Fast food and road trips are fellow travelers in America, the nation that opened the world’s first drive through in 1947. But if the U.S. invented the pit stop cuisine, Italy – where cars tend to be fast and meals tend to be slow – has perfected the genre. This makes a certain sort of sense. Italians, who have embraced the Slow Food Movement over the last decade, are less willing to compromise for the sake of efficiency. That conservative attitude toward food created a market for highway-accessible, restaurant-quality food. Enter Autogrill.
Autogrills are ubiquitous in Italy. There are nearly 500 of them in the country and there really isn’t another option when traveling the major motorways. Their red-trimmed facades, which arch over autostradas, are as ubiquitous as the golden arches in America, but any similarity with McDonald’s ends there.
Autogrills are nearly identical in design and offerings. In the horizontal expanse over the highway, there is a bar (the Italian version of a coffee shop), where an expresso or cappuccino can be had, made on the spot, perhaps with a fresh pastry. For those chi ha pui fame (“who have more hunger”), there’s a separate counter where one can choose from a variety of pre-made panini. The “Bufalino,” comprised of prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, and arugula on an Italian version of pita bread, is the most popular. Beyond that, there is a sit-down restaurant where weary travelers can slurp pasta and chow down on pizza. All these offerings are presented by a staff of men and women in white jackets – professional cooks – rather than sullen teens with nametags.
But the most remarkable part of any Autogrill is the market. Most of the retail space feels like a roadside version of Eataly, with cured meats, dried sausages, cheeses, breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and all other sorts of things one might pick up for the best picnic ever. And, of course, like nearly every Italian place of commerce, from shoe stores to supermarkets, there is a huge selection of domestic wines because nothing says “Road Trip” like a 2007 Brunello di Montalcino.
In many ways, the Autogrills offer a more profound look at modern Italy than anything you’re likely to find in the country’s museum and cathedral encrusted cities. This is how Italians deal with the dehumanizing effects of infrastructure, efficiency, and progress. They’ll make concessions to convenience, but they absolutely will not eat a damp burger out of a paper bag. No matter where you drive in Italy – and driving in Italy is a great way to spend your time – a bad meal is considered a moral failure. As a visitor, it’s a hard stance not to appreciate.