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Fever for Chinese Food Sweeps Stronghold of Spaghetti

April 5, 1987

ROME (AP) _ Ravioli with chopsticks? Si, grazie.

From the chalets of the posh ski resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo to the cobbled streets of old Rome, the craze for Chinese cuisine is sweeping the stronghold of spaghetti.

One of the forces behind this new and surprising love affair is a company called China Cena (China Supper). It’s a home-delivery service that brings won ton - known locally as ″ravioli″ - and sweet-and-sour pork to your door via bright red mopeds.

Capitalizing on an influx of Oriental immigrants and a broadening of Italian tastes, a band of young entrepreneurs launched the enterprise eight months ago on a whim and 5 million lire, or about $3,880.

Today it is enjoying an unexpected run at success, delivering up to 400 meals a week and doing the equivalent of about $775 worth of business a day in Rome, its founders say.

It has opened branches in four other Italian cities and plans to open three more.

″We have been surprised at the success we’ve had,″ said Vittorio De Castro, 28, the oldest of four Italians who conceived China Cena as an extension to the family’s transportation business.

″China Cena started off as something of a curiosity,″ he said. ″But after the curiosity, we hope Italians will find it useful.″

The idea has produced another tremor in an already seismic shakeup of dinner habits that began with the introduction of fast food here.

Of course, a majority of Italians still sit down at night to lengthy, multi-course meals served with care and finesse at the family table or neighborhood trattoria. Pasta is rarely ommitted, and the idea of serving from aluminum containers would seem almost a sacrilege.

″It’s certainly something new for the traditional Italian,″ said another founder, Monica Giorgio Rossi, 26.

Ironically, it was the Chinese who introduced Italians to spaghetti some 700 years ago, when famed explorer Marco Polo visited China and brought home the first noodles.

The pasta diet became so firmly entrenched that until Chinese immigrants began arriving in force a few years ago, there were only a handful of foreign restaurants in Rome.

Indeed, locals frequently point out that their widely varied regional specialties - from Sicily to the South Tyrol - are foreign enough, and rank among the world’s finest cuisines.

Symbolic of the resistance to new tastes is a television advertisement for tea showing one of Italy’s most popular actors, Nino Manfredi, sitting down at a Chinese restaurant and wincing at the array of unfamiliar platters set before him. ″Don’t you at least have a pasta, maybe spaghetti with clams?″ he asks forlornly.

But with the help of outfits like China Cena the tide may be starting to turn. In just two years, the number of Chinese restaurants in the capital has doubled, from 40 to 80, six of which ship out their food around town on China Cena’s fleet of radio-dispatched mopeds.

And there is evidence that the opposition may be wearing down. The swift rate at which Chinese restaurants are opening has not brought the polemics that have sometimes accompanied the flourishing of American-style fast-food havens.

″There’s a love-hate relationship with the United States. Sometimes there’s resentment over how strong its influence is in our country,″ said Lorenzo De Castro, another founded of China Cena. He adds that the Chinese restaurants they work with also have cut down on exotic ingredients and spices ″so the flavor is closer to Italian food.″

One key to China Cena’s popularity lies in a subtle opening to the new that began among privileged Italians. Now, thanks to the showing of diverse lifestyles on television, it is turning into a national appetite.

To meet these changing tastes and needs, a new class of entrepreneurs, many of them young, has sprung up, encouraged by Italy’s phenomenal economic turnaround in the past few years.

Enter China Cena.

The four partners and friends had long pondered going into catering, using the facilities and know-how of the Stamar transportation company run by the De Castro brothers.

″One night we were sitting around chatting and we hit upon Chinese food, which is much easier to transport than Italian food,″ Vittorio recalled. ″Then Monica came up with the name, China Cena, which has gotten us a lot of attention.″

To Italians, the name has a special double meaning. Phonetically, in Roman dialect, it reads ″C’hai ’na cena,″ or ″What’s for dinner?″

Such creative tactics have captured the imagination of many in the Italian media. Wrote Oggi columnist Gaspare Barbiellini Amidei, referring to China Cena and other, similar delivery services run by young people:

″I love to see these kids on two wheels, going fast ... (They) are a small sign of a determination not to give in to the statistics showing the shortage of employment opportunities and to invent occasions that the adult society doesn’t know how to offer.″

End Adv Weeekend Editions April 4-5

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