Could McDonald's Be Rome's Archenemy?

Keller, of New York, is a writer and film maker who has lived in Rome.

For weeks we received letters from our Roman friends that were filled with newspaper clippings describing chaos in Rome's historic center. "Biggest Fast Food in the World Opens in Piazza di Spagna" . . . "McDonald's Serves 30,000 Meals in First Two Days" . . . "Rome Suffers Indigestion from Thousands of Hamburger-Gobbling Youth" . . . "City Hall to Decide Fate of Temple to the Hamburger."

McDonald's had slashed the pasta curtain and broken its world record for daily hamburger sales when the Italian flagship restaurant opened in Rome's elegant Piazza di Spagna.

We lived in Rome through the '60s and well into the '70s. The idea of Italians turning out in the thousands (15,000 a day the first week McDonald's opened) to eat hamburgers amazed us. Romans giving up their coveted, leisurely, midday meal to line up for fast-food? Impossible!

'Got to Be a Fad'

Romans don't queue up for anything, least of all American fast-food. Piazza di Spagna, famous for its chic shops, Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley Memorial and the statue commemorating the Immaculate Conception, now spawning Big Macs? Not a chance!

It's got to be a fad, we reassured ourselves. But still, the disturbing articles kept arriving.

Then we read about youths from the outskirts invading Rome on their motorcycles; about traffic, noise and McDonald's containers polluting the historic center. Clint Eastwood, the new mayor of Carmel, Calif., became Rome's anti-hamburger hero. A rumor said he was cracking down on Carmel's fast-food establishments.

The "Save Rome" group, protesting the "degradation" and "Americanization" of Rome, printed signs and T-shirts proclaiming "Clint Eastwood, You Should Be Our Mayor."

They nicknamed Rome's Mayor Nicola Signorello "Nick," to sound American, and exhorted him to act swiftly in condemning the mordi e scappa (eat-and-run) restaurant. But Nick just sent in the fire and sanitation departments, explaining that his authority allowed him to intervene only when security and hygiene were involved.

The franchise holder, Jacques Bahbout, voluntarily closed the contested restaurant on Saturdays to alleviate the congestion in the center.

Next, fashion designer Valentino got into the act, suing McDonald's for the "foul odors and noise" permeating his workshop in the building behind the hamburger-and-fries haven.

The the area's wealthy residents, the owners of the chic shops and the Communist Party agreed on one course of action: "Close down McDonald's."

In the opposite camp, because McDonald's was supplying 250 jobs and selling 7,000 hamburgers a day, the trade unions (including the communist union) and the beef and bun suppliers rallied to "take the pressure off Piazza di Spagna and encourage McDonald's to open another restaurant in another part of town."

Seeing for Ourselves

Impatient for the next installment, we came to Rome to see for ourselves.

At 2 p.m. on a sunny weekday we marched from Piazza del Popolo along Via del Babuino. We made our way into Piazza di Spagna, preparing to fend off barbarians and block fumes from fries.

"Where is this McDonald's?" we asked a buggy driver.

"That's all they ask me for these days," he muttered, pointing to a red sign with the famed golden arches.

Over the low-key entrance doors a white "M" and tasteful white lettering spell out "McDonald's." Inside, the lobby is designed to look like a continuation of the piazza. An orderly, steady stream of people of all kinds and ages flowed in and out. We passed an enticing display of fresh fruits and, turning the corner, before us was a large Italian restaurant whose only arches are the vaulted ceilings supported by marble-faced columns.

It has frescoes with Roman vistas, marble-topped tables, comfortable chairs (all occupied), a splendid salad bar with Italian-style offerings of mozzarella and tomatoes and salads of rice, pasta, shrimp and fresh fruit. Off to one side, customers lined up at cash registers to order their hamburgers, fries, drinks or tickets for the salad bar.

We bought our food and just as we feared we wouldn't find a table, a young hostess led us to one beside an attractive, middle-aged man in a well-tailored suit, eating a salad. He told us that he, too, was there for the first time.

He had been in his office nearby preparing for a meeting. "It would have taken three times as long and cost three times as much if I had gone to my regular restaurant," he said.

"Would you return?" we asked. "Definitely," he said.

We talked to some of the workers. Giovanni Biondi, a previously unemployed 20-year-old, said he is a celebrity. "Everyone at the beach gathered around me when they heard I work at McDonald's," he said.

Lucilla Cipriani, a university student, is pleased with the part-time job that helps her with school expenses. Part-time employment of youth at minimum wage is an essential ingredient in the fast-food, fast-profit recipe. Three quarters of the workers are part-time.

A young English tourist said she comes here for the cleanest and most available "loos" in town. "McDonald's has two full-time plumbers on staff," says the manager, Signor Francesco, who also reports "a steady and manageable 10,000 customers a day, about 850 an hour."

According to Francesco, customers include shopkeepers, shoppers, salespeople and office workers in the area, and employees from the Valentino workshop.

Says Francesco: "We get the before-the-movie crowds and after-the-movie crowds, and the movie people themselves. In fact, Sandra Milo was in the other day and so was Fellini, asking to shoot his next film here."

McDonald's, Rome, is as Italian as you can get and still be a McDonald's. The hamburgers, fries and shakes are the same the world over, but here the ambiance is tasteful and so are the salads. Francesco knows something about style and food. He learned his trade at the famed Cafe de Paris on the Via Veneto.

Finally the "battle between the giants," Valentino versus McDonald's, was over. McDonald's extended its exhaust flues and solved the odor problem. The impartial experts called in to testify found the noise and odor levels within acceptable limits.

We called Valentino, expecting him to be fuming in defeat. Instead, his press office reported that Valentino feels that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion.

"Then would Mr. Valentino ever eat at McDonald's?" we asked. "It's possible," she said. It's also good business. Valentino is preparing a line for young people, so it's wise to join the burger-eating youth.

The divided city council wanted to go off on vacation. They saved the controversial fast-food legislation for last. Compromising, the council voted that McDonald's must "reduce its activity." How, and by how much, and who will enforce it? Nobody knows. It's holiday time.

Enter the sociologists, psychologists and historians to explain the hamburger phenomenon.

"McDonald's isn't changing Rome, Rome had already changed," says Franca Camiz, a professor at Trinity College in Rome. "The arrival of McDonald's and the incredible response shocked everyone. Suddenly Romans realized how different the historic center and Roman habits had become, and McDonald's was blamed for it all."

The Piazza di Spagna district is no longer dominated by Gucci, Pucci and Cucci. Shops filled with the sounds of rock and clothes young people want now invade the area.

For Romans, the old style of going home for lunch and a nap--even if they work in shops that still close for three hours--means battling four traffic jams a day. By the time they get home it's time to turn around and go back to work.

To fill the gaps and the stomachs quickly and cheaply, Italian fast-food restaurants appeared on the scene--sandwich shops called paninoteca, shops selling pizza slices, American-style hamburger shops bearing such genuinely English-sounding names as Benny Burger, Big Burg, Best Burg and Willy's.

Rome was already in the fast-food lane before McDonald's arrived.

According to McDonald's franchiser Bahbout, "The journalists who came when we opened and wrote the negative articles still show up to eat here." Asked whether he plans to open more restaurants, Bahbout had only one answer: "As many as I can."

As 1987 began along the Tiber, McDonald's and Rome's City Council made peace. New restaurants will be allowed to open but not in the historic center. At numero uno, life goes on at its usual pace of 10,000 customers a day.

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