An article published this summer in The Telegraph reported on some tourists in Rome who kicked up a stink when they were charged 42 Euros for two ice creams and a bottle of water in a cafe. Thinking that they were being scammed, they even went so far as to get the police involved.
Here's the problem: the prices were clearly marked on the menu that they failed to read.
How is it possible that ice cream and water can actually cost that much, you ask? Because they sat down at a table rather than taking them to-go.
I learned very quickly while living in Italy that as soon as you sit down in a cafe, the price of coffee, water, beer, pastry, gelato — pretty much everything — doubles or even triples in price. People don't really tip in restaurants, let alone cafes, and even though there are always tables, you will see that they are rarely filled by Italians. Therefore, cafes are not usually staffed to serve people during the day, so prices go up to reflect the additional work required.
So what do you do if you don't want to pay sit down prices?
Coffee is usually served warm (not hot like we are used to in North America) so that it can be quickly drank while standing at the bar, while pastries, snacks and gelato are easily eaten while walking, sitting on the edge of a fountain or overlooking an ancient ruin. It is legal to drink anywhere in Italy, so when it comes to beer, or other alcoholic beverages, it is cheaper to buy a bottle at the local grocery store and then enjoy it will perched on the Spanish Steps, rather than in a stuffy cafe.
Restaurants are, of course, a different story. There you are expected to sit down and enjoy a long leisurely dinner.
My advice? Employ the grab and go strategy of the Italians or, make sure you look very closely at the menu (sometimes there are two prices listed). If you really need to sit down in a cafe, try and get a few blocks away from the major tourist sites, as their prices will be the highest (and in my experience the least authentic.)