One spring morning in 1986, while I was puttering around in my Maryland apartment and listening to the radio, a short news feature caught my attention. The first franchise of a well-known hamburger establishment had opened in Italy near Rome’s Spanish Steps. Initially, I wasn’t sure how successful the new fast food restaurant would be in a country where Sunday lunch can take three hours.
It’s no small irony that my first student in Rome was the estranged wife of the man who opened that fast food place. She can go on and on at great length about the virtues of the Piazza Spagna store—it’s the biggest, it’s the best. It’s certainly financed a fine apartment overlooking Rome, private schools for the children, and a few Mercedes (not to mention a private English tutor).
I felt compelled to visit said restaurant after I came to live in Rome. When I entered, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. It almost looked like a normal Italian coffee bar: there was the ubiquitous espresso machine, boxes of Baci chocolates, and a freezer case of true gelato. But as I looked around, I saw brochures with images of the red-haired clown who promotes the chain, so I knew I was in the right place.
I continued past this room through a tiled hallway with a discrete fountain offering soothing water sounds, past a marble statute from some forgotten ruin. At the foot of a staircase leading to an upper floor I saw a brass plaque proclaiming this indeed to be the first of the chain in Italy (Opening Date: March 20, 1986). At the top of the stairs was a vast room with vaulted ceilings. I saw the familiar red banquettes, but they were fronted by marble-topped tables. On the walls were modern frescos of typical Roman scenes, but one included a waiter wearing a familiar paper hat. Large brass signs forbade smoking.
There were the illuminated signs offering the recognizable menu (in Italian), but the drink case was full of mineral water, and an iced service counter offered equal amounts of Coke, Sprite and beer.
I felt that my research would not be complete without sampling the fare, so I ordered a signature hamburger and waited for it to be prepared just for me. The bun was freshly toasted and quite hot and delicious, but alas, it was stuffed with two thin beef patties, wilted iceberg lettuce (the first I’d seen in Rome), and that mayonnaise-ketchup sauce; it reeked of grease. It’s not a taste sensation that I have repeated.
I must admit that the salad bar looked promising. The pasta salad was made with authentic gemelli in a green herb dressing; there was a lovely vegetable salad with green beans and tiny potatoes; a rice salad with olives, mushrooms and sausage beckoned invitingly; the centerpiece was a cherry tomato, black olive, and tuna concoction dressed with olive oil and a bit of hard-cooked egg; and at the back of the counter, almost out of sight, was a dish of grilled eggplant marinating in fresh herbs and olive oil. All these dishes were displayed on a bed of ice decorated with rosettes of blood oranges and lemons. So Italy had made its mark on the chain as well.
But the chain continues to thrive. The dichotomy of the fast food empire’s success in a nation that treasures its taste buds fascinates me. In the mystery I’m writing, the chef of a successful independent restaurant is pitted against a burger baron. Who do you think wins?