How much should you leave following a pleasant meal in an Italian trattoria? It’s perfectly correct to leave nothing at all. That’s hard for travelling Americans to accept, wired as we are to add a 20% gratuity (on average) to any restaurant check. More than once I’ve witnessed tourists pressing money into a waiter’s hand. And I’ve been guilty of the same thing–not in a restaurant, but in a hotel after the concierge had helped me repeatedly in the course of a week. She turned down my tip, saying she had simply been doing her job.
I got the message–tipping, even with the best intentions, means imposing a system that is ours, not theirs. In Italy, waiting tables is a lifelong occupation for many people, a salaried position with earnings comparable to those of a postal carrier, mechanic or teacher. You’re not likely to get rich waiting tables but there’s the same dignity in holding this job as many others–and, unless Berlusconi totally blows it, servers are protected by the same social net as every other Italian.
In the U.S., waiting tables is often a transitional job–something young people do while waiting for the next thing, or what you do when you can’t get anything better. The tips we leave are essential for servers to make a living wage–we know that and so most of us are conscientious about doing our part. But it’s not enough, really. Servers often have stingy benefits or none at all, and they live in perpetual uncertainty as to what their earnings will be week to week. Will business be good? Will tips be generous or will they get stiffed by that party of eight who demanded special treatment all evening? No wonder most people don’t want to stick with this kind of job their whole lives.
I wondered whether our influence has changed tipping behavior among Italians. But my friends say no, even in Florence and Rome, where tourists and students abound. “I suppose many Americans leave a large tip, but that hasn’t spoiled things for the rest of us,” one friend said, noting that Italian credit card slips do not contain an extra line for a gratuity. He leaves nothing when the family who owns the restaurant also does the serving (presumbly, their prices take their own compensation into account) and notes that one euro per person is adequate in most circumstances. I was relieved to hear this because I’ve always followed the one-euro rule myself–leaving nothing just goes against the grain.
A more generous tip is appropriate in a fine-dining restaurant or when the experience is exceptional in some way. Another Italian friend said her group had left 20 euros on a 350-euro check for an elaborate tasting menu–which comes to less than 6 percent. But, again, none of this is expected in the same way as in the U.S.
If Americans feel uncomfortable about failing to leave a tip, they sometimes get indignant on spotting the coperto (“cover charge”) on their check. Usually just a couple of euros, it covers the cost of table set-up, including table linens. Makes sense, doesn’t it, once you’re in the know?
Of course, Italians are prone to their own tipping faux pas when they visit the U.S. After a visiting friend picked up our tab of $20, she pulled out a dollar bill to leave behind. I explained gently that we’d have to do better.
Next post: More on Restaurant Etiquette in Italy