Italian coffee shop etiquette, I have learned, is not the same as American coffee shop etiquette. There are rules. Sometimes they will tell you the rules and sometimes they will not. If you’ve never felt like a total dumbass in an Italian bar or café, you’re doing it wrong.
In America, you’ll wander into your local Starbucks or Panera, of if you’re my dad; your local Dunkin’ Donuts (I don’t know why) and you’ll order your favorite coffee drink. You’ll pay while someone is preparing your drink, and then you’ll wait for it. Some young person will hand it to you and that’s it. You can walk out the door and drink it on the way to work or sit down and sip it while you scroll through your Twitter feed. No one gives a shit. The price is the same whether your coffee is “for here” or “to go.” It doesn’t matter if you’re standing up or sitting down.
Not in Italy.
Some bars and cafés will charge you more for what they call table service. You’re drinking the same coffee. But a €1.20 cappuccino consumed while standing at the bar and causing a bit of a traffic jam for other people trying to order drinks turns into a €5 cappuccino if you put your ass in a seat.
It took me some time to do this math, and I’m still not always sure about when I’ll be charged more and when I won’t. So I stand there looking suspiciously from my coffee cup to the person who served it. I’ll start to move towards a table and then change my mind, ultimately looking like a squirrel who can’t decide whether to cross the street or stay where she is. I’ve been run over more than once.
Whenever possible, I avoid the places that charge more, mostly because they are usually fancy and I am not. Also because I enjoy sitting. It’s part of my American-ness, I suppose. We sit and we spread and we can’t help it. I like to linger over my morning cappuccino, licking the spoon and dipping part of my croissant into the cup until there is nothing left and I look like I have a coke habit from the powdered sugar of the pastry on my nose.
So I get an attitude when I walk into a place that charges extra for seating. Unless I know about it in advance. One of the places I go to for hot chocolate has a very aggressive up-charge, but I can’t get too outraged because there are signs all over the place advising their “gentile cliente” that there is a “very small extra charge” for seating. I’m cool with that. They’re telling me, so no surprises. I stand at the bar and drink my hot chocolate, feeling like I’m getting away with something.
What pisses me off is when it’s a sneak attack. My sister and I had coffees at a place right off via Cavour – admittedly touristy and completely packed. We sat down with our cappuccinos just to get out of the way of the steady stream of tourists with their selfie sticks and their entitlements. After our drinks, we brought our empty cups to the bar because we are considerate like that. The gentleman handed me my bill for €14. Um. But.
Surprise! We sat down for five minutes and that’s extra.
I’m willing to pay extra when “table service” means you sit down and peruse a menu, order your selection and have it brought to you. That’s well worth my extra euro. The Italians do this brilliantly, too. Order a coca cola at a bar and they come out with it on a silver tray. Half of a stunning crystal glass is filled with perfectly square ice cubes, topped with an elegantly sliced strip of lemon. They make a production about opening the can and pouring it into your glass. They offer you a straw. This is far more dignified than the 32-ounce Styrofoam cup you fill yourself at the fountain in the U.S.
This is the type of aesthetic I am willing to pay for. It’s getting blindsided that hurts.
Stick to the local places that don’t give a fuck if you sit or stand and won’t charge more. There are lots of them hiding in the side streets of Florence. If you want fancy, be prepared to pay.
And if you’re not sure – don’t sit down.
SIT AND ENJOY YOUR COFFEE WITHOUT A FEE AT THESE LOCAL SPOTS
- i Cugini on Borgo Pinti 69
- Caffe Accademia on Piazza San Marco
- Bar Anna on via de Ginori 26
What other locations would you recommend for coffee without an extra charge?
Cari Oleskewicz is a poet and writer based in Tampa and currently living in Florence, Italy. Her work has been published in a number of online and print journals and she is at work on a novel in verse.