Among Italians and foreigners alike, Autogrill has become a proprietary eponym synonymous with all Italian highway rest stops. The Autogrill brand accounts for 65 percent of rest stops in Italy, while its closest competitors Chef Express and Sarni rank at distant second and third place with around 6 percent of the market each.
Autogrills are beloved, especially by American visitors to Italy who praise their food options as superior to their U.S. counterparts. There are a handful of passable food options at Autogrills — especially the meat and vegetable dishes served in the buffet areas — but generally speaking, the high opinion of this massive brand is completely overblown. Autogrills are perceived as purveyors of delicious food, while in reality, the company relies largely on factory-made products to satisfy the demand for their many outlets. Much of what they serve is simply effectively marketed industrial food, and much of what’s good about it is that it’s a convenient stop on a road trip.
To understand how Autogrill became Italy’s ubiquitous rest stop brand, look to northern Italy’s historic sweets makers like Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna. These and other bakeries began as small operations based in northern Italian cities. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, the companies grew and expanded, each embracing clever marketing and mass production in pursuit of market dominance. After decades spent applying mass production and distribution principles to cookies, panettone, and other goods, Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna began to experiment with new formats like rest stop dining, which required little skill to prepare, reduced waste, and maximized profits — and they quickly spread as car culture grew in the post-war era.
By the 1970s, financial crisis decimated the Italian auto industry and, by extension, rest stops as well. The Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), a now-defunct government agency that rescued failing companies from bankruptcy, acquired Pavesi, Motta, and Alemagna and consolidated the companies, forming the Autogrill brand. In the mid-1990s, the company was privatized and the Benetton family’s holding company was and continues to be the largest shareholder. Incidentally, the Benetton family also owns a major stake in the Italian highway system. (You can also thank Motto and Alemagna for the sub-standard cornetto that defines Italian cafe breakfasts.)
Today, Autogrill is one of the world’s largest food-service outfits and counts 4,000 points of sale in 31 countries. In addition their Autogrill shops, the company also owns the Ciao Ristorante and Spizzico brands, both widely present in Italian airports and train stations, as well as operates franchise locations for companies such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, and Eataly.
In spite of global expansion, the brand remains inextricably linked to the experience of driving in Italy thanks, in part, to the fact that Italy has a greater frequency of rest stops than any other European country [PDF, in Italian], with an average distance of 27 kilometers (roughly 17 miles) between them — compared to 47 kilometers in France, 64 kilometers in Spain, and 70 kilometers in Germany. Few of Italy’s million driving visitors miss at least one pit stop at Autogrill’s 600-plus locations.
I personally struggle with ordering at Autogrill (or Sarni or Chef Express) due to the industrial and indigestible nature of most of the food offerings. Here’s how I make the most of long haul drives and how you can, too.
What to eat at an Autogrill:
Raw and cooked vegetables: Check out the salad bar or steam tables in the buffet area for fresh salads or cooked veggies, either of which can stand alone as a meal or become a side dish for a main course.
Roasted meats: Roasted chicken or beef are the most satisfying main courses served at the restaurant buffet.
Pocket Coffee and Espresso to Go: The Ferrero company’s popular caffeinated candy has a liquid coffee center sheathed in chocolate. Pocket Coffee provides a jolt for travelers who want the benefit of caffeine and sugar without periodic rest stop visits.
Club sandwich: Inspired by the crustless Italian tramezzino and an American-style club, this layered white-bread sandwich features chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and a mustard-mayo dressing.
Caffè macchiato: The high volume of coffee service at Autogrills means staff can’t adequately keep up with proper cleaning of the espresso machines, resulting in drinks that taste muddy or charred. Mellow out Autogrill’s coffee defects with a spot of steamed milk in your espresso.
Macedonia di frutta: The pastry counters’ many stale muffins are accompanied by a few fresh options like this fruit salad, which is sold in cups and includes melon, strawberries or grapes, and apples.
Rustichella: This twist on a calzone features flatbread filled with bits of mozzarella and vegetables (fillings can change from Autogrill to Autogrill). Best when heavily toasted on the panino press.
Caprese: This mozzarella, tomato, and herb sandwich is served on a long roll.