The custom of aperitivi is helpful when you're on a budget. Many of the bars in Milan, for the price of a drink, will give you food to go along with it. You can easily make it into a light dinner.
For more details, see my Bar Magenta tip.
I've read a lot of tips either noting with glee the inclusion of 'a free limoncello!' at the end of the meal, and 'olives and peanuts!' with a drink, or scoffing in dismay at the addition of a 'cover charge' to their bill.
These are standard customs in Italy and shouldn't be taken as signs of amazing or horrible service. Tax is always included and tipping is unnecessary (although usually appreciated, especially in more touristy zones), as waiters are paid a regular salary here (and Italians are notorious non-tippers when THEY travel abroad).
Therefore, the absence of a smile on your waiter's face should not lead you to take offense, since customer service here isn't dependent upon the inevitable 'commission'. However, the absence of the before mentioned 'freebies' SHOULD give cause for alarm, especially if the prices are higher than (or) average.
In fact, seek out the bars that offer large 'happy hour' (usually 6-9pm) buffets, as they are included (all you can eat) with the price of a single drink (€5 for a medium beer off the beaten path, €10 in the tourist center ie Piazza Duomo). Done right it's dinner, and withOUT the cover charge, as that usually only applies to restaurants.
ps, the bar in the photo does NOT offer a great buffet AND the drinks are expensive! Check prices BEFORE ordering, even a cappucino! Great view of the Duomo, and it should be, since that's what you're really paying for ;)
Happy Hour in Italian is called "APERITIVO": the idea is that in most of the Milano's bars after 6:30 you can pay €7 and get a drink with a plate of food. It’s buffet style, and you can choose from pasta, rice salads, sandwiches, shrimp, etc.
Basically you only pay for your drink or cocktail, and the food i free...and you can take as much food as you like!
Cappuccino, the breakfast coffee — a shot of espresso, black as hell, strong as death, infused with one-third steamed milk, topped by one-third foam and drunk in the morning by Italians, but never after lunch or dinner. With that much milk it is considered a meal in itself and is the classic Italian breakfast. Locals cannot understand why anyone would order a calorie-rich cappuccino after a huge meal.
If you see a bunch of people sitting around drinking cappuccino at three in the afternoon, congratulations, you have found the tourist bar. Perhaps the best reason for not sitting down is that your cappuccino will cost two, three maybe even four times as much as it would cost at the bar.
I think this is something that Americans struggle with when in Milan, and much of Italy. People eat dinner late here. It's not uncommon to sit down to dinner at a restaurant at 10 or 11pm. Most restaurants don't even open until 8 or 9pm. This is actually pretty nice, once you get used to it, because having dinner can be your whole evening's entertainment!
Cappuccino and other elaborate coffee drinks are usually just consumed in the morning. After about 11am or so, people just drink coffee or espresso. I favor espresso, as it gives you that little kick you need without getting filled up.
Eating and drinking means a lot to Italians. The lunches or dinners can be really long as Italians take it so seriously. For this reason, prepare yourself for long meals. Moreover, Italians have a perfect taste of food and they know how to select the wine to accompany it. Once you are involved in Italian cuisine, things will never be the same again.
The happy hour starts around 7 pm and ends about 9 (so it's a happy two hours, but the Milanese always seem to make the best out of their time :o).
It consists of drinking "aperitivo" (usually beer, wine or some long drink such as Campari Orange). With the drink you get all sorts of food for free from a buffet. The offer can vary between vegetables, pickles, pizza, sandwiches, cold pasta, rice salad, and so on.
Drinks will be a tad more expensive during the happy hour (remember you're never supposed to be TOO happy in Milan), but nonetheless it's an excellent way to have a light dinner and meet the locals. Also known as aperitivo alla milanese, it works best in Brera or in the area between the Central Railway station and Porta Garibaldi.
It is a very Milanese thing to go for aperitivo in the evenings before dinner. All bars between the hours of 18.00 and 20.00 have a selection of tidbits on the counter, where you go and order a drink and then snack away.
This gets taken a step further by some of the trendier locales, where massive buffets are served. It's practically dinner. Pay for your drink (usually between €5 - €10) and eat all you want. Places are usually open from 18.00 till late...
Some of my favourite places:
Bhangra Bar - Corso Sempione / Arco della Pace (good indian snacks)
Noy - via Soresina/off Corso Vercelli area - very relaxing and cool place (if you get the cushion seatings, it's like you're at home).
Palo Alto - Corso di Porta Romana (hot pasta)
Yguana - Piazza della Vetra
Bar Victoria - near Piazza Cordusio (not fantastic, but convenient as it's right in town)
Diana Sheraton - Porta Venezia (to watch beautiful and elegant people)
Executive Lounge - Garibaldi area (very cool place with lots of cushions and candles... food selection not fantastic though)
... and any number of places around the Navigli area.
THIS IS A DISCO RESTAURANT CLUB THAT U MUST SEE IF YOU GO TO MILANO. NAME VERY DIFFICULT TO PRONOUNCE, AND BEST NIGHT IS SATURDAY NIGHTS....BUT U NEED ONE WEEK ADVANCE RESERVATION OR A RESERVATION TROUGH A 5 STAR HOTEL OR.....FULLY BOOKED....THEY WILL ANSWER AT THE PHONE...... NAME IS EL JADIDA...THEY HAVE A WEB PAGE BUT IT DOWSNT GIVE THE IDEA... BUT LOOK ANYWAY... WWW.ELJADIDA.IT
If you want to be taken seriously by the Milan-people there are some groundrules that you have to follow.
The first one: Don't drink a cappuccino after lunch!
If you still do, why don't you bring the biggest map you've seen, since the milanese anyway will know you're a stupid tourist... :-)
After lunch it's time for coffe, not cappuccino. And when I say "coffe" I don't mean american coffe... Real italians drinks only coffe espresso. (use some sugger, and you'll be finding it's actually really good!
The second rule: Don't get drunk. At least not as drunk as you might be back home... Milan-people loves to take a beer or two, but that's it. You'll never see a milanese so drunk that he can't stand up. And singing people you'll only see at football-matches. Or at the Piazza Duomo when Milan has won something...
Norwegians enjoy their ice cream and I was not aware of the fact that Italians seems to love ice cream too :-) And I have to admit that the Milanses ice cream (also know as gelati) was excellent, to say the least. Gelati is sold more or less everywhere and it was a bit softer than I’m used too. I recommend Straciatella, strawberry (fragola) and tirimasu. My wife was a bit more adventurous and tried stuff like lemon (limone), mint and dark chocolate and some of them were a bit too rich in flavor for me. I strongly recommend that you go to a gelateria and try out the different flavors for yourself.