How Tourists Are Taken Advantage of at Italian Coffee Shops

The more familiar tourists become with Italy, the easier it is for them to recognize the frequency in which Italians take advantage of them.  Throughout my travels, I’ve felt victimized many times, whether from being overcharged for the purchase of an article of clothing, or from the outrageous currency exchange fees assessed at currency kiosks throughout city centers.  But during my winter 2020 trip to Florence, I became acutely aware of something that I never recognized before – the coffee shop scams.

One day I purchased an espresso at a bar in the center for 2 Euros.  I thought the price was high, so I later told my wife (who grew up in Florence and speaks perfect Italian), and she agreed that the price was not normal.  She later returned to the bar with the receipt and challenged them.  Their response was something like, “we did not recognize him as your husband, but had we recognized him, we would have charged him the normal amount.”  This experience was disappointing to say the least, especially because the bar is well known in Florence and one that we often frequent.  But what about all the other bars, I wondered.  Are they doing this to tourists too?  I enlisted the help of my wife to find out.

At the end of our investigation, we unfortunately found bars in Florence doing it all over the city.   Below are some examples of how bars take advantage of tourists and foreigners, and what we should all be looking out for.  I have broken the types of dishonest practices into three categories: 1) Blatant Deception; 2) Hidden Deception; and 3) Disguised Deception.

Blatant Deception

Italian Receipt
A comparison of two receipts from the same bar in the center of Florence. The first receipt shows a cappuccino price of 1.30 Euros from when my wife ordered, while the second receipt shows a cappuccino price of 1.50 Euros from when I ordered less than ten minutes later.

The above image is an example of what I call “Blatant Deception” because the receipt identifies the item purchased (here, a cappuccino), and it identifies the price.  Comparing the two receipts, the discrimination is quite blatant, exposing the bar to easier attack if challenged.  If a challenge were to occur, a bar may simply apologize and return the difference, but in my experience, they will come up with lies as excuses such as: i) the cups were different sizes; or ii) one cup had more espresso.

Hidden Deception

Italian Cappuccino
A comparison of two receipts from the same bar in the center of Florence. The first receipt shows a cappuccino (to-go) price of 2.00 Euros from when my wife ordered, while the second receipt shows a cappuccino (to-go) price of 2.50 Euros from when I ordered (both within a 10-minute time period).

The above image is an example of what I call “Hidden Deception” because the receipt hides the item purchased in a general category of Caffetteria which means Coffee Bar.  Sometimes coffee shops add more than one item to the receipt into the single category, such as Caffetteria, so if the bars are ever challenged, they can simply lie and either claim to have no knowledge of the transactions (since the entry is not specific), or take the position that the two transactions were not identical, having no way to prove otherwise.  Whatever the case may be, when the bar chooses to discriminate and charge tourists an unjustifiable premium, they may opt to utilize the “Hidden Deception” strategy to cover their tracks and minimize their exposure.

Interestingly in the above example, when I was initially given the receipt (as well as my wife), it reflected the category of Gelato.  Only when I asked them to change it (and later my wife), did they reprint them with another general category of Caffetteria.  I have also seen some bars use the general category of Varie, instead of specifying the purchase.  Using such a general category on receipts does not necessarily mean the bar is being dishonest, but it is something tourists should pay attention to in an abundance of caution.

Disguised Deception

Italian Cappuccino
A comparison of two receipts from the same bar in the center of Florence. The first receipt shows a cappuccino (to-go) price of 1.40 Euros from when my wife ordered, while the second receipt shows a cappuccino (to-go) price of 3.00 Euros from when I ordered only thirteen minutes later.

The above image is an example of what I call “Disguised Deception” because even though one small to-go cappuccino was purchased on each transaction, the receipt showing a charge of 3 Euros identifies the purchase of a “Take Away Big” instead of a “Cappuccino” as indicated on the receipt showing a charge of 1.40 Euros.  In this instance, the bar covered their tracks on the receipt specifically identifying an item that was never purchased.  As a result of their clever lie, they felt comfortable defrauding me (the American) of over 100% of what they charged my wife.  This disguised practice also covers bars tracks if challenged by the Italian financial regulatory organization, Guardia di Finanza, in the event of an audit.

The good news from my investigation is that the majority of bars in Florence were honest, but many were not.  Italian Enthusiasts should always ask the prices of coffee and related drinks before purchasing because while many bars list them on their walls or menus, many also do not, making their agendas easier to accomplish.  Italian Enthusiasts should also have an understanding of what reasonable prices are in the area they visit.  When tourists find bars they like and trust, they should stick with them.  Below is an example of a coffee menu at a bar in Florence that I in fact trust, and that has never taken advantage of me.  I recommend my readers to study the prices before visiting Italy, understanding what prices are reasonable for coffee and bar items.

Caffe Menu
Italian coffee shop prices at a bar in Florence that are reasonable.

Another interesting point for tourists to be aware of is that Italian barmen know that Americans and many other foreigners drink cappuccino, and they also know that the tourists (like Americans) like to super-size things.  For this reason, when a foreign tourist orders a cappuccino to-go, the tricky barman may try to sell a “large” cappuccino to secure more money, loading the cappuccino with milk to fill a huge cup.  If you want a cappuccino and anyone asks you the size, make sure you are clear that you want a small cappuccino.  Italians never have to make the distinction because for Italians, a cappuccino is a one-size coffee beverage.

Please note that the purpose of this post was not to expose specific coffee bars.  I have hidden and omitted the names of the actual bars I visited for this reason.  The purpose of the article was to only educate and inform visitors of Italy to be careful when buying coffee or other beverages at coffee shops.  Surely, this type of deception is not limited to cappuccino, as I have experienced it with other coffee beverages.  Nor is this deception limited to coffee shops, as I have experienced it this winter with the purchase of beer, water and Sicilian cassata cake, at small mom & pop type stores.  As I continue to be a consumer in Italy during my travels, I will discover other scams to write about to help better prepare Italian Enthusiasts for their journeys to Italy.

If anyone else had a similar experience in Italy, I would love to hear about it.

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