Venice caffè or Coffee shop scams is a popular argument. Every now and then, you read in a newspaper, or nowadays someone writes a Tweet or a Facebook blog, about the rip-offs in Saint Mark’s Square. Someone has walked around there when suddenly the urge for a cup of coffee hit him from nowhere. So he sits down at the nearest table, looks over the square and feels very satisfied with the view. He calls the waiter and orders a cup. The excellent blend goes down like a dream and he pulls up the wallet to pay.
He’s preparing for something expensive, but hey, you only live once …
A coffee in a normal Venice Caffè at the bar costs what, 1 euro?.. 1,20? Here it got to be more, so maybe 2… 3? Then I’ve been sitting down and that’s always expensive, so 4 euros?.. 5? Now really? He pulls out a fiver and calls the waiter…
– That will be 19:50, the man with the white jacket says in a perfectly neutral tone.
The Venice Caffè
In Italy, normal coffee drinking procedure is as follows. You go into a Bar, preferably with friends, order for everybody and when you get the coffee, you drink it with or without sugar. After that, you argue a bit about who’s going to pay. No, not who’s paying in the sense that it has to be correct and fair. In Italy, the one who says the word caffè is supposed to have invited, and he’s the one paying, but everybody tries to get ahead and pay. If you’re a guest you don’t stand a chance. Just forget it. It took me two years in Italy before I was able to pay for my first coffee.
Now, if you sit down you normally pay a little extra, but always ask. Sometimes they let you sit down with the coffee from the bar, without charging. On Piazza San Marco, that is not the case. On Piazza San Marco you pay, and you pay a lot.
The rule here is: Always ask before. The prices on restaurants and bars in Italy have to be exposed. That doesn’t always happen but as a rule, you should always ask before. On Saint Mark’s Square, the prices are exposed, but still: Ask before. That’s the fourth time I write that.
Caffès in Saint Mark’s Square
On Piazza San Marco there are five Caffès. On the south side, Caffè Florian the most exclusive and Caffè Aurora, the least exclusive. On the north side, there are Caffè Eden, Gran Caffè Quadri, and Gran Caffè Lavena. Of these Florian, Quadri and Lavena have music. With the music, there’s a cost and this is included in the prices on the menu for the latter two. In the case of Caffè Florian, the music fee is 12 euros on top of the things you order.
Around the corner, there are two more, but that’s not really Saint Mark’s Square. It’s actually what we call La Piazzetta, and it’s really the oldest part of the Square. There is Caffè Chioggia, which is expensive, have music and is no good. Then there is the Bar Gelateria Al Todaro. They have some decent Ice cream too.
A tactical consideration
An example. You order a single cup of coffee. That would not be convenient on Florian, as our friend at the beginning realizes after having argued with the extremely calm waiter. But if you eat two or three tramezzini and you wash it down with half a bottle of Prosecco, then it’s possibly better to go to Florian as you pay only once for the music.
If you order to have done just that… To be able to tell the people at home that you had a coffee on San Marco, and you chose the cheapest thing you see on the menu, which would be a coffee. Then chose one on the northern side. But again, if you want to put the check in a frame over the dinner table, and tell the story about the rip-off to friends and family, then Florian is the way to go. Like my father did. He and my mother went there in the 70s and he kept the receipt of 22.000 lire in a box al his life, as a souvenir.
And… Florian is the oldest Cafè in Italy. It dates back all the way to 1720. That should be worth something. And the view is nice. The Square that Napoleon Bonaparte once called the Drawing room of Europe is the buzzing heart of the magical city.
The Venice Caffè Orchestras
The music is quite alright too. Frankly, I think they deserve the money, the musicians. Although I think most of the 12 euros go to the coffee shop owner. Still. they play from early morning until late evening, and they do it well. Normally a quartet or a quintet. Piano, Double Bass, Violin, and a Clarinet. Can be more even, but they can also be less.
A fun quiz is to get out in the middle of the square and try to guess what they are playing. With three orchestras playing more or less the same repertoire, it’s what we in the business call spontaneous polytonality…
So if you’re on a tight budget, but still want it all, then have your coffee at the bar inside Caffè Aurora next to Florian. That’s 1:50. Then walk out on the Square and listen to the music for free. But if you do that, you will not be able to keep the receipt of the ridiculously expensive coffee in a box and show it to your children and grandchildren with a smile saying: In Venice, I’ve had the biggest markup of my life…