Autogrill, saviour of the autostrada

As far back as I can remember, my father, an avid traveller and a hard-core gourmand, has recounted his overseas adventures in terms of the food that fuelled them, whether it was a picnic prepared by his Slovak cousins in the Carpathian Mountains, feasts foraged from Moscow farmers' markets or a dreamlike dinner on the isle of Torcello at the lapping edge of the Venetian lagoon.

A professional chef might pull over, fill up on 98 octane and restock their restaurant's kitchen.

So it is no accident, perhaps, that I organise my travels not only around the prospect of a good drive, but also around proximity to good food – absent the promise of which, I would probably stay home.

While planning a recent trip to Italy, I recalled my father waxing rhapsodic about a fast food chain on the autostrada that prepared particularly good sandwiches. With visions of warmed-over gut bombs wrapped in foil – typical fare of highway travel plazas in the US – dancing in my head, I was intrigued by his enthusiasm. The trip would involve some highway driving, so I rang him up for more details. He didn't remember the chain’s name, though he remembered the sandwiches. There were many varieties, apparently. A customer would tell the counter worker the order, the sandwich would be popped onto a grill and a minute or two later, handed over, piping hot. As he described the long-ago panino, he sounded like nothing so much as a man describing a long-lost love. Clearly, a pilgrimage was in order.

After trundling around Südtirol/Alto Adige for a week in a diesel-powered Mini Paceman, my wife and I headed for Milan via the SR249, the two-lane road that sluices down Lake Garda's eastern shore. At Peschiera del Garda, we joined the A4 heading west, and not long after, encountered a travel plaza amid which stood a beige building emblazoned with bold red letters spelling “AUTOGRILL”. Suspecting it might be the place of myth, we stopped. Our suspicion was duly confirmed upon entering, when we beheld the biggest, and possibly most beautiful, display of panini we had ever encountered.

The selection was staggering, ranging from the minimalist Gran Duca, composed solely of bread and Prosciutto di Parma, to the Capri, a splendour of focaccia, prosciutto cotto, fresh mozzarella, tomato, mayonnaise and oregano. A nod to Italy's northernmost province, gleaned from Austria in 1919 in the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, was the Tirolese, a fennel-seed-flecked roll loaded with Edam cheese, speck and, in a nod to the Habsburg Empire's reach, Hungarian salami. Diners who forego meat and cheese, a remarkable burden in this republic, could ponder theories of masochism between bites of a Vegetariano, a bun filled with grilled eggplant, tomato and basil.

But Autogrill's repertoire goes far beyond the panino. For six euro ($8) you could outfit yourself with dishes like fagiolini (a lightly seasoned bean salad), contorno misto (cooked vegetables that typically accompany the main course in restaurants in Italy) or lasagne alla Ligure (Ligurian lasagne made with pesto, potatoes and green beans).Those craving additional carbohydrates can add a tartaruga multicereali (a small, domed bun whose name means “multigrain turtle”), filoncino alle olive (olive bread) or a plate of pane dorato (“golden bread” dredged in milk and egg and fried to a crouton-like crispness) for an additional euro or two.

Many of Autogrill's 500 Italian locations – found on motorways, in airports and city centres – also feature a traditional staples section, called La Bottegaccia. The selection at this particular Autogrill was so vast – no fewer than 24 types of prosciutti, salame and other cured meats; cheeses ranging from petite spheres of mozzarella di bufala to 20kg wheels of Grana Padano; a wealth of artisanal pastas, olive oils and condiments – it seemed conceivable that a professional chef might pull over, fill up on 98 octane and restock their restaurant's kitchen.

The day was hot, and refreshments were in order. There was the typical panoply of fizzy drinks – Aranciata, Chinotto, Fanta –  but more compelling was a refrigerated case filled with small, perfectly chilled, lunch-size bottles of wine. That they were situated just a few feet from the panini suggested they were the beverage of choice for many travellers. Bear in mind that in Italy, lunch, even a road lunch, is a production. You sit, you eat, you drink, you relax, you talk, you eat some more, you have a pastry, some biscotti, a gelato and finish with espresso. Amid such indulgence, a glass of wine is of little consequence.

Given that just an hour earlier we had consumed a passel of breadsticks, several fingers of focaccia dipped in olive oil, two pizzas, gelati and a pair of espressos on the shore of Lake Garda, my wife and I ordered light: a Caprese panino, a wedge of raspberry chocolate cake, a bottle of San Pellegrino and a crisp 2012 Mastri Vernacoli Cavit DOC Pinot Grigio, from Trento.

From a table in the skybridge overlooking the A4, we gazed down at the traffic – boxy transporter trucks speeding to and from the Veneto, sleek new Alfa Romeos, Lancias and Mercedes-Benz plowing down the left lanes and, darting among them like fearless mice, more Fiat 500s than we could count. The view wasn't quite Lake Garda, but it was mesmerising nonetheless – and the Caprese, exquisite.