Taking bottled water home from a restaurant in Italy?
May 20, 2016 2:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm in Italy for a little while and figuring out the restaurant customs — including purchasing a liter of flat or sparkling water at each meal. Today, I was still a little thirsty but had to run, and asked if I could take the half-empty (glass, but obviously commercial) bottle. The server said I couldn't, and I asked if the same was true for plastic bottles. She said that, in either case, it's not appropriate to take leftover water. What's up with that (assuming it's generally true)?
posted by Sidnicious to Travel & Transportation around Italy (30 answers total)
Was this a bottle the restaurant was clearly going to re use as a water decanter again and again? Or was it a bottle of like, Perrier or Poland spring? I'd walk away with a bottle of branded water that was served to me without thinking about it or asking (after all, I paid for it), but not something that was more like a decanter (any more than I'd walk away with the silverware).
posted by slateyness at 2:53 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. They said it was commercial bottle. Like, Perrier.
2. What? I challenge anyone to find me a waiter in the US who wouldn't let you walk out with a can of coke or something. No idea why that seems controversial.

I've swiped a bottle of wine off a table in Italy and strolled out into the night with nary a glance. Seems like a snooty waiter to me.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:57 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd say it might be akin to taking an unfinished bottle of wine from a restaurant, something that one decidedly might not do. Now, that being said, rationality insists that if I'm thirsty, and you're just going to dispose of it anyway, then what's the big deal?
posted by a good beginning at 2:58 PM on May 20, 2016

Disregard my #2 there.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:58 PM on May 20, 2016

I don't understand. You wouldn't do that in a US restaurant either…

I usually don't get bottles of water at restaurants, but as far as I know it's perfectly appropriate to take leftover wine if you don't finish the bottle (assuming you're not violating your state's open container laws), or leftover food (only once removed from the restaurant's dishes, though).

Was this a bottle the restaurant was clearly going to re use as a water decanter again and again? Or was it a bottle of like, Perrier or Poland spring?

Branded, with a plastic seal on the cap. I wouldn't have asked, but my traveling partner thought it might be weird.
posted by Sidnicious at 2:58 PM on May 20, 2016

I'm confused as to why you would have even asked. If it's a commercial bottle of water, even if it's glass, you paid for it, and it's yours. I'm guessing your server said no because she was somehow confused as to what you were asking. It's not like the restaurant is going to refill it, are they? If they are, then they are defrauding customers by charging for high-end water but refilling it with tap water (setting aside the fact that it's all tap water anyway).
posted by thewumpusisdead at 3:00 PM on May 20, 2016

If the bottles are glass, it is possible that the restaurant returns them to the distributor to be reused.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:02 PM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Perhaps it could come down to simply being understood as culturally normative behavior. I'd say that I may have felt similarly when I was being served in France: that it wouldn't have been a problem if I had just done something like that, and yet if I had asked, the response I would have been given would have reflected expectations that patrons normally leave what's unfinished.
posted by a good beginning at 3:04 PM on May 20, 2016 [8 favorites]

Since it has come up several times - taking a partially consumed bottle of wine home MAY be accepted practice in some cases/locations (i have seen it happen) it presents a qualitatively different legal issue (at least in the US) because liquor/wine sales for direct consumption (bars/restaurants) is regulated differently than purchase for later consumption (sometimes called 'off-sale'). If i were a waiter/manager who was concerned about keeping my liquor license, i might have to explain that while you think you paid for the contents of the bottle, you really paid for the privilege of consuming them in my establishment (which you would be welcome to do) but that does not give us the legal authority to let you take it with you.

The water thing is, of course, not due to an legal restriction on the sale of water, and is either a case of non-conforming intercultural expectations, or as has been suggested profit motive on the part of the restaurant (returning the bottles, not re-selling/re-serving the water).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 3:10 PM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think that taking leftovers of any food home from restaurants is not super-common in Italy.
posted by lazuli at 3:15 PM on May 20, 2016 [16 favorites]

Italy Rethinks Its Disdain For Restaurant Doggy Bags
In Italy, taking restaurant leftovers home is considered vulgar. But now diners are being encourage to embrace the doggy bag to combat food waste. The push coincides with a food sustainability summit.
So it looks like the customs may be changing, but I suspect the waiter said "no" because it's just not considered polite, rather than because of any legal or financial reasons.
posted by lazuli at 3:17 PM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

French person here, not Italian, but the cultures are close. The general idea is that you don't take home leftover food, period. A restaurant is a restaurant, where you sit to eat, not some place to buy food to take away (and walk around eating it, the horror, the horror). This is changing (see the new "doggy bag" law in France) but it's a deeply ingrained cultural habit.
posted by elgilito at 3:19 PM on May 20, 2016 [23 favorites]

So in Italy by law at a restaurant you have to serve water from a bottle (some caffes will give you tap water if you ask it but they should not).

Culturally you do not take things home.
Taking food away is frown upon, unless it's for a child that refused to eat it in that moment, and even then it is not really a done thing. Be late for work if you must but eat properly.
You absolutely do not take a bottle of wine, because it is glass and you are slightly intoxicated.

The half liter water bottles on the other hand no one will look at you twice if you take.
Returns on the water bottle only if it's glass and often not even then.

The only exception to this is that now many places have water filtering machines and bottle their own water in house, sealed cap and all, so they prefer you not to take the bottle.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 3:23 PM on May 20, 2016 [18 favorites]

Europe isn't pro doggy bag in general. I remember asking for my leftovers the first week I was in Amsterdam, and my date nearly crawled under the table out of shame.
posted by frumiousb at 3:36 PM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think it's because there's a deposit on the bottle. Also, there are two different levels here. Clearly if you are asking, 'Is it socially appropriate?' The answer is no.
posted by bq at 4:52 PM on May 20, 2016

While living in France, I asked to take a soda bottle home as a souvenir and was told that they were required to account for every bottle they sold at the end of the night. Perhaps this was a similar situation.
posted by defreckled at 6:39 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I once left a restaurant in Germany with an unfinished bottle of orange soda and a couple blocks away noticed a young man following close behind, clearly following me but keeping a short distance. I asked him if I could help him and he said he was following me to get the bottle back so they could redeem the 10 cent deposit back. People don't take bottles out of restaurants for this reason.
posted by waving at 6:48 PM on May 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

Italy doesn't have a "doggy bag" culture like the US. Also, people generally aren't in a rush, so if you wanted to keep drinking the water, why not just stay and enjoy it? Not to mention, the water was, what, a couple of Euros? Unless you had only a sip and are very tight about money, who cares?

An alternate way of thinking about this: wouldn't it seem weird in the US if you asked the waiter to doggy-bag your complimentary glass of tap water?

My main way of not worrying too much about how Europeans are different about water in restaurants than Americans is to just not order it. I usually order the house wine (which is usually comparably priced to bottled water, anyway) and make a point to drink what I order.

as far as I know it's perfectly appropriate to take leftover wine if you don't finish the bottle

No actually this is super gauche. Who does that? I think you can take the bottle if you BYO'ed, but otherwise the idea is that you're ordering it to drink at the restaurant, not as a glorified deli or something.
posted by Sara C. at 6:55 PM on May 20, 2016 [6 favorites]

By the way, it didn't sound like they needed it for the bottle deposit but, rather, to deter employee theft.
posted by defreckled at 7:05 PM on May 20, 2016

Some towns and cities in italy have made a compromise between expensive and environmentally unfriendly bottled mineral water and free tap water: they sell filtered carbonated (or flat) tap water for a pretty fair price. I this has been decided at accross entire towns, but I am not sure. In these towns, the restaurants buy attractive looking water carafes and reuse them. If you were at one of these towns/restaurants, you could not take the water carafe with you. It would be like stealing a plate.
posted by jazh at 7:12 PM on May 20, 2016

German here. It's just not done in Europe. Sometimes because of the deposit, but sometimes just because...it's not something you would do.
posted by The Toad at 7:17 PM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

as far as I know it's perfectly appropriate to take leftover wine if you don't finish the bottle (assuming you're not violating your state's open container laws)

Well, no. In the US, this is different in different states. (I'm assuming you are talking about US laws, since you mention different states)

Where I live, it's not at all allowed by restaurants, because this is considered a liquor law violation, and no one wants to loose a liquor license that is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep one customer happy. Even letting customers bring the empty bottle with them is a violation.

In bars, it's a liquor law violation if patrons take any sort of container with any sort of beverage in it out of the premises. That includes glasses of drinks, bottles, and even water bottles. So bars are not keen on allowing you to take unfinished bottles of water with you. I've seen people sneak bottles and even entire drinks in a rocks glass out, but it is in no way considered appropriate.

No idea what the laws are in Italy.
posted by yohko at 8:21 PM on May 20, 2016

Buongiorno. So...

1) Yes, as stated above there is not a huge doggy bag culture here. Waiters will not generally ask if you want to take leftovers home. The exception to this rule is pizza, where taking home a box with the slices you couldn't eat is fairly common.
2) Taking a bottle of opened wine varies. Here in Rome, sometimes they'll cork it for you if you ask nicely, other times there are anti-alcohol laws in effect that prohibit this (usually coinciding with rowdy summer crowds and/or footie games) .
3)And to answer the original question, the bars/restaurants do indeed have deposits on the glass bottles, fairly hefty ones from what I see on the invoices coming across my desk. And yes, they are all "commercial" water brands.

As for the server's reply about plastic bottles, well she was just being contrary at that point; sounds like she was a bit peeved at that point. Taking a plastic bottle is no big deal. Maybe eyebrows would raise a bit more in winter, but in the summer heat no one with sweat glands is gonna GAF.

Source: Hubs manages a restaurant and I do some occasional light bookkeeping for it and a cafe/bar.
posted by romakimmy at 11:40 PM on May 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

Post-coffee addendum:

I sort of made it sound like taking home the leftover wine was a normal occurrence, but you won't see locals doing this like, ever. I meant that it's a request that's more likely to obliged.

That said, asking to take an open beer will get you a Hell No response, at least here in Rome. Open container carrying, when allowed (see aforementioned footie games/seasonality), has to be plastic containers.
posted by romakimmy at 1:02 AM on May 21, 2016

In Italy there is no deposit on glass bottles for ordinary consumers like say in Germany, but, for restaurants it’s different because they order the bottles from their suppliers, so there may very well be a deposit agreement with them - I see romakimmy has confirmed that as an "insider".

And I suppose it’s not just the deposit, but that the restaurant has to account for all the bottles? So it may something the waiter is not in a position to decide themselves.

So really it doesn’t sound like a purely cultural thing in this case. Bottled water would not be considered part of the "doggy bag" idea of taking home leftovers that has had some interest in Italy lately.

It’d be different with opened plastic bottles in cafés and bistros where you pay right away at the counter and then sit down to eat or drink whatever you ordered - that’s more like buying a bottle from a shop and you can simply walk away with the bottle. In a restaurant, you’re not paying only for the food and drinks, you’re paying for consuming them in the establishment.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:10 AM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you should have just taken the bottle without asking and next time you should do that. Assuming it's a bottle with no deposit, of course. If it's a bottle with a deposit, feel free to pour it into your own travel water bottle and take it with you. Yeah, they'll think you're tacky or whatever, but you're going to get hot later and be thirsty and if they forced you to pay for water, then you should get the full benefit of all the water you paid for. And you'll be helping, however slightly, to change the culture around bottled water, which (call me ethnocentric if you like) is a bad culture to have.

So in Italy by law at a restaurant you have to serve water from a bottle

The first time I was in Italy my guidebook said that they would give you tap water if asked, but NOBODY would give us tap water. Given that A) Yes, a couple of euros is a lot to just throw away, especially multiple times a day and B) I object in principle to the idea of trucking water around in plastic or glass bottles when it's so much easier on the planet to pipe it in and C) We were already paying just to sit down (ok, that last one is the weakest since it is then countered by not having to tip)....I really kind of resent not being given tap water if that's what I want. I started filling my travel water bottle at fountains and such and drinking from that instead of ordering bottled water in restaurants.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:53 AM on May 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. Sorry folks, but this needs to be about answering the question asked and not so much straying off into sidebar discussions.]
posted by taz (staff) at 9:45 AM on May 21, 2016

I have clearly turned French (like elgilito said, dining culture is quite similar to Italian) because on reading the question, my immediate, habit-induced reactions were "a branded water bottle you paid for? of course! Oh, glass?! Goodness no, what will people think..."

I take out unfinished plastic bottles without even asking. Taking a glass bottle, however, had never even occurred to me. Why? Plastic ones you can get in supermarkets, and you will see people surreptitiously drinking from them in public. Glass though... they're not really available to the public, so everyone figures you took it from somewhere. Taking an unfinished wine bottle seems downright rude. Note that the polite way to finish a wine bottle after a restaurant meal has ended is to pour it into remaining glasses and drink it while sharing stories with the waiter, who enjoys giggly drunks who finish their bottles inside the restaurant.
posted by fraula at 10:24 AM on May 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just tried to figure out why my immediate reaction was "of course you can't take the bottle, how awkward to even ask!" and it just boils down to what is culturally the norm. In Italy I would never even think of asking to take home leftovers: my aunt used to do it to feed the dog and said as much. It's just not done.

Of course, now that I live in the US that sounds stupid but there you have it. It's gauche to take food/drinks from restaurants in Italy because Cultural Norms Are Somewhat Arbitrary.
posted by lydhre at 12:55 PM on May 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Spent a year in Florence when I was a student more than a decade ago.

The thing I noticed in restaurants in Italy vs. the U.S., is that portion sizes are fraction of what usually gets served in an American restaurant. It was the first I ever actually cleaned my plates (that, and 99% of the things there were delicious!), since it was a reasonable size and not the near-family-size portions here, the doggy bag thing never came up.

As far as liquids go, I recall a bar I used to go to near Piazza Santa Croce that let us pour our unfinished drinks in plastic go cups at closing time, which I loved as a slow drinker. I assume that was legal, but it also might've not been enforced.
posted by deinemutti at 7:38 AM on May 22, 2016

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