THE COVER CHARGE: WHAT IS AND HOW TO EVALUATE ITS CORRECTNESS
The "cover charge" is a menu item typical of Italian restaurants. But how was it born? What does it include? And above all: how can we evaluate its congruity?
One of the latest trends in catering is not to use the tablecloth. You eat directly on the table (as far as we know, the dishes are still used …). But you still have to pay for the cover charge. The same for those who use disposable tablecloths and napkins.
In these cases, paying the cover charge can really bother you, because the price of the cover charge must be commensurate with the services that compose it.
But what services are included in the “cover charge”? What is it? What is the origin of this custom?
And above all: is it right to pay for it?
The cover charge includes all those aspects that surround the real culinary preparations. In the cover charge, therefore, must be added the cleanliness of the crockery, cutlery, glasses, tablecloth, napkins and, in the case of a big restaurant, all the formal equipment. To this, some add the price of bread, salt, and condiments in general, those that are already on the table or demanded.
Also bread, salt, and pepper, therefore, are part of the cover charge?
In some cases, yes. The point is that every restaurateur adds all that he prefers into this service.
Leaving aside the technical consideration on how much it is up to a restaurateur to keep the item “Cover charge” on the menu (we will discuss the topic in the next article out Monday, November 12, 2018), there is no doubt that in some cases for us customers may be really annoying.
The cover charge, in fact, has well-defined historical origins and the custom dates back to the Middle Ages when travelers and pilgrims (or even the farmers who came to the city to trade their products) brought with them the bundle with food to be eaten. In that context, landlords and innkeepers offered the opportunity to their guests to eat their meal indoors, giving them cutlery and a roof.
A modern form of the old cover charge can be considered the school canteen. The Court of Appeals of Turin admitted a group of parents was right in a famous sentence, known then as the “panino libero” (free sandwich), in which the children were allowed to bring their own food from home and use only water, bread and clean dishes.
But beyond the school canteens and some borderline cases (such as those in wineries and taverns that still allow customers to bring food with them to make money only with drinks), the cover charge is due everywhere.
Everywhere, yes, in Italy. In other countries, it is not used to charge additional services, and the cover charge is included in the price of the menu. In France, for example, it has been so since 1987, when a decree established it definitively.
Even in Italy, to be honest, someone has tried to regulate the matter. In Lazio (an Italian region), for example, since 1995 the restaurateur is not allowed to charge customers for the cover charge. On the other hand, they pay for service and bread.
Now, how can a foodie have an idea when facing the cost of the cover charge?
Easy: if the foodie has common sense, he should show it.
Even the cover charge, in fact, is part of the general evaluation of the business and be careful, if a restaurant does not have the cover item on the menu it doesn’t mean it is cheaper than another. In fact, if the cost does not appear on the menu, for sure, it is included in the price of the dishes. Besides, if the restaurant advertises the fact that doesn’t ask to pay for it, it is good to keep in mind that it is just using poor advertisement.
The question changes if, at the time of the bill, you consider the cost charged for the services to be disproportionate. You will then have to evaluate the type of business you have attended: 10 euros would be madness for an eatery while it might be acceptable for a Michelin starred restaurant, in which the waiters serve you in white gloves, and the tablecloths are fine nineteenth-century muslin.
This does not mean, however, that you have to accept to pay 10 euros for a cover charge in a big restaurant just because it is, in fact, a big restaurant. A disproportionately cover charge is not justified if tablecloths are not used (today, as mentioned, eating on the bare surface of the table is trendy). And above all, is it really reasonable that the item “Coperto” is separate when choosing a tasting menu? No, it is not reasonable, and indeed it is clearly a way to make dishes seem less expensive.
In conclusion, the cover charge must really be justified by the quality of the service. Restaurants and their seriousness can also be evaluated by the transparency and the way in which they manage the prices of the cover charge, whose permanence in the menu has historical roots that, perhaps, can be removed (for example Matteo Renzi, before becoming Prime Minister, proposed its abolition …).
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)