Romans (loudly) debate the merits of spaghetti vs. Big Macs

Ever since the gala opening three months ago, McDonald's has been the talk of the town. Much of the talk, however, has been directed at finding a way to force McDonald's to move from its location in Piazza di Spagna or to close down altogether.

In recent weeks the owner of Rome's franchise, Jacques Bahbout, has been assailed by city officials, urban planners, ecologists, and disgruntled shop owners who complain that McDonald's presence near the Spanish Steps represents the beginning of an onslaught of golden arches that will hasten the cultural and culinary demise of this nation's capital.

Some critics have faulted Mr. Bahbout for choosing one of the city's most romantic squares as the setting for Rome's first McDonald's. Others are apparently worried about the future of Italian cuisine.

``If we hadn't been so successful this never would have happened,'' boasts Bahbout, dismissing public debate over fast food as largely the product of envy.

Business is indeed flourishing at McDonald's in Piazza di Spagna. Bahbout proudly reports that his franchise has broken all McDonald's sales records since opening on March 20. With a seating capacity of 450 and 250 employees that work in rotating shifts, the Rome franchise is the largest McDonald's in the world.

Its owner is eager to stress, however, that the restaurant's monumental size is not evident from the modest entrance way, which is adorned with a scaled-down copy of the McDonald's insignia much in the way that neighboring buildings bear coats of arms.

``The people of Rome have voted for us unanimously,'' says Bahbout, a Frenchman who adopted Rome as his home 26 years ago.

But not everyone agrees with Bahbout's assessment. Only a month after McDonald's opened, a protest was staged at the base of the Spanish Steps. Plates of pasta were served up at the demonstration, which was attended by film stars, intellectuals, and city officials.

The most recent challenge to McDonald's came from Italian high fashion mogul, Valentino. The dispute landed the food and fashion giants in court.

Valentino's lawyer, Giuseppe Consolo, said the creativity of Italy's leading designer and his assistants was seriously impaired by the constant whirring of a ventilator and an overwhelming aroma of French fries spewed upward by a kitchen exhaust duct. Valentino's offices overlook McDonald's rear courtyard.

Mr. Consolo demanded at a hearing in May that McDonald's either eliminate the objectionable odors and sounds or be closed down.

``Buyers from the United States, Japan, and the world over come to buy millions of dollars of clothing, and instead of entering a temple of high fashion they enter a temple of French fries and hamburgers,'' said Consolo.

Shortly after Valentino filed charges, McDonald's sought to remedy the odor problem by attaching an 18-foot extension to a duct. A court-appointed expert was dispatched to determine whether the problem had been satisfactorily resolved. In the end, the court ruled that McDonald's had solved it, and Valentino lost the case.

Consolo contends that Valentino was strictly concerned with the noises and smells emanating from his neighbor's kitchen and has nothing against the world's biggest fast-food empire doing business on his doorstep.

Yet Valentino's lawsuit became part of a larger effort to oust McDonald's from the Spanish Steps and prevent Bahbout and other restaurateurs from linking up fast-food chains across the country.

Bahbout says that now that he has won the Valentino case, the furor over his restaurant will soon die down. Before the end of the summer, Bahbout expects to open a second McDonald's in the city's center. Within a year, he hopes to open two others.

The intensity of the debate on fast food -- featured on the front pages of national dailies -- is unusual considering that Italians are not generally fastidious about preserving their culture from foreign, in particular American, influence. However, many Italians are evidently wary of the new breed of restaurateurs, who, like Bahbout, are beginning to tap the potential of one of Western Europe's last fast-food frontiers.

Only in recent years have fast-food outlets -- mostly family-run businesses -- taken hold in Italy. The distribution of McDonald's franchises in Europe is a good indication of this. There are now around 500 outlets in Europe. However, the McDonald's in Rome is Italy's second, the first being a much smaller outfit that opened in northern Italy last fall.

Angelo Ormanni, whose law firm represented McDonald's in the Valentino litigation, scoffs at the litany of charges leveled against his client, especially claims that fast food will damage Italy's cultural integrity.

``Certain people seem to be saying that if instead of hamburgers we were to continue eating spaghetti, Italy's cultural heritage would be saved,'' Ormanni comments wryly.

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