December 29, 2007

Just got back from Italy

I just got back from 10 days in Italy, and for the first time I ate in the homes of Italians...real Italians. And, of course, we ate in many great Italian restaurants.

I'll spend some time later telling you about all the meals and my observations, but the first thing I must mention is AutoGrill.

It's fast and it's food on the highway. But it's nothing like American fast food.

Imagine going into a great gourmet Italian sausage and cheese shoppe. And there you also find wine, bread, salads and soups, steaming hot foods and of course, fresh pasta. Sandwiches and espresso. Lots of espresso. But it's not on Fifth Avenue, or even Arthur Avenue. It's not on Rodeo Drive or on the Miracle Mile. It's on the truck-laden freeway (or autostrata, in Italian).

Since we drove nearly 1,000 miles, we had a lot of opportunities to gas up and eat up at AutoGrills, the truck and car stop along Italy's main highways. AutoGrill -- the world's biggest provider of food and beverages for travellers in the world -- is celebrating 30 years of great fast food.

Their business model proves you can have fresh pasta, paninis, grilled vegetables, antipasto and specialty foods, cheese, meats, beer and wine all in a fast food restaurant/shop. It's good and it's fresh and it's healthy.

Frank Bruni a year ago expressed my sentiments so well about the Autogrill:

It’s one of the many questions that keep flitting through my mind as I flit through Italy, eating and then eating some more.

Here are others: why do my American friends and I love the Autogrill so much? Why am I bummed when I’m on an Italian highway that isn’t a veritable autostrada and doesn’t have an official Autogrill, and why do I find myself stopping at the Autogrill more often than I need to stop for food and fuel?

The Autogrill is what Italy has in place of the oddball combination of fast food restaurants under one roof that we have at Jersey Turnpike rest stops. In that way the Autogrill isn’t a bad metaphor for differences between the Italian approach to food and the American approach. The Autogrill doesn’t throw a cacophony of options at you. It sticks with the tried and true: usually a bit of pizza and a bunch of panini, or sandwiches, that tend to showcase a few familiar and high-quality ingredients: prosciutto crudo, arugula, mozzarella, etc.
There's nothing like Autogrill pizza on the autostrada driving at 140 down to relatives in Basilicata. A little crisp dough. A touch of sun-kissed tomatoes. And a sliver of melted milky-white mozzarella. A bit of heaven in the cool dry mountains of the Potenza province.

Read what others have to say about the Autogrill.
I was a vegetarian when I was in Italy, and became completely obsessed with the Autogrill’s spinach pesto sandwiches. I still think about them. Unbelievably delicious.
  • — Posted by Kate

Related to the Italian approach to fast food, my wife and I had pizza and a simple salad at the Venice Airport food counter that in quality and freshness surpasses 90% of similar fare in so-called “real” restaurants here in the U.S.

— Posted by Fred

Autogrills rock!!!! I was in shock the first time I walked, bleary-eyed from the NY/Rome flight, into an Autogrill. And now I wish I could go to one right now!!!!

— Posted by Freddi


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