Free ice cream, free pizza and free milk.
Would you ever have guessed that if you lived in Rome with a toddler, you would never have to pay for those key staples of an Italian child's diet?
I kid you not, it's one of the best-kept secrets of this otherwise not particularly children-friendly city.
Here's how it goes.
You walk into a café on any given morning and order a frothy cappuccino.The barista immediately suggests you put your child atop the coffee counter, so that while you are sipping your cappuccino, he is not standing at knee-level while people busily grab their breakfast and drop their croissant crumbs on his downy hair.
No sooner have you settled him there, than barista is asking whether your 2-year-old would like some milk.
In the name of avoiding grubby fingers dipping into your own cappuccino, you hastily ask for a Babyccino (OK, they admittedly don't call it that. It's simply 'Un Latte Schiumato,' a cup of fluffy milk) which they cheerily serve in an elegant Lavazza mug, offering to sprinkle copious amounts of cocoa on top.
I can guarantee you that not once in the seven years since I have had small children in Rome have I ever been charged for the kids' milk. They brush it off with genuine kindness, almost as if they were offended by your offer to pay.
Having had your breakfast, chances are you head to the local grocery store. And there, while you are looking at the different breads on offer and wondering aloud whether Pane Lariano or Pane Casareccio makes for better Bruschette, the lady behind the counter will immediately ask whether it's OK for her to offer your son a slice of Pizza Bianca (plain pizza with olive oil and salt).
It's a given. It's not just in your local bakery where the owners know you. It's everywhere. Italian toddlers are brought up on Pizza Bianca (when they are less likely to smear red sauce all over their coats, they are ready to graduate to Pizza Rossa) as a mid-morning snack. But moms never have to actually purchase that snack. They are automatically offered it. And it's such a nice gesture.
Finally, there's the free gelato.
I didn't know this until I was pregnant with our first child and walked into a gelateria with a Roman mom and her kids. I had offered to buy her kids ice cream, and as I was ordering the cones, I couldn't figure out how the total kept coming to less than it should have.
Then, Alessandra patiently explained why I was getting lost with the arithmetic. If you have toddlers, they "qualify" for what is termed a Cono Sporcato con la Crema (a cone "dirtied" with vanilla ice cream). It's a way to say that since your kids probably wouldn't even finish a regular-sized cone, they are happy to give it to you for free.
Obviously, you would never order just one of those and walk out without having opened your wallet. You'd at least get a gelato for yourself, if not for other members of your entourage, so they are still making a sale -- and they are secure in the knowledge that soon enough, your kid will be demanding a full sized -- not a Sporcato -- gelato, and will become a fully-paying customer in his own right.
But what an absolutely delightful Roman custom.