Italian Cuisine in Rome: Made in China

Compared to other capital cities, Rome doesn’t have a lot of ethnic restaurants. But locals and tourists are happy to forgive the city for its lackluster cosmopolitan dining scene because Roman cuisine – especially in the last few years – has been placed in the culinary sancta sanctorum. (Just look at the mouthfuls of chefs who have opened up high-profile Roman restaurants in New York City in the last two years, as evidence.) But spend enough time in the Eternal City (as I have a few times) and your taste buds will start to grow restless. The thought of more penne alla arabiata or spaghetti all’ amatriciana or even coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew) might inspire a long, long walk until eventually you stumble upon the odd ethnic eatery.

Undoubtedly the first one you’ll come across is Chinese. Sprinkled throughout the periphery of the historical center, Chinese restaurants are the Eternal City’s answer to, well, Chinese restaurants just about anywhere outside of China. Quick, distinctive, affordable and dripping in MSG, the Chinese restaurants in Rome have elbowed their way onto the staunch Roman dining scene.

Unless of course, an air-born illness (followed by media hysteria) breaks out. Case in point: there once was a Chinese restaurant in Rome located near the Vatican. It did steady business, particularly at lunch with local office workers and Vaticanisti. And then SARS hit the newsstands. Remember that? The pre-swine flu Apocalyptic end-of-us-all that was made in China?

During the scare, business dropped at the Chinese restaurant precipitously. Even though this Chinese restaurant was far from China, local eaters couldn’t divorce themselves from the reports they were reading and hearing about on the news. And so with few options, the owners decided to transform the restaurant. They would go Roman. Same Chinese owners. Same Chinese chef. And so, General Tso was unceremoniously purged from the menu and any dish with “Buddha” in the title finally found its way to Nirvana.I know this because I knew a woman who worked at the place. Maria, originally from Spain, was a waitress, which meant for most diners she was the face of this change. The first day, a few curious eaters wandered in at lunch. The menu listed typical Roman trattoria fare and was organized like any Italian menu: there was antipasti like bruschetta; primi, which take the form of pasta dishes; and secondi, more meaty dishes.

A businessman in his forties ordered a bowl of carbonara, a classic Roman pasta dish with pancetta, eggs, and cheese. A few minutes later, Maria set down the bowl of carbonara in front of the diner and walked back toward the kitchen. She was promptly called back to the his table.

“What’s this?” said the forty-something businessman, pointing to his steaming bowl of pasta. “This is not carbonara,” he said, picking up a piece of what was meant to be pancetta. “This is bacon. And this sauce. What is this? It’s like a gloop of cream,” he said. “And this rigatoni,” he said, picking up the half inch, tube-shaped pasta. “Look at this limp thing. It’s way overcooked. Take it back to the kitchen. Now.”

So she did, dropping the plate on a back counter in front of the chef and the owner and explaining that the customers weren’t buying that this is real Roman carbonara, a dish that Rome has made famous but whose exact creation in the city (and the reason for it) is cause for an eternal debate.

“This is real,” barked the Chinese owner. “What city are we in?”

Maria responded: “I know, we’re in Rome, but –“

“Then take it back out there” –the owner handing her the dish back –“and tell him this is the real thing.”

Maria did as she was told. She took the plate out to the diner and held her breath.

There’s actually a food police in Rome who patrol the city’s restaurants, popping into the kitchen, to look around, maybe glance at a few dishes, and then, if everything looks okay, move on to the next restaurant. They’re not looking for bad hygiene practices in the kitchen; they’re actually checking to make sure chefs are correctly preparing Roman dishes according to tradition.

In 2002, the Italian government had an even more ambitious plan: to police every Italian restaurant in the world (there are 20,000 Italian restaurants in the United States alone), making sure eateries that claimed to be Italian were complying with tradition — that is, using San Marzano tomatoes or mozzarella or olive oil made in Italy. If so, they would be rewarded with a “Made in Italy” designation.

The “Made in Italy” program started a test run in Belgium. But it never crossed the Atlantic. It never even got out of Belgium, actually. After all, Italy, in general, and Rome, in particular, has a hard time policing its own restaurants. As Maria quickly learned. She approached the man with his unwanted bowl of carbonara and set it down in front of him. “The chef says this is real Roman carbonara and you have to eat it,” she said.

The businessman, a hunger-induced anger hanging over him, didn’t say a word. He got up and walked out. After this same incident happened a few days in a row, Maria followed the costumers: She left and never came back. She found a job sewing “Made in Italy” labels on clothes that were actually made in China. “Tourists would buy the clothes,” she told me. “They didn’t know the difference.”