Despite being licensed, bars in Italy are nothing like pubs. They are more similar to coffee shops, but they are actually far more than that. They are an establishment that runs all day with a wide range of food items, and a necessity for tourists with fast and affordable refreshments and services.
Bars, however, can be a source of misunderstandings and frustration due to the many unwritten rules that they conform to and to their many exceptions. This post explores the significance of bars in the Italian popular culture and gives important tips for travelers who are unfamiliar with their ins and outs.
What to get in a bar?
Bars sell a variety of products catering to the desires of the moment, and they are often a daily routine for the Italians. Coffee is sold all day but is especially popular in the morning and after lunch and dinner. Cappuccino is almost exclusively a breakfast item (accompanied with croissants or other pastries), as are juices. Aperitifs are served before lunch and dinner – some bars offer complimentary snacks as an accompaniment. At lunchtime, many bars sell sandwiches (generically called panini in Italian, whether they are grilled or not), accompanied by sodas, beer, or wine. Some bars instead offer a more extended restaurant service, from salads and cold platters to first courses and other warm dishes. A few bars remain open in the evening turning more into pubs.
Seated or standing?
In Italy, customers should always ask themselves: “Am I allowed to bring my order to a table to enjoy it while sitting?” Ignoring this question may lead to an unpleasant experience since, in general, seating is not complimentary in a bar. The price of the items served at the table can be much higher than the price at the counter. The surcharge is a fee for being served by a waiter, occupy the table for any amount of time, but mostly for sitting in a premium location, such as in a historic piazza. When they choose to be served at the table, customers are generally allowed to sit themselves, and they are then greeted by a waiter. When ordering at the counter, instead, customers don’t have rights to a table, even if they carry their order themselves, and even if there are plenty of tables available.
Some bars, however, choose not to have table service – in these, it’s OK for the customers to carry their own orders to the tables. Generally, complimentary tables are small and unclothed, with no tableware and no menus, or high tables without chairs. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask: ‘Possiamo sederci?’ (May we sit down?)
Even when paying for seating, remaining for an excessive amount of time is frowned upon in Italy. Not like in North America, where coffee shops often act as lounges where people who buy a drink gain the right to hang out with their friends, do their homework or use the free WiFi for as long as they want.
Pay before or after?
In many cases, the customers pay after, when they’re finished with their food or drinks. This is generally the case during off-peak hours, especially when sitting at a table and in other situations where the barista can easily keep track of the customers to ensure that they don’t leave without paying. Sometimes, the bar might require pre-payment by asking customers to pay at the cashier first and then present the receipt (‘scontrino’) as a voucher in order to be served at the serving counter (the barista will partially rip it to tag that it has been used). Pre-payment is always in effect if the bar has an active cashier station either located at the counter or standalone. Standalone cash registers may also sell cigarettes, transit tickets, and stamps.
When being served at the table, the bill is generally brought upon request, when the customer is ready to leave. In some cases, however, the check may be brought together with the order and payment may be required immediately. This is quite common when the seating area is located outdoors (especially on sidewalks) and it would be easy for a malevolent customer to dash without paying.
Where are the fixings?
In a bar, all coffee drinks are served in their porcelain or glass cups, on a saucer, and with a metal spoon. There is no “milk and sugar” station, just sugar packets in a container positioned on the counter. Sometimes, a sugar packet is placed directly on the saucer by the barista – this is often the case if the coffee is served at the table. Generally speaking, if Italians wish to have any milk added to their coffee, they ask for it as they order (see below). It is uncommon, although perfectly acceptable, to ask the barista for additional cold milk (in a small milk jug).
(1) Not as commonly ordered in Italy as it is in North America
(2) Weaker in flavor, but containing more caffeine
(3) Stronger in flavor, but containing less caffeine
(4) It’s preferable to use whole milk, for a creamier and more flavorful foam
Can I get it to go?
Getting coffee to go is quite uncommon in Italy, mostly because it only takes five minutes to drink an espresso or a cappuccino (which is never served too hot). Italians also prefer to use ceramic or glass cups, which are warmed up beforehand not to draw any heat from the freshly made coffee. The only case in which is acceptable to ask for the coffee to be served in paper cups with lids is when the coffee is meant to be carried to a work meeting in a nearby office, or when the customer can’t physically go to the bar, e.g. because they are working in a nearby store. In big cities, occasionally, bar waiters can be seen walking around the streets as they deliver coffees-to-go on a tray.
Am I even in a bar?
There are different kinds of bars, and they have different opening hours. Most bars open quite early in the morning (some as early as 5 or 6 am), catering to commuters. These bars remain open until late afternoon or early evening. Other establishments, instead, open around lunch time (with cafeteria service) or even later in the afternoon and continue until late at night (some as late as 2 or 3 am). This is often the cases for bars that operate as ‘enoteche’ (wine bars), or as ‘gelaterie’ (gelato shops).
Bars that double as pasticcerie (pastry shops) are more likely to be open during regular store hours (generally, 9.00 am to 7.30 pm). It has to be noted that not all pasticcerie offer bar service – when they do, they tend to display a “Bar Pasticceria” sign. Similarly, some restaurants also offer bar service. When they do, they also display a “Bar” sign (e.g.: “Bar Ristorante, “Bar Trattoria”, or “Bar Pizzeria”). Unlike in North America, it is generally not acceptable to stop in a restaurant (that isn’t also a bar) just for coffee or drinks.