One of the most commonly asked questions is what is the tipping policy in Italy. The answer is that it is not expected or required to leave a tip. Period. If you are inclined to do so because the service was good, then only a few Euros. I almost never leave a tip.
In the U.S. it is customary to tip 15-20% because the servers are paid less than minimum wage, and they rely on tips to earn a living. This is part of American culture. But only Americans leave tips. In some places, such as Germany, you may leave the change, but not 15 or 20% of the bill. But generally, non-Americans do not tip.
Some restaurants in Venice are in business to grub money from tourists, not to serve good food, and should be avoided. The waiters know that Americans leave tips. They are constantly asked by Americans whether the tip is included. Only Americans ask this, because everyone else in the world knows that it is—the question makes no sense to people from other countries, and marks you as an American (as if they couldn’t already tell). For that reason, if the waiter in these places thinks you are American, they will tell you that the tip is not included. They will bring you a bill that shows a 12% service charge, and still tell you that the tip is not included. They will tell you that this is a tax, or that it not for them, it’s for the owner. These are both out-and-out lies, and amounts to fraud. A bona fide restaurant will never mention a tip. (Note, for example, that there is no place on the credit card receipt to add a tip)
How do you tell which to avoid? Here are some clues:
1) They stand outside and all but drag you in. A good restaurant would never do this. This seems to me little better than begging in the streets. These people only want to get your money. The first thing a good restaurant will often ask is whether you have a reservation.
2) There are 10,000 things on the menu. A decent restaurant will have only a handful of things in each category on the menu. That is, a few appetizers, four or five pasta courses, and four or five main courses. If the menu looks like Denny’s or the Double-T Diner, run.
3) There are photos of the food on the menu. Self explanatory.
4) They have a tourist menu. Again, self explanatory.
5) They are always open. Reputable restaurants in Venice close at about 2:30 (if they serve lunch) and do not open again until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.
What to look for in a good restaurant: Generally, the good restaurants will be small, have only a handful of tables, and may have the menu taped to the window written on a place mat (a kind of mustard-colored paper).
There are exceptions to every rule. For example, Gianni’s on the Zattere (identified by its bright yellow chairs) violates most of these rules, but will never beg for a tip. The food is good and the service prompt and polite. It is also in a beautiful spot on a little pier over the Giudecca Canal. They serve a wide variety of food that should please most adults, and they will have something for the kids.
An exception in the other direction, i.e., a restaurant that is less obviously a money grubber because they do not do everything I mentioned above, but is one of the more egregious violators because they bill you a 12% service charge and then tell you tip is not included, and that the 12% is a tax (which, again, is a bold faced lie), is Ai Tosi near the Rialto Market at Sotoportego del Capeler. The food is okay, the service fairly quick and attentive, but the tip thing keeps from going there, and Americans who go there should just ignore the request for a tip.
A note on the “coperto:” This literally means “cover,” and is a standard charge in all restaurants in Italy, which they say covers the cost of the bread. It is usually 2-3 Euros per person, but can be more in fancy places. I don’t take exception to this because everyone does it, and everyone (even Italians) have to pay it—it does not single out Americans.