There is a certain je ne sais quoi in driving in Italy, something that is different from anywhere else in the world. It comes down to the combination of various landscapes available just outside the car window. Dramatic alpine views, yellow sandy beaches, bumpy green hills and ancient urban scenarios follow one other with breathtaking beauty. During this long journey in which history embraces culture and nature, there is one element that never changes – something that perfectly carries the consoling power of large-scale branding – the white and red logo of AUTOGRILL, the national service station system of bars built along the highway. There is nothing that screams Italy more than this iconic symbol, with its history seen as an interpretation of the second half of the 20th century Italy.
The first highway bar was built after WWII, in 1947, by the entrepreneur and manufacturer Mario Pavesi, just outside Novara, in the street that links Turin to Milan. Pavesi, the owner of the namesake biscuit factory, decided to open a small shop/bar by the highway to advertise and sell his products. It was during the 50s, after an inspiring trip to the USA, that Mr. Pavesi would transform it into an Auto-grill (a neologism trademarked by himself in 1959), mixing the American style of cuisine with snacks, soft drinks, and quick bites tailored to the Italian sensibility. The design was conceived by the Milanese architect Angelo Bianchetti who defined the gorgeous lines of its distinct look: either the bridge-style restaurants hanging above the highway – the biggest in Europe at the time – or the circular glass-only buildings, both symbols of post-war Italy.
By the end of the 50s, Pavesi had evolved the concept into an established business, having opened several service stations. This growth could be linked to the exponential economic growth of Italy which consequently increased the numbers of cars and highways. Italians were capable of buying economy cars (like FIAT 500) and travel on holiday across the Peninsula. During the 60s, motorways were built (an impressive average of 208 km each year), many cars were produced (around 10 million in 10 years) creating a perfect environment for Autogrills. Between 1955 and 1970, an impressive 25 million Italians moved between regions, transforming Italy into a nation of drivers who needed places to stop, fill up gas, have a quick bite and purchase goods.
Pavesi was not the only player in this game: Angelo Motta (owner of another namesake food company, producing ice creams, crackers, panettone and sticks) opened up several spots alongside highways, near gas stations. Motta was focusing on a more sophisticated cuisine, serving Italian products such as Lasagne, Lambrusco, pasta and much more. The Motta Autogrills became so popular that people celebrated weddings inside these premises as they were seen as an established, posh, and futuristic way of living. During the 60s, these stations became the symbol for the consumerist society: embracing an idea of wellness and futurism.
The third competitor was Alemagna, another food company from Milan. During the whole of the 50s and 60s, these three companies fought for the domain of the highways food business, competing to get the best service, look, design, innovations and customer service. The business changed by the mid-70s, with the global economic crisis.
When the three founders each passed away the companies were sold to the Italian state which merged them into a giant corporation, Autogrill SpA, which became private in 1993. Today it is still owned by the Benetton Group, and has spread all over the world, with Autogrills all over Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Many elements amalgamate making Autogrill so quintessentially Italian, not in the least a selection of panini with powerful branding; we all know and love these sandwiches with catchy names such as Rustichella, Apollo, Bufalino and the king of panini, the Camogli. These sandwiches are so popular in Italy that many of them have become synonymous with holidays: there is no vacanze without a Camogli sandwich! You can also find goods only available at the Autogrill such as the gigantic version of famous snacks we all know and love.
Each one of us has a memory linked to Autogrilll: whether it is a coffee at night, after a long day of work, or the starting point of a holiday with friends, or a dinner with a lover after a long journey to the beach. I particularly love purchasing questionable CD compilations of unknown Italian singers-songwriters from the 80s and 90s with a mandatory singalong in the car… quite odd, I know.
Autogrill represented the glue that connected Italy and the Italians after WWII, from North to South, and from East to West. What makes it so powerful is its link with history embodying the capitalistic way of living introduced in the second half of the 20th century; in what is perhaps the greatest film ever made, Il Sorpasso by the great Dino Risi, Italy of this epoch is unveiled, with its intense mix of comedy and tragedy, all set among freshly built highways and auto-bars. It almost fell apart during the global petrol crisis in the first half of the 70s, but consequently became mightier during the 80s and opening up to globalisation at the end of the 90s – becoming one of the wealthier Italian companies, both monetarily and in culture.