Why you should eat an an Italian gas station

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Growing up in Rome as the daughter of a restaurateur, there’s no doubt that I love Italian food: fried artichokes and zucchini flowers from the trattoria, homemade pasta from the market, slices of thin square pizza from hole-in-the-wall bakeries. Oh, and coffee and sandwiches from local gas stations.

Not all Italian gas stations are created equal. Chains like Sarni, for example, are known to be a pit stop if you desperately need the toilet and a quick shot of meh-spresso to keep your eyes peeled on the road.

For la crème de la crème of Italian gas station cuisine, you must stop at the Autogrill. There you will find fresh sfogliatella, a pastry so flaky you’d think it had just been baked in the back alleys of Naples; panini riscaldato, warm sandwiches stuffed with top-grade cold cuts and cheeses; or a freshly brewed cappuccino, which, according to the unofficial rules of Italian coffee culture, should be consumed only in the morning.

Instantly recognizable by its glowing red A, Autogrill is a go-to stop for Italians on the road; there are nearly 400 locations spread out across the country.

A typical Autogrill has counters where workers serve steaming shots of espresso and cappuccinos in small, white cups. Display cases show off a rainbow of sandwiches, slices of pizza and pastries such as cornetti — stuffed with Nutella, cream or my favorite, apricot jam.

Selections often vary based on the region. A handful of Autogrills truly outdo the competition. Some have toy stores, which have supplied my childhood puzzles-and-stuffed-animals collection; bars serving bubbles by the glass; and small markets selling premium bottles of wines and spirits, cured meats, and snacks in bulk.

I’ve been in and out of Autogrills at all times of the day and night for as long as I can remember. I’ve stopped in during eight-hour bus rides to Verona for high school soccer tournaments or while shooting up and down the Roma-Napoli highway to visit my grandparents in the small region of Molise.

Sometimes my visits are long enough only for a quick bathroom break and a bag of Haribo black licorice spirals.. Other times I linger for full-blown breakfasts or lunches.

My go-to orders: pear or peach juice served in a small glass bottle and a cornetto filled with apricot jam for breakfast, and a bottle of sparkling water and a warm ciabatta sandwich stuffed with thin slices of salame, studded with just the right amount of pearls of fat, for lunch.

To me, no road trip is complete without a stop at the Autogrill. The next time you find yourself on the road in Italy, do yourself a favor and eat at a gas station.

Asia London Palomba is a Boston-based travel writer from Rome. You can follow her travels on Instagram @asialpalomba.


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