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An employee serves a panino at Eataly in Rome. Pictures: AFP

A derelict terminal in Rome has been transformed into a food-lovers' paradise as Eataly opens its biggest branch ever, offering everything from gourmet slow food to cooking lessons with top chefs.

The megamarket, which already has shops in north Italy, New York and Tokyo, has transformed the vast domed building into a food connoisseur's haven, with dozens of tasting stands and restaurants as well as culinary exhibitions and projects.

"Welcome to the biggest place in the world dedicated to Italian food. Our aim is to make it the third most-visited place after the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums," said Eataly owner Oscar Farinetti as he showed off the site ahead of its opening on Thursday.

The food hall, which produces its own mozzarella, ice-cream and beer, covers four floors and has about 20 restaurants, bars, cafes and tasting stands, as well as specialist markets for olive oils, pastas, wines, cheeses and hams.

Just as it chose run-down buildings for its previous stores - an old factory in Turin, an ageing cinema in Bologna and a historic palace in Genoa for example - Eataly hopes to transform the area around the terminal in Rome.

Built in the Ostiense quarter as a hub for trains to Fiumicino airport when Italy hosted the football World Cup in 1990, the terminal designed by the postmodern architect Julio Lafuente was abandoned after only a few months.

As urban decay set it, it quickly degenerated into a wasteland and stood out like a sore thumb among Rome's stunning historic buildings.

"The neighbourhood is not very attractive but it's much better than Lingotto (in Turin) was before we arrived, and we have a habit of breathing fresh life into abandoned places," Farinetti said.

In its mission to tickle tastebuds, Eataly plans to teach between 5000 and 6000 children a year for free about how to eat seasonal foods, recycle leftovers or keep a kitchen garden. Retired people will also be eligible.

Eataly in Rome. Pictures: AFP

Budding cooks will be able to sign up for lessons with renowned chefs from as little as 30 euros ($38) a go, using eco-friendly Made in Italy products.

"The principle behind Eataly is that it's a place where you can buy, eat and study food," Farinetti said.

The new site also has classrooms, a culinary bookshop and a food-tasting travel agency.

Farinetti opened the first Eataly in an industrial area of Turin in January 2007 and the Rome branch will be its ninth in Italy and the 19th in the world.

Despite the economic crisis, the company, which has 2300 employees, has forecast a turnover of 300 million euros by the end of 2012.

It expects to bring in between 45 and 80 million euros in the Rome branch alone.

In an austerity-hit country with high youth unemployment figures, Farinetti said he had hired 557 young people for the new branch and company principle was that no one would earn more than five times the salary of the lowest-paid workers.

Over the next three years, Eataly plans to open five other branches in Italy as well as four in the Americas - in Chicago, Los Angeles, Sao Paolo and Toronto. It would also go to London and maybe Paris by 2015, he said.

With prices ranging from 4 euros for a sandwich to 150 euros for a set meal in its top restaurants, the Italian megamarket has been very successful, particularly in Japan, where there are nine branches in Tokyo alone.

As well as attracting some of the 10 million tourists who visit Rome each year, Farinetti hopes some of the four million inhabitants will swap local dishes for delicacies from other regions showcased in the store.

"Despite a certain lack of curiosity and the economic crisis, Eataly should be able to draw in two million local inhabitants three times over a year," he said, because the megastore "is a unique concept for Rome".