Hidden on the side of a forest road 45 km north of Venice, there is a cheap hand-painted sign that reads: “Osteria Ai Pioppi.” It points to a “ristorante” though, from the road, the old metal gate and thick lines of trees look more like a park than any place where people would pay for a meal.
That first impression would be correct. While there are lines of picnic tables and placards with prices for cafeteria-style food, nobody is there for the pasta puttanesca. Visitors come for what sits behind the tables: a rusted-steel amusement park featuring roller coasters, tilt-a-whirls, luges and other rides the restaurateur welded together in his spare time.
Ai Pioppi was birthed 40 years ago when the restaurateur, Bruno Ferrin, tried to commission a local blacksmith to construct some simple hooks for him. The blacksmith, a grumpy paisano, answered his order for by telling him to “weld it yourself” and provided a brief blowtorch lesson. Bruno was so enamored by his new hobby that he ended welding together a simple slide so children could have something to do while their parents finished eating.
Over the years, Bruno continued tinkering and started adding more complex rides to attract visitors. Soon, he’d built a makeshift Magic Kingdom of more than 40 kinetic-powered contraptions. After an Italian filmmaker made a documentary about it, Ai Pioppi became a sensation — so much so that Bruno has had to upgrade his restaurant to seat 500 to meet the demand.
Of course, Osteria Ai Pioppi is not like other amusement parks. The metal is corroded, the rides are overrun with woods and weeds, and unswept leaves linger on the tracks. There isn’t even electricity – all rides are powered by the thrill-seekers who must push and pedal on their own to move the rides.
Terrifying? Yes. But oh man does it look fun. On the Bicycle of Death, for instance, riders climb into a carriage and pump pedals with their feet, as if riding a bike, to pull a suspended cage as high as they can. Then they let go — and the force of gravity sends them backwards twirling around a 360 degree loop. The harder they pedal, the faster the ride goes.
Guests who frequent the park say it’s entirely worth it. Sure, the metal rides were built by an enthusiast as a marketing gimmick and aren’t “up to code”. But the feeling that a ride might crumble at any minute adds to the thrill. Plus, as all the rides are human-powered, the fun you have is a direct result of your effort. The kids won’t learn a lesson like that at Six Flags.
Ai Pioppi is open from spring through autumn. The rides are free for anyone who buys a meal — and the food is cheap, costing 24 euros per adult for a 3-course meal with drinks. Tetanus shots, however, aren’t on the menu.