CURIOSITY BRINGS THEM in; taste and convenience bring them back. At least, that is the philosophy at Viva Italia, perhaps Hong Kong's most successful country-specific European gourmet food retailer. Viva Italia was founded about five years ago by an Italian businessman. Two years later it was acquired by a Hong Kong entrepreneur. The company's target market has expanded beyond homesick expatriates to curious locals, but the commitment to sourcing products from Italy has survived the transition. As operations manager Edmond Fung said: 'Only the Coca-Cola is not imported from Italy.' The company sells a broad selection of Italian products ranging from pasta and bottled spaghetti sauce to biscuits, frozen foods, canned goods, deli meats, wine and candies, and has retail shops on both sides of the harbour. In addition to the original warehouse outlet in Ap Lei Chau's Horizon Plaza, Viva Italia is found on The Peak, in Mid-Levels and in Ho Man Tin. The Kowloon outlet is the largest and has the highest number of Chinese customers. Interestingly, it is also the busiest of the group's outlets. 'We don't advertise,' Mr Fung said. 'However, there have been some articles published in Chinese language newspapers and magazines introducing new types of food and beverages to readers. That is how many of our Chinese customers learn about us.' Horizon Plaza was chosen for the original outlet because of the crowds of expatriates visiting the building on weekends. As with the other outlets on Hong Kong Island, most of the clientele at the Ap Lei Chau outlet continues to be western. But an estimated 90 per cent of the shoppers visiting the Kowloon branch are Chinese. 'Many of them come in out of curiosity,' Mr Fung said. 'We offer tastings and cooking demonstrations so they can learn how to cook the ingredients they buy.' Mr Fung attributes Viva Italia's growing popularity with Chinese consumers to the long-standing presence in Hong Kong of such Italian staples as pizza and spaghetti. Locals have been frequenting mass-market Italian-American chains such as Pizza Hut and Spaghetti House for decades. The arrival of more upscale (and authentic) international eateries such as Fat Angelo's and Amaroni's and sophisticated continental-style Italian restaurants such as Tutto Benne in recent years has exposed both western and local diners to a wider variety of cooking styles and tastes. What comes as a surprise to those who think Italian cuisine is complex, with its subtle or rich and pungent flavours, is that many of the dishes are relatively easy to prepare. Italian-style family dining - with large serving dishes placed at the centre of the table - also fits in well with traditional Chinese eating practices. The sheer variety of cosmopolitan foodstuffs available in Hong Kong is dazzling. While retail outlets such as Castello del Vino in Wan Chai and Il Bel Paese in the Mid-Levels also specialise in Italian foodstuffs and wines, Le Tienda de Fiesta in Central focus on Spanish fare such as paella, ready-made tapas and chorizo. Foods from Spain and France are available at d'Ulysse, also in Central. Eurotreat, on SoHo's Old Bailey Street, takes a pan-European approach, carrying goods from across the continent. The city is also dotted with shops selling foods from other parts of the world, notably South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. The growing market for speciality foods has prompted the AS Watson group, owner of the massive ParknShop chain (with 260 outlets in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland) to launch a small number of retail outlets that specialise in gourmet foods. The group opened its first Superstore in Whampoa Garden in 1996 and a Megastore in Tseung Kwan O in 2002. It has since opened Gourmet, a 15,000-square-foot boutique-style food hall in Causeway Bay's Lee Gardens shopping arcade, the Great Food Hall, a 35,000-sq-ft gourmet food outlet in Pacific Place, and Taste, a 35,000-sq-ft retail outlet in Kowloon Tong's Festival Walk. So what sets these food halls apart from ParknShop's other outlets? 'Food stalls are larger, with a greater range and more international products,' said Nils Buddemiere, food hall manager of Great. 'They are targeted at metropolitan people who have travelled and tasted different types of food in different countries. They are not only interested in buying food, they are looking for a whole shopping experience.' City Super opened its first international food market in Causeway Bay's Times Square in 1996, selling fresh produce, seafood, meat, poultry, spices, wines and snacks. The company opened more food markets in Tsim Sha Tsui's Harbour City and Central IFC mall in 1998 and 2003 respectively. It has also expanded overseas with an outlet in Taipei. A part of the Dairy Farm Group, Oliver's The Delicatessen started life 25 years ago as a family-operated gourmet outlet catering to expatriates. At one time there were seven retail food outlets around Hong Kong, but operations have been consolidated into the company's flagship store in Prince's Building. In many ways ahead of its time, it is still considered by many to be the city's premier outlet for premium and speciality gourmet foods. 'We have maintained our focus over the years very much toward western-style gourmet foods and fine wines,' said Sean Robson, merchandising manager for the company. 'We have a lot of exclusive brands, such as Dean & DeLuca of New York and Hediard of Paris. We also provide those old favourites that remind you of home.'