An article published in The Telegraph a few years ago told the tale of a few 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.
They called the police.
But it turns out that the cafe had done nothing wrong, as the prices were clearly marked on the menu that they failed to read.
But wait. How is it possible that ice cream and water can actually cost that much?
Simple, they were charges A LOT more because they sat down at a table to eat rather than taking their ice cream 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, pastries, gelato — pretty much everything — doubles or even triples in price!
Italy doesn't have a culture of tipping in restaurants, let alone cafes, and even though there are always open tables, if you look carefully you will see that they are rarely filled by locals. Unless they are located in super touristy areas, cafes are not usually staffed to serve people during the day, so prices go up to reflect the additional work required by the few staff that are there.
So what do you do if you don't want to pay the sit-down prices?
Coffee is usually served warm (not hot like we are used to in North America) so that it can be drunk quickly 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 while 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. But keep in mind that most restaurants aren't open until dinner time.
Employ the grab and go strategy that the locals use or make sure you look very closely at the menu — there are usually two prices listed. And, 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.