An Italian friend of mine was recently at a pizzeria in Naples and caught the following scene …
The restaurant owner, a stocky, slightly-above-middle-aged man from Naples took the bill to a table of about 20 Americans.
“Can you divide the check for us?” the American spokesman asks.
The owner whips out a calculator, enters the total amount and counts the heads at the table. “It is ‘X-amount’ per person,” he says.
“No,” the American insists. “Not like that.” He motions around the table.
“Each person needs his own bill.”
The pizzaiolo is agitated. “I can’t do that,” he says. “I don’t remember what each person ate.”
A heated exchange ensues between the pizzaiolo and the American tourist, with the American ending his tirade with, “Fine. I’ll call the police.”
The restaurant owner turns his back on the table, raises both hands above his head and swings around like a batter wildly swinging at a fast-pitched ball. “YOU CALL THE POLICE,” he screams as knocks the American tourist to the floor.
At this point in the story, my friend laughs and picks up his beer, clearly signaling the story’s end.
“But wait,” I told him. “What happened next?”
“The Americans paid the bill.”
This, my fellow Americans, is a prime example of what NOT to do at a restaurant in southern Italy. These tourists made the mistake of assuming restaurants in Italy operate the same way as the restaurants they visit back home.
In America, people are usually presented with a bill for the food they consumed. If I have a salad and glass of wine, I’ll pay less than someone who eats steak and has three cocktails.
In southern Italy, the group is presented with one final bill. They divide that by the number of people at the table and each person pays an equal amount. So if I go to lunch with three of my friends and our bill is €45, we’ll each pay €15, regardless of whose meal cost more.
There is debate here in Calabria about which way is better. Some people think the American way is rude and insulting, while others appreciate the fact that friends aren’t excluded from a night out-just because they are counting their centesimi.
Regardless of what you are used to, it is important to know the dining culture for the area you are visiting so you won’t feel out of place, embarrass yourself-or as in the case of these Americans in Naples-embarrass your countrymen.
But what do you think? Do you prefer to get your personal bill for the food you ordered or would you rather split the bill in even numbers?
Be sure to come back next Monday for Eating Out in Southern Italy, Part 2.