It's going right into the owner's pockets, tax-free.

This has been a huge issue for, well, ages. It's something everyone knows, but—until recently—that nobody publicizes. It's part of a system that many Italians mistakenly believe benefits everyone: After all, it obviously helps owners, in the short term, especially since taxes are so high in Italy. And as a customer? If you're a regular, you know that, if you don't ask for a fiscal receipt, your local restaurant or drycleaner or whatever will give you a discount. Everybody wins.

Except, of course, that they don't.

In 2009 alone, Italians evaded about 120 billion euros in taxes—that's almost four times the value of Monti's new austerity budget. If Italy were as strict in collecting taxes as the U.K. and the U.S. over the last 40 years, economists have calculated, then the country's national debt would be 80 percent of GDP, not 120 percent.

Doesn't the government know about this, you ask? Aren't they doing anything? Well, sure. There's something called the Guardia di Finanza in Italy—think the IRS with guns—whose sole job is to make sure that fiscal interactions are done legally. Occasionally, they'll get a tip on a restaurant or shop. The problem? Because Italy is what it is, the establishment usually gets a tip-off that they're coming. And so, surprise! When the Guardia check the receipts they're issuing, they're suddenly fiscal.

With Monti's new government, though, things seem to be improving. There have just been several big stings that have shown just how bad tax evasion was—and not just in the much-maligned south, but in the supposedly-so-civilized north, too. In December, 80 tax inspectors swooped in on the tony ski town of Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy's Dolomites. In the wake of the inspection, declared profits were suddenly up 400 percent from the previous season (gee whiz, how'd that happen?). In mid-January in Rome, an inspection of 292 businesses in one day found that 52% were in violation. And last weekend, the Guardia di Finanza targeted Milan. In the days after their blitz, reported income went up by 44 percent.

So. Well and good. But government can only do so much.

Consumers have to help, too.

Italians have started calling for boycotts among establishments that aren't issuing fiscal receipts. One of the leaders of the pack is Rome's own Puntarella Rossa, who has launched the campaign "No scontrino, no party" (no receipt, no party), encouraging diners to ask for fiscal receipts every time they eat—or to boycott the restaurant. Even more effectively, the restaurants in violation are being named and shamed. Citizens took the campaign seriously this week in Bari, for example, sending photos of the receipts they received, with the restaurants' names, to both the Guardia and to La Repubblica's blog on Bari.

It's a fantastic idea, and one that needs to spread. But it can be expanded to tourists, too. Because, with as many non-Italian diners and customers as there are in Rome and the rest of Italy, everyone needs to be a part of this for it to succeed.

So, folks: When you're dining in Italy, always ask for a "ricevuta fiscale." Don't accept hand-scribbled scraps of paper as receipts, and don't accept a receipt that says, at the top, "NON FISCALE" (not fiscal). Unless, that is, you don't mind supporting Italy's tax evasion—and the huge issues it's causing for not only Italy's economy, but the worldwide economy, too.

You could even take it a step further: Snap a photo of the illegal receipt and email it, with the restaurant's name, to

Need help figuring out what is and what isn't a fiscal receipt? Check out Walks of Italy's blog post on how not to get ripped off at Italian restaurants, which includes a helpful section, with photos, on what fiscal and non-fiscal receipts look like.

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Seven Tips To Travel Ethically in Italy

The Fontanamaro agriturismo in Umbria, Italy...ethical travel isn't sooo bad.Every time you travel, you have an impact on your destination.

As much as we avid travelers like to think to the contrary, that's not always a good thing. Your waste is now your destination's waste, your carbon footprint its carbon footprint. The choices you make of what to eat and buy can commercialize the agricultural systems and undercut the artisanal production of your destination. The list of potential harms goes on — which is why "invasive tourism" is such a risk for cities and sites worldwide.

That's as true for top destinations in Italy as it is anywhere else. Just recently, the head of the Vatican Museums announced that the 20,000 or so daily visitors to the Sistine Chapel are damaging the frescoes with their dust, sweat, and carbon dioxide. Ruins are deteriorating, artisans' shops closing down, and the center is commercializing — thanks to lots of global forces, not least of all tourism.

Luckily, though, with just a little forethought, you can travel ethically. And you have the power, both with your pocketbook and the other choices you make, to preserve that art, support that culinary tradition, and help those people you like so much.

Here, just a few easy things you can do to make sure that you're helping — not harming — the places in Italy (and elsewhere!) that you love visiting.

1. Never, ever touch the frescoes. Or paintings. Or sculptures. Or tapestries. The number-one way to harm most art is to touch it, transferring the natural oils from your skin onto its surface. That wears everything away from paint to bronze.

For proof, just check out the corners of doors, say in the Vatican's Borgia apartments, that have been frescoed; because these are easy to grab as you go down a hall, they're usually almost entirely worn away. Or check out the medieval bronze statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica. Hundreds of years of pilgrims kissing and touching its right foot have — you guessed it — worn away the right foot. So please, if you like art, stand and gaze at it. But never, ever touch it.

Be careful with that camera flash, too — it damages cloth and tapestries, as well as some painting. Always be sure it's okay before the bulb goes off.

2. Eat only foods in season. When tourists demand out-of-season products, like artichokes in November, that either forces Italy to import the food in question (that Roman artichoke isn't so Roman, and isn't so "green," if it's from France!), or screws up local agricultural rhythms and the environment as farmers try to adapt to commercial forces. Be aware: Learn what you can, and can't, expect to be in season where you're going. For a quick read-over of what is in season when you're visiting Italy and other tips on how to eat responsibly when traveling,  check out Katie Parla's excellent tips for how to be a conscientious eater.

Fiori di zucca pizza at Da Francesco, RomePizza with fiori di zucca at Da Francesco, Rome? That's something you should only be eating between July and November…

3. Don't buy plastic water bottles. Yes, they're everywhere. Yes, Italians buy them, too. But the effect is terrible. In the Cinque Terre each August alone, 400,000 plastic bottles are found littering the park and its beaches. Venice, which manages 20 million visitors each year, gets trashed with 13 million plastic bottles. And even if you dispose of your plastic bottles properly, remember that that waste has to go somewhere in Italy. (If you're in Naples, of course, that garbage might just stay there).

Italy is taking steps to eradicate the problem: The Cinque Terre banned plastic bottles this past September. From now on, visitors will have the option to buy a 1 euro metal bottle and to refill it at the park's fountains. But for areas of Italy that haven't yet legislated the matter, do the same. Buy a glass or metal bottle and refill it. That's especially easy in Rome, where there are 2,500 nasoni spewing cold, fresh water around the city.

5. Walk, or use local transportation. Italy's cities are great for walking. But if you have to get somewhere faster, take the metro or bus. It's much "greener" than individual taxis — and cheaper and pretty easy to use, too. 

6. Stay in agriturismi. They're super-cheap (think €30 to €50 per night), in every destination you could possibly want to visit in Italy, usually in beautiful settings, and they often include a home-cooked meal with ingredients all harvested or slaughtered right there. (Now that's hyperlocal).

Agriturismo near Siena, ItalyTypical Tuscan agriturismo: the Agriturismo Sant'Apollinare

Sound too good to be true? It's not. There are few more-rewarding places to stay overnight than an agriturismo, or "farm stay." And far from the slightly-backwards, eating-in-the-kitchen-with-the-farmer's-family image the word sometimes conjures, nearly every agriturismo I've stayed at has been beautiful and clean, with super-friendly but not-obtrusive owners. Some even go up to the "luxury" scale, like the beautiful Fontanaro agriturismo in Umbria (pictured at top of page). It's got a pool and gorgeous villas — but makes all its own wine, honey, and olive oil, too.

Olives from Fontanaro, an Italy agriturismoOlives at Fontanaro, Umbria

Since many  agriturismi don't even have websites, one of the best ways to find them is simply to type "agriturismo" into Google Maps for the destination you're looking for. You'll be surprised at just how many crop up.

6. Try to limit your air travel. Flying back and forth from Europe to the U.S. emits three to four tons of carbon. That's more emissions than 20 people living in Bangladesh will cause in a whole year. To reduce that impact, take trains, ferries or other transport whenever you can. Consider purchasing a "carbon offset" for your flight, and try to make fewer, longer trips rather than short journeys.

7. Think before you buy. Obviously, that's true with every purchase you make, whether at home or abroad. When you buy a scarf from a Rome vendor that was made in China, your coins vote for outsourcing; when you buy handmade leather gloves in Florence, you vote for local artisans.

Be aware, too, that not all local products are necessarily "ethical." I posted several weeks ago about the coral industry on the Amalfi coast. Yes, buying a coral necklace supports local jewelry-makers, but it supports the destruction of the coral reefs, too. Decide what's important to you — but try to be aware of the local issues, both cultural and environmental, first.



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