Whenever I think of Autogrills, I always have a mental image of the immense long migration of the Italian people during the summer holidays, loaded like mules and all with the same desire to get to their destination and spend the summer holidays at the seaside. The Autogrill is a crossroads for millions of people who stop daily for coffee, a sandwich, a break at the cafeteria.
Some people pass through quickly, deep in thought while others stop for longer, eating while seated comfortably and then wandering around in the shop that now sells everything and more. Celebrated initially as a symbol of wealth and modernity and then criticized as an image of consumerism and a post-modern “non-place”, the roadside Autogrills have come a long way, from simple no-frills bars and cafés to the millions of coffees and sandwiches that are sold each year along the Italian motorway network.
The first Autogrill was created shortly after the war by a young Novara industrialist who was the son of a baker. It was a prophetic vision – in those days more than half of all Italians still lived in rural areas and there was perhaps one car per hundred inhabitants – and so it was that Mario Pavesi, creator of the Pavesini biscuits, opened a small shop on the Milano – Torino road at the Novara turn-off. The forerunner of the modern Autogrill was a simple bar with tables and chairs and a pergola outside and which was used as a showcase for the biscuits produced in the nearby family factory. However, thanks to the country’s economic growth, within a few years it became a multi-billion lira business.
In fact, already by the 1950’s the war seemed to be a distant memory. The factories were working at full capacity, goods were starting to appear in abundance, the boom was just around the corner and everyone was getting geared up. More and more cars and trucks were on the roads where the motorways introduced the overtaking or fast lane. Against this backdrop of changes, the Pavesi Autogrill Bar on the Milan/Turin was also modified, acquiring a restaurant area and becoming the first true rest stop for motorists in Italy. The metamorphosis was complete: Italy had its first real service stations that would go on to serve as a template for the creation of all the others.
The boom really took off in Italy around the end of the 1950s and the start of the 1960s. The small runabout car became the symbol of a country on the move, looking for new consumer goods and new lifestyles. These were the years of mass motorization, the Fiat 500 and 600 and in the midst of this tremendous transformation, motorway service areas multiplied.
The Motta-Grills and the Alemagna Autobars appeared alongside the Pavesi Autogrills, starting a period of industrial competition that was to result in one of the most fascinating pages of architectural motorway history and giving birth to the bridge-style service station period: daring design works and symbols of an optimistic Italy, created as part of the twin cultures of the car and the future. Between 1959 and 1971 more than a dozen were built.
The first, designed by Angelo Bianchetti and built in 1959 was located in Fiorenzuola d’Arda between Parma and Piacenza. It was all in steel with a staircase approach on either side and a glass-walled area which housed the restaurant and from which people could see both lanes of the road underneath. Significantly it was also the first of its kind in Europe. The project was completed in just four months, from the autumn to the winter of 1959 and it was based on the American model, more specifically the Oasis restaurant from the Fred Harvey chain in Chicago.
Motta’s answer was not slow in coming: in 1961 the Motta-grill opened at Cantagallo, a colossus that would dominate the stretch of the Autostrada del Sole motorway between Bologna and Florence. From then on, everything had changed for Italian motorists: the motorway was seen not just as a means of getting from A to B, but also a destination in itself.
People would go to the bridge-style Autogrills for lunch on Sunday, to watch the cars passing by under the windows and also to look around the bazaar and shops, where they would find products advertised on the first television programs. This was the dawn of the consumer society and the Autogrill service stations were the forerunners of what would soon become a commonplace experience for Italian consumers, namely the opportunity to choose from a large number of different products and tastes, with one eye on local traditions and the other on an overseas lifestyle.