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Italy: The Last Holdout McGives Up

March 24, 1986|DON A. SCHANCHE | Times Staff Writer

For starters, he has remodeled the entryway of an old and somewhat seedy bar-restaurant that he owned in one of the piazza's most imposing Renaissance buildings. Now it looks like the opening to a chic sidewalk cafe, paved with traditional Rome cobblestones. Unlike many of the franchise chain's establishments, there is no massive golden arch or flashing boast of how many billions of meat patties have been sold. Instead, there is just a simple "McDonald's" in soberly lighted typeface.

Fake Roman Stucco Walls

Inside, the sham sidewalk cafe gives way to a lengthy simulated alley, also paved in cobblestone and flanked by fake Roman stucco walls punctuated by false doorways that look like the entryways to neighborhood buildings. The whole entry area is lighted by the same kind of turn-of-the-century street lamps that light the Piazza di Spagna itself.

The alleyway entry ends with a creditable tile copy of an ancient Roman mosaic, then turns up a short flight of steps to get to the real action, a vast room with seating for 450, which Bahbout said tops any of the other McDonald's in the world. The original ceiling of the Renaissance room, composed of dozens of arched vaults supported by solid brick pillars, add a grace note that must be unique among hamburger joints.

Although young people are expected to be the mainstay of the new fast-food restaurant, Bahbout also expects a more fashionable clientele, the upper-class Italians who shop the elegant stores and boutiques of the nearby Via Condotti and other high fashion streets in the Piazza McSpagna area. To lure them, he has installed a seven-foot grand piano and plans to offer soft music, just short of tea-dance tempo. To attract young mothers, a children's party room, a fixture in many American McDonald's, has been set off from the main dining room by green garden railings.

Despite Bahbout's careful avoidance of the plastic and neon that many Europeans associate with hamburger dining, McDonald's still must overcome some challenges before it can settle down to becoming truly Roman. For example, the head of the Assn. of Roman Restaurateurs, Giorgio Bodoni, was but one of many to raise a warning flag concerning litter in the famed piazza.

Bahbout responded by hiring extra cleaning crews to sweep periodically through the neighborhood, picking up not only McDonald's wrappers and containers but general litter as well.

More Serious Challenge

A more serious challenge, perhaps, has come in the form of a letter from the district leader of the Piazza di Spagna area to the mayor of Rome, protesting that Bahbout committed several "irregularities" in remodeling the interior of the building. Rome zoning authorities strictly oversee changes in historic sites, which include most of the city's buildings, and the Italian Arts Ministry is especially severe when alterations are undertaken "irregularly" without official permission.

But in the Italian way, this charge, which Bahbout denies, will take months and perhaps years to resolve, leaving time, at a velocity of 15 seconds per serving, for the fast-food people to tick off at least another billion served.

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