Eating out in Southern Italy, Part I: Who Pays What, When


Napoli Pizza
photo credit: tore_urnes

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.

13 Responses
  1. I would never, not anywhere in the world expect the bill to be divided by what each person ate. If thats what the group wants to do, they should be capable of dividing it themselves.
    I have bee out with Italians and ended up splitting the bill equally, and ended up paying 45 euro when I have only eaten a salad (the others had steak, pasta, wine etc). But the next time I ate with them, before we ordered I politely asked them if it woudl be OK if I payed for just my share otherwise I woudldn’t be able to afford to eat with them.Nobody had any problem with this and we all figured out by ourselves what we had to pay.
    I knew that could happen. I was talking about this with P’s cousin the other day and he assured me that if someone ate less, the others wouldn’t ask them to pay the same-but I’ve seen it. I am glad you were able to work it out with your friends.
    charlie’s last blog post..

  2. Well, as someone that does not have a lot of money I would opt to pay just for my share of the meal;however, I would discuss this with the people I as eating with beforehand and then we would split the bill ourselves – I would never ask the restaurant owner to separate 10 checks after the meal was finished…especially not in Italy!!!!
    I know! There are restaurants in the US that won’t split after the fact-I’m not sure what these Americans were thinking!!
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  3. Come on kiddies. Play nice. I can’t imagine asking the owner to split the bill for 10 people who had pizza no less. The scene you described just reinforces ‘the ugly american’ scenario. People who want to eat less because they can’t afford more or don’t want more should just let their fellow diners know. If they value your friendship there should be no problem.
    I am *so* happy I wasn’t there to see that scene … how embarrassing! The only thing about letting the other diners know is that it could be hard to do with people who aren’t close friends, thus causing someone to not go out. P had a friend meet up with them “after dinner” the other night-likely because he wasn’t sure if he could afford to eat with them.
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  4. yeah, I wouldn’t expect the restaurant to split it up for the party, but I completely think each person should pay for what they ate (unless they all got basically the same thing). This was a big deal to us b/c we’re vegetarian, and don’t eat much at all…so our bill was always low and we liked it that way so we could budget for more meals out. I never would think it a good thing to have to pay 45 euros for a plate of caprese and a pellegrino, while others at the table had steak, wine, and pasta.
    I agree with you. I’d rather watch what I eat/pay less and be able to go out more often! Did you have issues with this and your Italian friends?
    erin :: the olive notes’s last blog post..musical notes and a sunrise

  5. Ciao Cherrye! I see this kind of frustration often at restaurants on the Amalfi Coast. Seems like most places are more willing to accommodate the American preferences for bills than that restaurant you described in Naples, because they have a lot of experience with it. Doesn’t make them happy to do it though! I like the ease of just splitting the bill, especially as so many things are often shared… wine, antipasti, desert. But I have also been with friends when it wasn’t divided evenly because some people ordered less. But certainly it wasn’t divided in the precise way that we Americans tend to like. Thanks for the great post reminding people that their travel experiences will be much more enjoyable (can you imagine the impression that those Americans took home of Naples just because it wasn’t like America? silly!) if you relax and adjust to the ways things are done where you are visiting. I see tourists all the time being frustrated that Italy isn’t America. It seems silly to say, but I see it so often!
    It does sound “silly,” but I know what you mean. I’ve heard people come here and expect it to be like America, as well. I am hoping by knowing before they come, they can be prepared for Italy’s wonderful differences.
    Laura from Ciao Amalfi’s last blog post..Sunday Shout-out: Celebrating Easter in Italy

  6. I was raised with the notion: “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” It seems like a no-brainer, and it’s sad to hear that Americans are behaving so poorly. I thought we’d gotten past that. Even in the States, when we go out with friends (and even friends in a business environmemnt), we usually decide how many ways the bill will be split and put two, three, or more credit cards with the check. It gets divided evenly, and it’s no problem. And if someone was unable to pay a larger share than they ate, it can always be worked out but having that person put some cash in the pot while the others pick up the balance. Frankly, the guy who got decked got what he deserved!
    Ha! I think my friend thought the same thing. I think we should all say he was Canadian. Not American. 😉

  7. Rich

    This is the sort of behavior that gives all of us Americans a bad name. Seriously, when the owner said he couldn’t do it, just sit there and figure it out yourselves. I would hope that if you could find your way to Italy you could divide a bill.

    The pieces of advice I give to Americans going to Italy (especially rural Italy): 1)You need to ask for your bill, otherwise, you’ll be sitting there a long time. 2) Carry some cash with you, small places may not take (or many not want to take) credit cards. 3) I know it feels wrong not to tip, but seriously, you don’t have to. If you do tip, don’t overdo it. 4) If you have food allergies or are a picky eater make sure to have a way to translate the menu basics so you know what you’re getting. 5) Don’t show up to eat dinner at 7:00, if the place is even open, you’ll be eating alone.

    Now I’m thinking about eating in Calabria and wanting to get on a plane today.
    Great tips, Rich. Come on over!

  8. it this a true story? Where were these Americans from? Were they teenagers? I don’t believe it.

    Most non chain restaurants in America do not give separate checks beyond 2 or 3 people. To be honest I don’t think the chains give separate checks either.

    You go out to eat you get one check and you and your friends either split evenly or you put in a little more or a little less. That is not for the restaurant to figure out. You are sitting at a table together, the check is for the table.

    I have never asked for or received a separate bill. I can’t even comment on the rudeness. Why would someone ask a pizza owner in Naples to give out 10 different bills?
    This was told to me by a good friend (who I’ve never known to lie) who was there. I asked their ages, too. He said they were older Americans-60s plus.

    I think it really depends on where you are from in the states. Many restaurants in TX and where I lived in Fl, will you ask you in advance who is on the same ticket. If they bring one ticket, then everyone just looks at the bill and pays their part. This may have been hard for the Americans (who I am in NO WAY justifying, mind you) b/c sometimes they don’t write down what you had here. They’ll just write numbers and give you the bill. Maybe they couldn’t figure it out? I don’t know. Either way, they were shameful!
    nyc/caribbean ragazza’s last blog post..Today is a holiday? Where is everyone?

  9. thanks Cherrye for responding. Okay now that I know they were older I kind of understand (but of course not excusing the behavior). Don’t be cheap people. It’s pizza, just split the bill 10 ways.

    I wonder what they told people when they returned to the States? And I agree with J. ha.
    I can’t really imagine WHAT they were thinking. You are right-pizza. We all know it costs more or less the same when you go out for pizza here. Mah! Be careful in Naples. lol
    nyc/caribbean ragazza’s last blog post..Spring in Rome.

  10. Hi Cherrye. Hope you had a nice Pasqua.
    We usually just split it evenly but I can understand the other side as well. If you want to have everything itemized for 10 people though… do it yourself. I can just picture the conversation with the police… “he won’t give us separate checks!” and?
    The problem with many American travelers is that they think everything should be how it is in America. In that case, stay home.
    Absolutely. I know many travelers tend to do this, yet I am always surprised when they do. Why travel if you want everything to be like it is “back home?”
    joe@italyville’s last blog post..Top 5 Favorite Italian Easter Foods

  11. joanne at frutto della passione

    Big chains back home (and not only) have a computerized system for ordering and creating bills. The waiter is responsbible for using the computer to send orders to the kitchen and seperate bills (ASKED FOR IN ADVANCE) can easily be printed at the end of the meal. These systems are not quite so common in Italy. Here in Milan, dividing the check equally is called *alla Romana* and is pretty common among good friends. However, when my coworkers go for lunch we each pay what we ordered. Personally I don’t mind either, what drives me nuts is the person that complains about how the bill is paid!
    Interesting. I’ve never heard “Alla Romana,” I like that. Thanks for the northern perspective.
    joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..Forte e gentile, tu sei abruzzese

  12. Monica

    In southern Italy it’s the common method, “alla romana” (see .
    In Northern Italy restaurant owner normally asks before giving the bill how people will pay (“alla romana” or “ciascuno per sé”)

    Good to know! Grazie!

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