The coperto [koh-PEHR-toh] is a per-person fee due in all kinds of restaurants in Italy and it means cover charge.
If you want to learn more about other Italian traditions and habits, go to All About Italy.
The coperto habit has its origin in the Middle Ages. At that time many people used to stop at inns, but, in order to save money, they only ate food brought from home. The innkeepers, unable to sell them their food, started therefore to charge these customers for the place they occupied (posto coperto) and for the use of cutlery and plates.
The fee varies from 1 to even 5 € (in the most famous and expensive tourist places). You can eat the bread or not, but you still have to pay the coperto. It might seem a very strange habit, but for us Italians is a normal thing. You can see it as a way to cover the cost of pane e grissini (bread and breadsticks) and the use of cutlery and tablecloths, that must then be washed.
Coperto avoids embarassment
On the other hand in Italy tipping is not common, except perhaps in luxury places: hotels, restaurants and cafés. We normally do not tip or, if we do, we leave a €1 or €2 coin, or we round up our bill to the nearest round number. I personally prefer the coperto to the tipping habit. For example, when I’m abroad I’m never sure what is the proper amount to give and I often feel embarassed.
Once I was in Lienz, Austria, and I felt forced to tip a very rude waitress. Yes, because I’m a bit of a coward. I had not the courage to leave the place without giving her a tip. I felt terrible before and after. On the contrary, when there is the coperto, the tipping problem is gone. So I find it is quite convenient in the end. Or maybe it is just a matter of habits.