Italian Chinese Food

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer

I think this is the first time I’ve ever really disagreed with Jennifer Lee.  She claims in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles that “the only good ethnic cuisine you can get consistently in Rome is Italian.”  I found that to be the case everywhere in Italy but Rome.  There were 3 Chinese restaurants within walking distance of the train station in Rome, and I’m fairly certain I missed a few.  Since I’m never one to miss that kind of opportunity, I dragged my brother to a restaurant on Via Magenta.

It was small, but familiar—there was a “fu dao” hanging on the wall (a Chinese pun intended to bring fortune to a place).  The dishes were likewise small, but the cheapest food I’d acquired in Italy—3.5 Euros a dish, as opposed to the minimum 4 Euros I’d seen for appetizers at Italian restaurants.    All of the waitstaff were Chinese, very friendly, and, much to my gratitude, willing to speak Chinese with me rather than my stumbling Italian.

Those touches made it obvious to me that they really were, as Lee had indicated, designed to attract Chinese tourists.  However, they had some surprising concessions to Italian tastes. Everywhere in Europe, bottled sparkling water is available as much as bottled spring water is in the States.  This restaurant was no exception: I ordered a bottle of “acqua frizzante” with my meal, which was a little dissonant.  I was also vastly amused to see “Ciao Fan” on the menu (“Chow Fun” in American, “炒饭” in Mandarin.  I love how Chinese food adapts not only to local menus but also to local spellings.)

I got mixed bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, a fairly standard dish executed very well: the right balance of tangy and smoky.  I also tried the mixed vegetables, which were fairly standard, if a little heavy on the napa cabbage.  But my brother got a surprise: “ma po tofu,” which, if you’ve ever had it in a Chinese or an American restaurant, is usually drenched in hot chili sauce, and often has bits of pork in it.  In Italy very few things are spicy: the hottest thing I ever had there was a tomato sauce with a little bit of kick from red pepper flakes.  As such, it makes sense that the ma po tofu came entirely without chili sauce, but it still startled me.  It also came with finely chopped bell peppers and onions rather than pork, which made less sense to me.

Jennifer Lee was right about one thing, though: this place served fried gelato for dessert, and it was delicious.

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