As good as liqueur

Last November, Tobias Jones wrote this in The Guardian:

And it’s food, more now than football, that is the last refuge of that dying breed, the Italian patriot. For many, the act of eating is an almost sacred rite. Bread is something numinous: the highest compliment you can pay to someone is that they’re buono come il pane (as good as bread) and Italians are shocked less by English food than the fact that we eat it without bread… In Italy, the table is a place outside time (hence the country’s “slow food” movement) in which capitalist greed is held at bay (you never tip in a restaurant, in fact they “tip” you, invariably putting bottles of liqueur on the table for free).

I learned this expression, buono come il pane, twenty-five years ago from Hermann Hesse’s essay On the Word “Bread”. You don’t have to read Hesse to figure out that bread has been “something numinous” for agricultural civilizations since they started growing wheat, rye and corn. Besides, eating bread with other food helps to fill your stomach faster. That way, you can get up from the table feeling pleasantly full rather than unhappy with the frugal meal. It seems one of those practical habits from the age of scarcity that has survived, as a cultural custom, into the age of abundance.

For all I know, Italians don’t tip much but leaving a euro or two for the server is not unusual. As for the bottles of liqueur put on the table “invariably… for free,” most Italian eateries add a cover charge to the bill – “pane e coperto” or simply “coperto” – which is roughly the cost of cleaning the table, changing the tablecloth and refilling the bread basket. (This practice is not specifically aimed at foreign tourists, predating their mass influx.) The coperto is not a tip – it’s not optional and goes to the restaurant rather than the waiter – but a disincentive to tip after the meal. I wouldn’t be surprised if family-owned restaurants with a constant local clientele didn’t charge the coperto, out of common sense rather than “capitalist greed.”

I’ve been to Italy more than once or twice, but you don’t have to trust my word – try Googling “pane e coperto” for a start. The region of Lazio – which includes Rome – has even outlawed the coperto, or at least considered outlawing it. Not that it’s a wise idea (mildly speaking) but the practice must have been widespread enough in the 1990s and the 2000s to earn itself a regional prohibition. A complimentary offer of liqueur after a good meal might be expected from every decent restaurateur, but to speak of it without mentioning the near-ubiquitous bread-and-tablecloth charge isn’t quite fair to the reader.

Tobias Jones is the author of The Dark Heart of Italy, a well-received “account of his four-year voyage across the Italian peninsula.” (I couldn’t help noticing the review by Prof. John Foot misspelled “unrepentant.”) He has since moved on to crime fiction.

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