In a country where people have traditionally eaten only what Mama used to cook, from recipes dating to the Roman Empire and beyond, it came as something of a shock when Gino squeezed hamburger all'Americana onto his restaurant's
Inserted between the Osso Buco (Marrow Bone) and the Tripa all'Romana (Roman Tripe), the hamburger dish was Gino's capitulation to the fast food trend and imported eating habits that are revolutionizing the Italian way of life.This revolution might not go down in history books, but it has done away with those good old days when lunch was a leisurely affair followed by a siesta behind closed shutters, and when Mama took three hours to do her shopping at 10 poky neighborhood stores, each carrying the specialized item she would not do without.
Today Mama goes to the spacious supermarket, a hybrid American-Italian grocery where she picks some goods from the shelves - but still has someone to slice the mortadella sausage and listen to her complaints about rising prices and falling quality.
The trendy curiosity about foreign food helped open a $500 million deficit last year in Italy's food trade, a shock to a nation where home cooking was sacrosanct, where foreign restaurants were synonymous with the eating habits of barbarians and where each hamlet swore - and often still swears - to possess not only the best pasta recipe but the only drinkable wine in the country.
"Women go to work today, and they just don't have time to waste on waiting their turn in a dozen small shops," says Raffaella Maroncelli, director of Italy's newly created Food Industry Federation.
The federation is another innovation that would have appeared superfluous in bygone days, when waiters could not be unduly hurried nor chefs convinced to concoct anything that was not destined for consumption in the immediate vicinity.
For many Italians, the death knell of that era was sounded last year on the day that McDonald's opened its first establishment here, near the Spanish steps, an event denounced by culinary purists as a sacrilege.
McDonald's has thrived - despite a lawsuit by its next-door neighbor, a Valentino boutique, which complained about the stench. The hamburgers stayed. The clothing store moved.
The writing was on the wall.
Other fast food places - Wendy's, Wimpy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken - soon followed, catering to a new generation of work-conscious yuppies with little time to waste on sumptuous meals in a rustic tradition.
"Thirty years ago, it was still a blessing in Italy to be able to eat enough. Today we eat for pleasure, and we have a vast choice. And that includes fast foods," says Ferdinando Catella, president of Italy's food federation.
Italians have never been slow to reset their sails with changing winds. Almost overnight, corner bars stuck fast food signs on their windows, and the traditional corner grocery that stocked a limited range of selected products either went out of business or became a supermarket.
An estimated one-third of Italian women are working today, and sociologists say the supermarkets, with their ready-made pasta sauces, packed meat and yogurt cultures, cater more to a need than a fad.
Small cafes, where one could leisurely sip cappuccino, have suddenly turned into feverish fast food cantinas at lunchtime.
Changing eating habits are having a significant impact on the country's economy. Until two years ago, the average Italian family spent about 27 percent of its annual income on food. Today, that figure has slipped under 23 percent.
Italy's food industry is reporting the lowest rate of growth in the developed world. Because it never catered to exports - enjoying a complacency justified by its domestic monopoly - it has had a difficult time adjusting to new realities.
The fact that most of the country's 40,000 food-making companies are cottage-industry size has not helped. Without new markets and distribution networks, many are going out of business. About 4,000 food-making companies have closed down in the last two years.
But some companies are finding reason for hope in a sudden interest in their products by American and European multinationals, which envision Mama's old-style cooking as a profitable alternative to the fast food fad.