How Rome Fell in Love with Chinese Food
Sonia, the one-name-only grande dame of Rome's Chinese restaurant scene, had a lot to do with it.
There’s a distinct pleasure in being proven absolutely wrong.
I hadn’t eaten Chinese food since moving to Italy, and found myself one evening with a pregnancy-like craving. I walked through Esquilino, Rome’s de facto Chinatown, past scores of small shops with laughing Buddhas and sparkly gowns in the windows, towards a spot called Hang Zhou that I’d seen in a guidebook. I thought I would go in, eat, and then walk out with nervous, scanning eyes, as if exiting a porn shop. Italians, I thought, didn’t eat—didn’t need to eat—Chinese food, and to do so might endanger my long-term assimilation plans.
The place was packed. All three dining rooms were full, every table shingled with plates and beer bottles. Scores of people milled around the register, spilled out into the doorway, or smoked outside. I stood there, wide-eyed, as I realized that the majority of them were Italian.
I clearly wasn’t getting in that night. On my way out, I noticed that the walls were covered with photos of either Chairman Mao or a Chinese woman, and about ten times more of the latter. She was always modishly dressed, with an arm around a smiling customer, often someone famous . The outside windows displayed more photos, but also newspaper articles and stills from television appearances, as well as a patchwork of “Recommended” stickers. The following week, I suggested to a Roman friend that we try Hang Zhou, and she replied, “Oh, you mean Sonia’s.” Had I found the Sino-Roman version of Elaine’s? And who was Sonia?
Some time later, on a gorgeous autumn day, I returned to Hang Zhou and was greeted by the woman in the photographs. With her sleeveless striped dress, bob haircut and high cheekbones, she reminded me of Anna Wintour. She seemed slightly offended that I had eaten before our interview, and that I didn’t even want some green tea as she armed herself with an endlessly-refilled porcelain mug. We spoke in Italian, which she wields far better than I do. Sonia talks in a impassioned, slightly amused voice, as if she’s always responding to some previous, laughably wrong statement. No conversation with Sonia feels professional, though, as I learned after trying to translate the English stock phrase “I’m ashamed to admit,” and instead saying “I’m so ashamed of myself.” She reached across the table, placed her hand in the crook of my elbow, and said “Don’t worry, you can tell me anything.”
As we talked, streams of people stopped by our table, including her son Enrico; Daniele, a burly young Chinese-Italian who runs the dining room; and dozens of customers wanting to hug Sonia goodbye and snap a selfie with her. All the while, her smartphone lay flat on the table, buzzing with Instagram notifications and texts and emails from journalists, like a machine spitting out endless tickets for “one order of Sonia.” She freely admits to enjoying all the attention, but isn’t surprised by it. Success, fame even, has been the natural result of her life philosophy.
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“Open your heart and be optimistic. Life is straight. Past time is past. We can’t recover it, good or bad, and so the only important thing is the present,” she said. “You don’t know when you’re going to die, so every moment is precious.”
At first, I didn’t understand the connection, and even her fame itself. It took me awhile to appreciate just how rare Sonia actually was.
Zhou “Sonia” Fenxia was born in 1968 in Huzhou, a medium-sized city in the southeastern region of Zhejiang. Starting in the 1980s, thousands of people from Zhejiang immigrated to Italy. Today, there are over 300,000 documented Chinese-Italians, with the biggest concentrations in Milan, Rome and Prato. In Rome, Chinese immigrants started their own businesses, especially homegoods stores ( what Romans now call a “Chinese”), and restaurants. She was working as an accountant in 1991 when her husband decided to move to Rome. Sonia followed him, along with their young daughter, and took a job in her uncle’s tiny restaurant, called Hang Zhou, after the capital of Zhejiang.
“You arrive knowing nothing, knowing nobody, and what are you supposed to do? I was fortunate that my uncle had a place. But I wasn’t a fool—I wanted to learn,” she said, invigorated by another sip of tea. “I took one of the menus and started to memorize the Italian. Involtini Primavera were my first words in Italian, isn’t that great?”
Not that there was so much to memorize. The 80s-era menus limited themselves to a few dishes, like spring rolls, chicken with almonds, and Cantonese Rice (fried with egg, peas and ham). Slowly, slowly, Sonia took over and expanded the menu along with her Beijing-born chef. In 2001, she bought her uncle out, and Hang Zhou became the first Chinese restaurant in Rome to be included in Gambero Rosso, the city’s most prestigious food guide. More and more clients, including famous actors and politicians, began arriving. Most of the new dishes still appealed to skeptical Italian palates: small, starch-heavy portions meant to be ordered in courses, scant use of black vinegar and sugar, nothing too garlicky or spicy, no fish heads or tripe. The customers came for dishes that were better prepared than most of the other Chinese restaurants in town—to this day, Sonia’s husband still goes to the market every morning to buy ingredients. Many of them stayed, because Sonia was so different than any other Chinese person they’d met.
"Involtini Primavera were my first words in Italian, isn’t that great?”
The Chinese occupy a middle ground amongst immigrants in Rome. They generally don’t receive the overt contempt that many Romans have for Albanians or Africans. And yet the Chinese and Italians, because of linguistic or cultural barriers, or maybe just time, don’t mix very much. Most Romans appear to appreciate Chinese-owned shops and restaurants, but have very little interest in the people running them. Most Chinese immigrants appear content to live quietly in their new homeland.
Along came Sonia. She’d taken an Italian name and spoke Italian. She schmoozed with the customers, hung pictures of herself with them on the walls. She was willing, even eager, to talk to newspapers and appear on food shows. The Italians must have been impressed, seeing this Chinese woman gleefully and publicly accepting acknowledgment for her hard work. And they must have enjoyed the feeling of being a guest in Sonia’s house, that strange, intimate submission to the proprietress that pervades both Italian homes and restaurants. When Sonia moved to the new, larger location in 2010, business only grew, and the clients only got more famous. Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci and frequent customer, even used Sonia as a model in his new campaign this fall.
“I understand what Italians want,” Sonia told me one day over lunch, and I knew she wasn’t just talking about food, even though there was a small banquet before us. Pan-fried spring rolls stuffed with bean sprouts, carrots and cabbage, the verdant crunch reminiscent of a classic Roman fried squash blossom. Four shapes of ravioli cinesi, with four different fillings, each one about half the size of what you’d find in America. Sichuan chicken made with a fistful of ginger and just the tiniest hint of spice. Spare ribs with stewed eggplant that, if blindfolded, I would have said were Italian. All the plates had been brought to us by a young woman wearing the new staff t-shirt, which has a Mao-cap wearing Sonia brandishing two pairs of chopsticks and says “Revolution is the Kitchen.”
“No, no, no, nothing’s changed,” Sonia said when I asked her if she’d altered the recipes for Italians. “Everyone in China does things their own way. If it’s good, that’s enough. And there are a lot of similarities between Chinese and Italian food anyways.”
I had thought the same thing, in fact, when visiting Hu Qiao, a spot near the train station that Sonia admitted had more Chinese clients than she did. I saw why—the flavors were far bolder than at Hang Zhou, especially a marvelous dish of chewy noodles atop a puddle of black vinegar and fried garlic. But a plate of braised calf tendons, if you took out soy sauce, was indistinguishable from the Roman dish nervetti. Why wasn’t this place more popular, especially amongst Italians? I asked the proprietress if I could ask her a few questions, and she quickly deferred to her teenage daughter, who spoke Italian.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think a lot of the staff want to be in a newspaper. This is a …” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “This is a calm place. We’d like to keep it that way.”
She may have been alluding to staff without residency permits, a common issue in Roman restaurants. However, I sensed a genuine disinterest in publicity. Whatever this family viewed as success in Italy, attention from Italians wasn’t an important marker of it. There are some who fault Sonia for being successful in this way, including, improbably, Italians.
“Sonia has become a symbol of Chinese cuisine in Rome, but not really for quality in my opinion,” Gianni Catani told me one day after a lunch service at his new restaurant, Dumpling Bar. “She’s very media-friendly, very showgirl, but to be honest I’m not a big fan of her food anymore. Back at the original place, with the original chef, the cooking was better and you could try more authentic dishes. Now it’s all very geared towards Italian customers.”
Catani was quick to add that he had nothing personal against Sonia, and that he respected her success, but his attitude was clear. Raised in a trattoria, Catani became fascinated by Chinese cuisine as a young man, and traveled throughout China. He returned to Rome, and for ten years apprenticed at Kaiyue, a restaurant a few blocks away from Hang Zhou. This past year, he left and started his own spot. All the cooks are Chinese, many of them recruited from other restaurants. Catani insisted on having an open kitchen, so Italians would see the labor that goes into making Chinese cuisine.
“I really think Italians are ready for real, original Chinese food,” he said in between bites of a dumpling. “And the fact that an Italian is preparing it might make them a bit more open to trying things.”
At Catani’s urging, I visited Kaiyue, a banquet-hall looking space with a new Gambero Rosso sticker on the door. A plate of Sichuan beef, which came swimming in oil and with that distinctive Lucifer-and-lidocaine pepper flavor, admittedly put Sonia’s version to shame. After eating, I approached the manager, Giovanni Pan, and asked him if he knew Sonia.
“Of course, we’ve known Sonia for a long time, he said warmly. “She does a different type of food than we do, though.”
But why was she famous and they weren’t, though?
“She’s been doing this longer than us, and speaks Italian better,” he replied. “But Italians are ready for our type of food. I think—I hope—we’ll be far better known within a few years.”
When I returned to Hang Zhou, Sonia was gracious and energetic per usual, but seemed a bit frazzled. Staff turnover had been high, and most of the new employees were Filipino—conditions had improved in Zhejiang, and there simply wasn’t as much immigration as before. When I mentioned Gianni Catani’s name, she didn’t seem too pleased.
“He doesn’t know me well. In fact, he came in here 10 years ago asking for a job, but I told him I was too busy to train him so I sent him to Kaiyue, back when they didn’t have much business,” she said. “But he found his way, so good for him.”
Were Italians ready for more original food, though?
“What does original even mean?” she said. “Whatever people like the best is original. We need to find what they want to eat, otherwise they’re not going to give a damn.”
I’d never heard her swear before. My question had clearly, and understandably, gotten her hackles up. I looked around the restaurant, half-empty and with only Italian customers. What had previously seemed revolutionary now seemed, inexplicably, like a relic. Others have thought the same. Puntarella Rossa, a Roman food magazine, recently noted the growth of Chinese restaurants in town, some of them with Chinese-Italian chefs. “Here’s the new generation,” they write, “that is coming alongside the storied Chinese spots in town, like Sonia’s Hang Zhou, held up so long by the media as the representative place.”
As I walked out, I felt worried for Sonia. Would her restaurant always be so beloved? Or would she eventually lose Italian customers because she had been so great at attracting them in the first place?
Or, something completely different could happen. I was walking in Esquilino one day, and spotted a new restaurant, called Pho 1. Intrigued, I walked in and ate lunch. The proprietress came over and asked me where I was from, and if I’d ever eaten Vietnamese food before. I replied that I was from America, and that Vietnamese food had become quite popular there. Where was she from?
“We’re from China, Zhejiang province to be exact.”
My surprise was obvious. “Forgive me if this is a rude question,” I said, “But why did you decide to open a Vietnamese restaurant then?”
“There are already so many Chinese restaurants in Rome,” she replied. “We’ll try something different, and if Italians like it, then we’ll open more spots.”
At that very moment, Daniele, Sonia’s right-hand man, walked through the door with a group of friends. He waved hello to me and hugged the owner before sitting down and ordering a feast.