It’s been a long day on the road with miles (well, kilometers really) left to go. As I stare out the window at the flat fields and old farmhouses I start to nod off, but my stomach grumbles me awake. That’s when I see it ahead: an arched building that spans the highway. It’s a familiar sight, even though I don’t know where I am. It’s the Autogrill, and while I might never have stopped at this one, I know exactly what I can expect inside: a store with magazines, chewing gum, CDs and just about anything else I could need for my car trip, a cafe with pastries and a hot cup of espresso coffee, and a self-service restaurant with pizza and salad. In other words, everything for a quick break while I’m on the road.
Today the Autogrill is a familiar sight for both Italians and people from around the world as they travel through Italy, but most don’t think about when or how it came to be. In 1947, as the Italian roadway system was expanding, the industrialist Mario Pavesi decided to build a small bar that would sell his company’s biscuits near the A4 Milan – Turin highway tollbooth. Pavesi’s dream was to create a place where tired drivers could stop, rest and grab a light snack to refresh themselves for the trip ahead.
By 1959, Pavesi’s bar had grown into numerous rest stops across the country. This exponential growth was thanks to the demands of Italy’s new consumer culture as much as the expansion of the highway system. Italians were increasingly investing in cars as well as spending money on summer holidays away from home and the Italian diet was adapting to favor light snacks over heavy meals. In this context, the Autogrill offered a familiar place where drivers could fill up on coffee and food, while at the same time becoming part of a larger community of drivers on the go in modern Italy.
Thanks to the architect Angelo Bianchetti, during this same time Autogrill was developing a distinct look it is still known for today. Bianchetti built the first Pavesi bridge-style restaurant in the town of Fiorenzuola d’Arda in 1959. The building straddled both sides of the highway, allowing drivers traveling in either direction to meet in the middle and eat while overlooking the roadway.
Today you can easily recognize an Autogrill by its dynamic red “A” logo, but the restaurants we know by that name today were originally a series of different brands. Pavesi, Motta and Alemagna were all rest-stop chains that would have been familiar to travelers in the 1950s and 1960s. However, each had a similar concept and developed following the same model. In fact, Motta built its first bridge-style restaurant a year after Pavesi’s. The three brands finally joined under the Autogrill name in 1977.