McDonald’s opens restaurant-museum over ancient Roman road

On Tuesday, a new McDonald's restaurant opened in Italy with one added extra that wasn't on the menu: an ancient Roman road, complete with three skeletons.

McDonald's opens restaurant-museum over ancient Roman road
The road - complete with skeletons. Photo: Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape

The existence of the road, which had lain buried for centuries, was first revealed when work began on the restaurant in 2014.

McDonald's Italia funded the €300,000 restoration project and the result is thought to be the world's first 'restaurant-museum', where visitors can see the ancient street while munching on their burgers, thanks to a transparent floor.

The 45-metre road in Frattochie, south of the Italian capital, dates back to between the second and first century BC and is thought to have fallen out of use about three centuries later. It branches off the more famous Appian Way, which links Rome with the south of the country.

Ruts from wagon wheels are visible in the paving stones, which are made of local volcanic rock.

Though McDonald's financed the restoration, the project was managed by Rome's Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape.

Archaeologists unearthed the skeletons of three adult males, thought to have been buried after the road had already fallen out of use.

Casts of these skeletons have been returned to the original graves while experts carry out further analysis on the original bones.

Photo: Superintendency for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape

Local mayor Carlo Colizza said the McDonald's project was “a positive example” of private and public sector helping each other.

“We were able to perfectly combine business activities with respect for and appreciation of the history and archeology,” added Colizza.

In fact, construction projects in Italy are often delayed by the discovery of ancient ruins which then have to be properly excavated.

This has been one of the major factors in the repeated delays to Rome's third Metro line; workers have unearthed plenty of Roman treasures including a Roman barracks so impressive that the city is considering turning it into a museum.

Panels in English and Italian will give information about the history of the road and there will be a special children's route for younger visitors to explore after  their Happy Meal (or Appia Meal…). The site is also accessible, for free, without going to the McDonald's branch.

The CEO of McDonalds Italy said that the juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity in the McDonalds restaurant-museum was “virtuous”. 

“It is a place where you can look at the future, through the past,” he said.

McDonalds in Italy

However, McDonalds is more often seen as a threat to Italy's cultural heritage than a possible help.

When its first restaurant opened up near the Spanish steps in Rome 30 years ago, there was public outcry. Fashion brand Valentino, which has its Rome headquarters nearby, complained about the smells and noise from the restaurant, and the opening also sparked the now global Slow Food movement.

And though the chain seems to have thrived, the announcement of a new branch on Vatican-owned property, not far from St Peter's Square, was met with fierce protest from cardinals and local residents.

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia labelled the decision to open the restaurant “controversial and perverse”, but it opened in December despite the complaints.

Elsewhere, Florence has taken the struggle to protect its culinary history particularly strongly.

In 2016, the Tuscan capital turned down a request for the golden arches to set up shop in the city's central square, leading the fast food chain to threaten legal action.

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Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres.