Truck Stop Gourmet
10 February 2011
Perhaps the best meal I’ve ever had was at a roadside truck stop. In Italy. On Sunday. I can’t remember which exits it was between on the Autostrada, or even which number of Autostrada I was traveling on, but it doesn’t matter. Autogrill is at all of them, a fast-food convenience chain geared toward the casual traveler or the serious trucker, with a range of merchandise for either profile, or shades between.
At first glance, the architecture, graphics, and window-displayed adverts resembled any NYS Thruway service stop, only a little bit more FIFA than NFL. I have a ritual each Thanksgiving morning when I stop at the Sloatsburg Travel Plaza on the Northbound NYS Thruway, a reward of a seasonal eggnog or pumpkin latte for surviving Route 17 traffic outbound from the NYC area. It is sentimental and the official kickoff to my holiday season, but cannot compare to Sunday’s inconceivable convenience stop en route to Milan from Tuscany. And Sunday is a glorious day for people-watching to boot, churchgoers and traditionalists donning suits and furs for the Sabbath.
The lighting is a fluorescent beacon in the hilly fog and northern smog, a cookie-cutter design, branded undeniably by American market research. The tills are centrally located and surrounded by tchotchkes, perhaps a model also borrowed from the American stop ‘n’ shop. Tree air fresheners, steering wheel covers, and DVD overstock... same s*&#, different country. Except for the snack bar.
Yes, the snack bar was impressive. In place of Pizza Hut, Burger King, or an assortment of not-found-in-nature-colored processed cheese-and-jalapeno-nacho-thingies was a counter lurking behind steamy glass, the aroma of rosemary-crusted fresh foccacia rising over the top of the glass. Beside the foccacia were rows of fresh pizzete, panini, and other such fresh savories. And oh, the croissants! And the coronetti! And the sausage-topped what-do-you-call-them-again? The Old World version of the roadside Extra Value Meal really blew my mind.
Four Euros. A very tall glass of the freshiest, squeeziest, onsite, seeds-in-the-bottom-to-authenticate-it blood orange juice, a zesty red, and as deep in flavor as it was in color. A pain au chocolate, still steaming from the oven with soft dabs of chocolate clinging to the outside of it, on a whit porcelain plate. And the coffee of choice. Any. Mine was a caffe macchiato, the idea of much milk in a latte posing questions after such powerful citrus. Autogrill is known for its coffee, the freshest available, and most Italians will look forward to one on the road to anywhere. But wait. There’s more.
The cooler section. Not a mushy burrito or shrinkwrapped egg muffin to be found. Instead, a vast selection of hand-selected local cheeses, sausages, salami, and wines. Pecorino DOP di Toscana, salame di Cremona, and Lambrusco, to name only a few. Every Autogrill has such a display, slowly made whole foods transformed into well-respected fast foods, sans preservatives and chemicals. And even better, the design of the shops is such that you must pass through the entire designated mini-hall of antipasti and wine to even check out, beautiful packages and macramé hanging dotting the corporatized truck stop with local reverence.
In fact, every place where the public might wander into has some form of gorgeous cheese display, either well-conceived or haphazardly erected. In either case, at the nucleus is cheese. Why just the other day at the riding stables, in the office was a pile of fresh cheeses from the farmer next door. Everywhere I’ve been in Italy thus far, proof abounds of cheese’s reigning glory, and perhaps the only food worthy of its own designated group.