To tip or not to tip…

For whatever reason, understanding how and when to tip is one of the Top Ten concerns for Americans as they plan their trip. As I state in Italy: Instructions for Use, the guidelines are the same as for so many things Italian: dipende…it depends. [The contrast to us Americani is endearing: I’d wager that we are the ONLY culture that wants these rules so clearly defined before we head out, determined to be good guests and do exactly the right thing in as many situations as possible…an attitude, of course, that mystifies Italians, who will consistently forgive us and everyone else, whenever necessary, for just not being Italian.]

If you go to a local trattoria in a normal town with an Italian friend, you will rarely, if ever, see them leave a tip. These trattorie are frequently family operations and, well, it’s just not done. But we’re Americans, and we tip, and in the very same situation, I might leave 5 – 10% tip…or not…and either would be fine. A higher tip though — say, our standard 20% — would simply be incomprehensible…and borderline insulting (Do you have to demonstrate you have so much money? Why not just order the fish?)

A sort of savvy cynicism becomes apparent as you move into the more commercialized tourist destinations, which now includes Tuscany. Ostentatiousness is quite welcome, principally because the work-hours double, as does the workload and the number of rude customers, rents have climbed, and as a customer you can make up for the person from that other country that left nothing. Private guides, taxi drivers, anyone who earns their living in the tourist trade will graciously accept any tip, and just say, Grazie mille.

From Cortona to Siena to Verona to Venice, though, I would never assume the server will get the “service” item included on the restaurant bill (and you’ll never see any tax there, by the way), so feel free to leave a 5% – 10% cash tip for the server. Cash is critical however: if you charge your meal and include a tip in the amount, the server will likely never see it (there’s no tip line on the receipt). In addition, these tips are probably being pooled among the servers…but they’re all earning it, trust me.

I recently had a couple stay at a lovely four-star hotel in Venice, and they tipped the bellhop who delivered their room service breakfast €10 every day for a week. When we ran into him at an enoteca, he bought them a round of prosecco, and they toasted each other. How “Italy” is that.

Equally confounding, of course, is the traveler who tips the nice man who helps them hoist all the massive luggage he brought up and into the train (I’ve seen this more than once). I’m always puzzled by this: he’s not a servant, just a considerate person who’s lending a hand.

Common sense, a bit of grace, and, as an Italian friend once told me, an understanding that la mancia, the tip, comes from the heart, will keep you at ease in Italy as you decide what, and how much, to offer those who serve you.

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