America is a young country, but one with an outsized number of unique traditions, particularly the roadtrip. Few, if any, other countries celebrate the genre with as many movies, songs, and literature about the open road, late hours behind the wheel, undefined destinations, leaving something behind, and starting anew somewhere else. We matured as a country during the proliferation of the automobile, and while this is to blame for no shortage of our current ills (suburban development, inadequate mass transportation, inhumanely planned cities), it also means that we do the roadtrip better than anyone else.
Or, at least we like to think that we do. Since this is a food blog, I need to point out that the roadside cuisine along America’s highways is the one glaring weakness, the one disastrous oversight, in an otherwise heroic tradition. Highway food here sucks. Dominated by the Four Horsemen of the culinary apocalypse (the king, the clown, the colonel, and the chihuahua), America’s roads are chain food territory, serving the same basic processed carbohydrates and sodium in different shapes. One could be tempted to think this is justifiable, that fast food - with its namesake denoting alacrity - is the only sensible option for the roadtripper “making really good time.” After all, in America, food can either be fast or good, but rarely both.
A solution to this problem exists, and can be found along Italy’s autostrade: a simple, stylized "A" atop the word AUTOGRILL, a beacon of freshness, quality, and variety for the road-weary traveller. The Autogrill is a rest stop for food lovers, an oasis of freshly-prepared sandwiches, a full café (including amari!) that can serve an espresso 15 seconds after it’s ordered, and a strategically organized labyrinth of dried goods and snacks for the road ahead. While not as prolific roadtrippers as Americans, Italians are notoriously uncompromising when it comes to food, so if there is to be a rest stop, it had better serve only the best food. The notion of an Autogrill itself approaches new territory for many Italians since “expedient” and “meal” are incongruent concepts.
I had first stopped at an Autogrill in 2008 along the Firenze-Roma portion of the A1, where the rest stop stretches across the highway along an overpass like a modernist ponte vecchio. It was a revelatory experience for someone accustomed to Pennsylvania Turnpike fare. Since then, Sam and I have made it a point to stop at an Autogrill during our Italian roadtrips, in particular the Autogrill on the eastbound E80 right across the Lazio/Abruzzo border. We stopped there on the last two occasions after landing in Fiumicino, renting a car, and navigating through Rome’s congestion and chaos, all while fighting jet lag and travel exhaustion. It’s our new traditional first stop, our first sandwich and coffee to recalibrate, where airport and highway frustrations give way to excitement and anticipation of another trip in Italy.
So, why am I devoting so much space to a highway pit stop? In a country with some of the best restaurants in the world, and a cuisine that is persistently a global favorite, why is the Autogrill the subject of this ode?
The Autogrill is a metaphor, emblematic of priorities in perfect harmony. People must travel on the highway, and presumably, those people will become hungry and need to eat. Two paths diverge from this concept: one leads to sbarro and ruin, the other, Autogrill and glory. The latter occurs when a society decides that food and meals are the centripetal force of one’s day, the former when food is a commodity, a minor distraction from the journey or job. The Autogrill puts people and food first. No matter the situation, how brief or inconvenient, access to a proper coffee and high-quality food is imperative, it’s why there are cafes on ferries in Italy. Highway food does not have to suck. The constituent parts of the Autogrill - café, sandwiches, and dry goods - would likely be successful enterprises on their own in America where quality is optional and often fetishized as opposed to being a birthright. One learns a country’s priorities when it is judged by the quality of its food in unassuming places.
As I mentioned earlier, the E80 Autogrill on the way out of Rome towards points east was our first stop after landing. This followed an incomprehensible interaction at the rental car counter, about an hour of driving through Rome’s sprawl on the eight-lane GRA ring road, with a jet-lagged driver who was struggling to stay awake. We opened the door and were immediately greeted with a well-stocked sandwich case and a small voice wishing “ciao!” behind it. Each sandwich was perfectly presented. The bread was observably fresh and exacting in its construction, as were their contents, including harmonious proportions of meat, cheese, and dressing (this is a crucial issue for Sam). We elected to split a capriccio as a nod to the similarly-named Roman pizza. Needless to say, it was delicious, and we slipped back into Italian culinary time like one would a warm blanket. Two coffees, one sandwich, and a bottle of water for the car: €10.
The purpose of this ode is simply to express appreciation for an oft-overlooked, likely taken for granted quirk one discovers while traveling. I wonder if Italians have a similar fondness for the Autogrill, or if it’s just a matter of course, subject to the requirement of food service in Italy. In any event, it’s important to remember that we should not have to accept bad food simply because of a captive circumstance like a highway, or a stadium, since other countries have figured out how to un-suck rest stop food.
Next time you plan a road trip, pack yourself a capriccio, and enjoy a taste of the Autogrill:
Ham (cooked prosciutto)
Parmigiano Reggiano spread