What did you do in Chinatown?

by Belle Waring on March 1, 2004

The Romans are debating whether it is appropriate to have a Chinatown in Rome. I have spent plenty of time in the area around Piazza Vittorio, and it seems to me that hard-working Chinese people running businesses that are open all hours are obviously an asset to a crummy neighborhood (even if you have to walk “miles to get mortadella”, as one resident complains. Yes, or, er, blocks and blocks, right down to the Piazza itself, where every morning there is a big open air market with excellent butchers and salume, as well as magnificent fresh vegetables. Cry me a fiume, Italian lady.) Still, I think the Romans should embrace the possibility of a Chinatown if it means there will be any good Chinese retaurants in Rome, because they all suck now. Italians eat in a way very alien to the modern urban American: they only eat the food from their own region, and only those dishes that are appropriate to the season. (Though in Rome itself there are a few restaurants from other regions, like the delicious Pugliese restautant Tram Tram.) In principle I approve of this type of thing, deep spiritual connections to the land and so forth. After three weeks of pasta all’amatriciana every day in the winter, however, one starts to ask questions like, how about Thai? Hey, some Mexican would be good about now. Mmmm, tacos al pastor.

UPDATE: John just got back from Rome two weeks ago, and he says they closed down all those market stalls in the Piazza Vittorio because they allegedly weren’t sanitary. If I lived in the Esquilino I’d be protesting that in the streets instead of worrying about the Yellow Peril.



Matthew Yglesias 03.01.04 at 3:49 pm

I had some perfectly reasonable Chinese food in Rome over the summer a few blocks from that huge Vittorio Emmanuel monument.


Carlos 03.01.04 at 5:23 pm

Is this NY-DC acceptable Chinese food, or Singapore acceptable Chinese food?


JX 03.01.04 at 5:45 pm

The reason for the dire state of Chinese food in the West for so many decades was that very few professional cooks were to be found among the immigrants of San Francisco or Limehouse.


JX 03.01.04 at 5:50 pm

Chinese immigrants of the past usually did not have access to authentic ingredients and had to improvise with local produce, which is no longer the case.

However, my mouth waters at the uses to which a clever Chinese (especially Cantonese) chef could put top-notch Italian ingredients.


reuben 03.01.04 at 6:32 pm

I’ll second jx’s fantasay of Chinese-inspired Italian cuisine.

As for carlos’s question – Is this NY-DC acceptable Chinese food, or Singapore acceptable Chinese food? – it seems unfair to hold western Chinese food to a Singapore standard. NY level is high enough. I wish London’s offerings were half as good (rather than twice as expensive). Hell, I’d be happy if London’s Chinese food were as good as Atlanta’s.

And re the Italians and food, the Slow Food movement has spawned a University of Gastronomical Sciences which, if I recall correctly, is starting degree programmes this autumn(though I’m struggling to find a link).


Mitch Mills 03.01.04 at 7:50 pm

When I was in China almost all of my Chinese friends generally only ate food from their own home region. So in Shanghai you could find great Hunan restaurants, for example, but almost everyone who ate there was originally from Hunan.

This seemed to be slowly changing, and in general native Shanghainese were more willing to try other regions’ cuisines, but usually only in big trendy new restaurants devoted to a particular regional style, not in the cheap little downhome places run by recent arrivals to Shanghai.

Italian food was available, but it tended to be incredibly expensive (foreign restaurants were usually in swanky hotels) and at best mediocre.

After 1997 and the Asian currency crisis, Thailand suddenly became a cheap tourist destination relatively speaking and a significant number of Chinese could afford to travel there. By 1998 the number of Thai restaurants in Shanghai had ballooned, and we all rejoiced at the new dining options available.


JX 03.01.04 at 8:44 pm

On a more serious note, the experience of Rome’s Chinatown highlights that the extent to which European anxiety over immigration conflates two different concerns: one sociopolitical, the other economic.

The sociopolitical concerns revolve around immigrants’ adherence to the laws and norms of the host country, especially when they conflict with ancestral customs, in other words, multiculturalism. This is most often discussed in reference to Muslim immigrants.

The economic concerns revolve around the anxiety that immigrants will take European jobs and abuse the generosity of the welfare state. This is most often discussed in reference to asylum seekers and, more recently, citizens of the 10 EU enlargement countries.

Whether they are smuggled in or abuse tourist visas, most Chinese immigrants to Europe probably are in flagrant violation of immigration law. People-smuggling suggests the involvement of organized crime. Beyond that, however, there seems to be little reason for concern that the Chinese will undermine the Italian rule of law (such as it is).

Perhaps more importantly, the entrepreneurial nature of these Chinese communities comes through in both the above article and the following BBC News story:


One could make an economic case against immigration because of job scarcity or welfare abuse, but why on earth would you keep out someone who’s going to start a business?

Compared to what Chinese communities have endured in other countries (see Chapter 1 of Amy Chua’s “World On Fire” for a good survey), this is pretty mild as far as xenophobia and discrimination go. I expect Italian anxiety will calm down, especially after their economy starts feeling the effect of all those new businesses.

One innovation from China that her merchants invariably introduced to their trading partners, be it Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines, was noodles. I think they’d be a big hit in Italy.


rea 03.01.04 at 11:04 pm

Noodles seem to have been invented in China, and brought to Italy by traders in the 13th Century or so. Chinese-inspired Italian cuisine therefore is no rarity. Take some Chinese noodles, add a sauce made from American tomatoes, and presto-a classic Italian dish.


drapeto 03.01.04 at 11:33 pm

NY level is high enough

My friend from China faints with horror at the thought of NY Chinese.

She says Vietnamese food in NY is much more like ‘real’ Chinese food, fwiw.


reuben 03.01.04 at 11:50 pm

he says Vietnamese food in NY is much more like ‘real’ Chinese food, fwiw.

Interesting. Do you have any idea if the Vietnamese food in London (which, in contrast to the Chinese, is consistently fab) is similar to that in NY, and thus to “real Chinese”?


Belle Waring 03.02.04 at 6:40 am

Just to make it clear, I’d settle for Savannah, GA-level Chinese food, and be thrilled with NYC-level. The Chinese food I have had in Italy was abominable. But maybe I just wasn’t wating at the right places. Living in Singapore has spoiled me a bit for US Chinese food, but I just think of it as a different thing–many of the commonest menu items (Mu Shu Pork, notably) are unknown here.


Andrew Chen 03.02.04 at 9:47 am

Totally agree about the very very low average level
of Chinese food in Italy. Here in Milan there are
Chinese restaurants all over the place but only a
handful are even passable. Part of the problem is
that Italian rules about the “right” way to serve
cuisine mean that the homogenization is even more
severe than in America. I’ve never seen so much
veal on the menu; they wait till you’ve finished your
rice before they serve the main course; dishes on average
have at most two ingredients. Still, it could be worse. Chinese supermarkets are well stocked, and Italian cuisine is so good that the hunger for variety is rarer than it would otherwise be. What do they do in Poland?


woof 03.02.04 at 12:38 pm

Hi Belle. The market has been hygienically moved to a covered market two blocks east in a former barracks. This means that when it rains the food does not get wet, and the fish and hanging goat carcasses attract far fewer flies. There is also more space in the aisles so that small-scale riots do not erupt and pickpockets find it harder to work. 90% of the stalls are staffed by Bangladeshis and you can find okra, Chinese broccoli and so on.
The Piazza Vittorio is not becoming a Chinatown in the real sense of the term: most of the stores are simply wholesale clothing dealers. No ethnic economy (except for a few food stores). The neighborhood is not appropriate for wholesale activity – loading and unloading, e.g. – and as you know Italians like to have all conveniences “sotto casa”.
The restaurant problem is also due to the fact that almost all Chinese in Italy come from villages in the hills around Wenzhou, while Chinese in the US and Britain come from other more important culinary regions. The one traditional Wenzhou restaurant (near Piazza Vittorio) appears to be rather vomitevole, and always full of Chinese. So the restauranteurs buy into prepackaged diaspora restaurants tailored to Italian tastes. Not being chefs themselves, they’re using a business model, not opening a restaurant.
My wedding – which you unfortunately missed – was classic Roman Jewish dairy winter cuisine.


JX 03.02.04 at 5:45 pm

I’ve had some amazing Chinese meals in some unpromising-looking places, most notably the Chinatown Complex and Amoy Street hawker centers in Singapore, which look dodgy even by non-Singaporean standards. I was raised with the Chinese attitude, “Don’t let fancy decor trick you into thinking the food is good.” If a place is packed with Chinese, it’s either very good or very cheap.


Thlayli 03.03.04 at 5:57 am

Yes, yes, but what about the important quastion:

Are the Chinese immigrants Roma fans or Lazio fans?

I’m guessing Roma, since they’re generally favored in the inner-city areas where these folks are probably living, and there’s also the … how do I put this … less-than-welcoming attitude of the Lazio ultras.

Of course, they could be following Juventus, or even (God help us) that famed Chinese side, Man Yu.


Belle Waring 03.03.04 at 11:21 am

Woof, I’m glad to hear that the market is still there in some form, though I didn’t think it was that unsanitary before. And I sure was sad to miss your wedding…

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