For years I have had to explain to foreign visitors why Italians (myself included) often do not sit down in coffee shops to have their espresso. In a country famed for "taking it slow" - even too much so – it is clearly a contradiction that the Italian-style coffee break normally involves standing at a counter to quickly drink a cappuccino and eat a pastry. Especially unusual is the fact that there are often plenty of charming tables inside the coffee shop, or even more invitingly just outside the door facing a pretty piazza, sitting empty (unless occupied by tourists).
So, why is it that most Italians don’t like to sit and enjoy their coffee? The answer is simple, because they prefer not to pay double (and sometimes even more than six times) what they pay at the counter. Yes, sitting down comes at a high price in most establishments. When you are in the historic center of a major city or tourist town, you’d best be aware of this “little” secret. Too often foreign visitors are stunned to receive their bill after ordering a simple espresso or a common beverage, and many are downright outraged if they have dared to order something more costly, like a mixed drink or a glass of wine. It is true that the coffee shop will present you with a menu, where you can clearly see the hefty cost of their offerings. However, many unknowing tourists who just want something commonplace, like a cappuccino, don’t even ask for a menu – they just order directly, and that’s where the rude awakening is guaranteed.
Unfortunately, this practice has been in force forever – and it is unlikely to change. The country’s prominent coffee shops defend their prices by citing the elegance of their venues and the prime location (after all it’s hard to defend a 9 Euro espresso, no matter how good it is!) So, the best thing is to be forewarned. Sometimes, it might even be worth it to pay 10 dollars for a Coke in order to spend a half-hour respite looking at something as beautiful and unique as the Pantheon in
Rome or the Duomo in Florence – after all how often do you get to do it? However, for many (especially the locals) paying this high toll is a bit steep, and certainly not something you can do daily. So, unless you find the coffee shop that is a bit removed from the tourist circuit, which will allow you to sit down with your order at no additional charge, you are best to read the menu first, before you sit down, or just join the Italians at the counter!