When I travel to Italy, I find myself zipping around in my rented Fiat 500 by way of the Autostrade, or Italian toll ways that crisscross the country. There’s a saying in Italy that the shortest distance between any two points is via the Autostrada, and it’s great fun blasting down the only flat, straight roads in Italy at 150 km per hour (eh hem… yeah maybe that’s a little over the speed limit).
Sometimes my travel time crosses over the sacred lunch ‘hour’, when the entire country shuts down for 3 hours to enjoy a leisurely lunch, a touch of wine, and perhaps even a cat nap. Taking a 3 hour lunch break is the civilized way to live, but when you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry, you need something quick, tasty and cheap.
Italy’s answer to fast food for travelers isn’t McDonalds, it’s Autogrill. These gas stations-cum-rest stops are peppered throughout the Autostrade system, and are a fine option for a quick breakfast, lunch or dinner when time is tight and your tummy is growling. You can even grab a glass of wine with your meal, if you’re so inclined.
First time travelers to Italy are often amazed at the quality of food you’ll find at these oh-so-Italian fast food joints. I’ve assembled a fun collection of tasty photos from fellow travelers highlighting what you’ll find at an Autogrill, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you rent a car in Italy on your next (first?) trip, be sure to hit the Autostrada and pull into an Autogrill along your way for a unique Italian experience you will never forget.
Autogrill is best known for its coffee bar. Baristas sling shot after shot of this golden elixir to weary road travelers. You can count on a decent caffè any time of the day or night (but don’t order a cappuccino after 10 AM). Photo credit
A traveler favorite you’ll find at every Autogrill, the ham and cheese grilled panini (panino di prosciutto cotto e formaggio). The Italians take their ham and cheese seriously, so you can always count on a hot, savory sandwich to eat-in (mangiare qui) or take-out (porta via). Photo credit
Even quicker than grilled panini, you can grab a simple sandwich of salami and cheese (also called a panino), or perhaps tuna and tomato and mozzarella. Most panini sell for about 3 bucks – cheaper and better than a Big Mac. Photo credit
Most Italians limit their breakfast to a simple cornetto (think croissant but more like brioche inside), or chomp on a piece of olive oil infused focaccia and pair it up with a cappuccino or espresso. You’ll always see a case full of pastry goodies to choose from at every Autogrill. Photo credit
Some Autogrills have a Ciao or Bistrot buffet line, where you can select from a variety of hot dishes, like pizza or lasagna or even a grilled steak. Just line up and point to what you want. When you’re done, just say basta così (that’s enough). Photo credit
Salads are popular in Italy, and for good reason – made with super-fresh produce, they look and taste fantastic. Here you can choose from a simple salad with Sorrento olives, ciliegia (cherry sized) mozzarella, radicchio & greens, or go with a tuna, egg and ciliegia mozzarella salad tossed with olive oil. Photo credit
What’s an Italian fast food joint without pasta? Here at the Autogrill, they’ll heat up your favorite pasta shape (spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, whatever you like) and toss it with a tasty sauce. Here you can go with vongole (clams) in butter & white wine, or a simple tomato sauce. Photo credit
Fresh local greens with tomatoes, ciliegia mozzarella balls and anchovy filets fill the belly nicely. When is the last time you saw a salad like these in an American fast food joint? Photo credit
Barley soup with carrots, lentils, turnips and onions, served in a whole grain bread bowl. Fancy? Nope, this is good ol’ fashioned Italian cooking sensibility: If you’re going to eat something, make sure it tastes good. Photo credit
The drive-in without the drive-thru.
You’ll find Autogrill stops every 20 to 50 miles along most Autostrade. They come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re easy to find – Just look for the big red A. Some are literally built right over the Autostrada – imagine dining while traffic races beneath you at 90 mph. Many of them date back to the 70’s, so there’s a distinct The Jetsons feel to them.
Happy (and tasty) travels!