The Fall Of Rome To Fast Food

Romans know that the best places to get authentic cooking are at restaurants named after their owners: da Valentino, da Augusto, da Francesco, and da Giovanni. Such places usually are hidden in dark alleyways and backrooms of decaying Roman palazzi, and their Spartan decor is, at best, a faded soccer poster on water-damaged walls, sawdust carpeting, and paper tablecloths.

You don't go for the restaurant's namesake, though. You go for the dishes: bucatini all'amatriciana, or thick, hollow spaghetti served with a bacon and hot pepper tomato sauce; saltimbocca alla romana, slices of prosciutto and sage leaves rolled inside a thin veal steak; and carciofi alla romana--steamed artichokes stuffed with garlic and mint leaves. These specialties have been served to generations of Romans at hole-in-the-wall budget restaurants known as osterie. Federico Fellini's film Roma shows families crowded around outdoor tables eating whole garlic cloves and sucking steamed snails from the shells. It's a grotesque scene, but it definitely catches the osteria spirit.

Now, eating habits are changing. Neighborhood osterie face extinction as busy Romans flock to the growing number of new fast-food outlets. Just last year, 89 osterie closed in Rome, while double that number of pubs, sandwich joints, and self-service cafeterias sprang up. More and more, Italians are being weaned off grandma's secret sauce, which takes hours to simmer and stir, replacing it with food that can be munched on the run.

The change is generational. "You hardly ever see anyone under 40 in the osteria anymore," laments Mirella Filigno, co-author with her husband of Osterie d'Italia, a nationwide guidebook to these restaurants. "Young people like to hang out in Irish pubs and sandwich joints," she says. They care little about a dining tradition that goes back to ancient Rome. The osteria--its name comes from the verb "to host"--was originally a wine tavern where locals brought their own home-cooked meals and enjoyed them in the company of friends and neighbors. Later, osterie started dishing out their own low-cost meals, but they remained a place for socializing and gossip.

BAD SERVICE. So it's an older crowd that gathers at da Valentino in Monti, ancient Rome's red-light district and later a working-class neighborhood. The mostly male clientele knows that the best tables are the ones facing a 20-year-old TV set, where they can watch soccer, and more important, argue about it.

Its two waiters root for rival teams. When Lazio and Roma play each other, potbellied Giancarlo and Luciano, with greased-back hair, shout insults at each other and refuse to serve the same tables. Since Lazio has been doing well this season, Giancarlo is more boisterous than usual. "After the championships, Roma supporters will be too embarrassed to eat here anymore," he says, tempting a hungry fan with a steaming plate of potato gnocchi. "What does he know? He's just a waiter," whispers Luciano into another customer's ear.

Bad service is considered part of the osteria's charm. Once, at an outdoor table at da Augusto in the heart of Trastevere, Rome's bohemian quarter, I was about to dive into a plate of straccetti con rughetta--sliced beef with rucola salad on top--when I dropped my fork onto the grimy street pavement. I asked for another one, and the waiter snapped: "Where do you think you are, cara, the Ritz?" He never did remember my fork, so I wiped off the dirty one with the paper tablecloth and dug in.

Another reason for the osteria's decline is that many of its dishes are decidedly out of fashion--not only because of their time-consuming preparation but also because of their ingredients. Consider these osteria staples: Cervello fritto, or golf-ball-size deep-fried patties of cow brains; trippa alla romana, slices of cow intestines smothered in tomato sauce; and lingua di vitella in salsa piccante, pickled lamb's tongue. Made with poor people's ingredients, Roman cuisine is heavy on the stomach--not to mention the eyes--compared with the delicacies of Naples and Genoa. Without choice cuts of beef and exotic spices, Rome's popular cuisine depends on saucing up or deep-frying discarded parts of animals.

At the osteria, you're expected to be familiar with Roman specialties, and you shouldn't expect to be served anything else. And God forbid you should take too long to order. Menus are for tourists--often they're written only in English, and not very enticing English at that. One lists "fresh fat," "piquant sauce macaronis in the country people's manner," and "angry pens" (spicy pasta). Most Romans know what they're going to order before they sit down. If they wanted to be surprised, they wouldn't go to the osteria.

Still, changing times have caused some owners, particularly young people who have inherited family osterie, to question time-honored traditions. They're improving service and offering lighter cuisine to attract younger diners.

Diehard fans of the osteria have started a movement to save their cherished eateries. "In Italy, our fight is the osteria, just like saving the pub in England or the bakery in France," says Patrick Martins, 27, an American who wrote his New York University thesis on medieval cuisine in France and England. "Just as important as safeguarding ingredients is protecting the theatrics and the performance in the presentation of foods."

ENDANGERED RECIPES. Martins is a director of Slow Food (as opposed to fast food), an organization based in Turin that is waging war against standardized food. Founded in 1986, Slow Food has 60,000 members and 475 chapters worldwide, including 23 in the U.S. Offering cooking classes, wine-tasting events, detailed catalogs of endangered recipes, and a Web page, Slow Food has made protecting culinary patrimonies around the world its priority.

The Fall of Rome--to Fast Food

One of Slow Food's biggest targets is, not surprisingly, McDonald's Corp., which has 186 outlets in Italy, most of them opened since 1996, when it bought out Burghy, an Italian competitor. Then there's Autogrill, an Italian alternative to McDonald's that serves Italian panini (sandwiches) and slices of pizza. Born as a roadside eatery, Autogrill is now the largest European fast-food chain and has one restaurant for every 15.5 miles of highway in Italy. Autogrill is negotiating with Burger King Corp. to sell its products in Autogrill outlets. "We think Italy's fast-food market has a lot of room for growth," says Autogrill CEO Paolo Prota Giurleo.

Indeed, while fast-food outlets account for just 5% of the restaurant business in Italy, they make up 20% of the restaurants elsewhere in Europe. The chilling prospect that Italy might catch up with the rest of Europe is reason enough for some Italians to want to fight back. Says Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food and author of more than 30 books on food: "Taking the osterie from Rome is like putting a skyscraper where the Colloseum is."