They don’t speak English and have never been to Italy. But these Hangzhou pizza makers are giving Westerners a taste of home
When expats and foreign students from Zhejiang University began gobbling up Chen Quanliang’s ‘authentic’ cheap pizza, local residents wanted a slice of the action
What makes pizza irresistible? In some camps, it is the technique that is used to stretch out the dough; in others, using toppings that are culinary opposites, such as salty and sweet; in still others, avoiding using too much sauce.
But in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang, where the “authentic” pizza served up at a tiny pizzeria has garnered a loyal following among Westerners, the secret is none of the above.
It is familiarity.
“Our pizzas are made to target foreigners’ stomachs,” chef Chen Quanliang told the South China Morning Post in an interview.
“Many of our customers said the pizzas taste like those from their hometowns.”
Varieties of pizza may abound globally, but the speciality at Chen’s restaurant – generically named Italian Style Pizzeria – is offering comfort food to the legions of newcomers from the Western world who turn up in this old residential community near Zhejiang University’s Yuquan campus.
More than 70 per cent of its clientele are foreign.
It is clear customers are not flocking to Chen’s place for a classic Italian pizza-parlour atmosphere.
For one thing, Chen and his co-owner (and the restaurant’s only other staff member), his wife Cai Yunjing, are a migrant-worker couple from Anhui province in eastern China. They speak zero English. But more than that, they have never even been to Italy.
The pizzeria, which opened at the end of 2016, covers an area of about 20 square metres (215 square feet) and has just four tables. It can handle 20 people at a time.
Small Post-it notes written in English, French, Russian and other foreign languages by customers raving about the food nearly cover the restaurant’s walls.
While Chen cooks, Cai helps make salads and handles deliveries to local homes and businesses on an electric bike.
Customers have told Chen they like his pizza because it is unlike the food found in many of China’s other Western food restaurants, which, he said, adjusted the flavours to cater to local tastes.
Expats who dined at his establishment tended to favour pizzas topped with prosciutto di parma or blue cheese, he said.
Chen said he was uncertain what differentiated his pizzas from others found elsewhere – he just made them the way he was taught, by his wife’s brother-in-law, a food-business veteran.
But he is benefiting from being close to a university campus.
Since most of his customers are students who typically are cash-strapped, Chen has adopted a cheap selling strategy. He said he charged about half as much for his pizzas as his counterparts in downtown Hangzhou.
His most expensive is just 50 yuan (US$8). A similar-sized pizza would cost at least 100 yuan at many other outlets in the city.
Although the chef does not speak English, he said he and his foreign diners communicate just fine.
Most of the people who came to China to study could speak some Chinese, he said. Moreover, the menu is bilingual.
“Sometimes I will use body language and sometimes warm-hearted foreign customers voluntarily help to interpret,” Chen said.
Chen, 33, and Cai, 31, hail from a poor village in the backwater city of Bozhou, Anhui. During the two years Chen spent learning to make pizza from his wife’s brother-in-law, Zhang Hui, he reaped the benefits of Zhang’s two decades of experience in the Western-food restaurant business in Nanjing, Jiangsu.
Zhang, who picked up his cuisine skills through his work, eventually opened a Western food restaurant in Nanjing; it too was popular with local foreigners, Chen said.
To say restaurateuring runs in Chen’s family would be an understatement.
Ten other members of his clan either operate or work in Western food restaurants in eastern Chinese cities.
To maintain quality control, Chen buys ingredients from a supplier who also sells to Zhang’s restaurant.
Many of Chen’s customers place orders by phone or through the WeChat social media app.
But he relies on word of mouth to reach foreign expats since he makes a profit of 10,000 yuan a month and spends nothing on marketing.
The restaurant was previously registered with a leading food delivery app. But when the platform raised its commission fee to 15 per cent, Chen cancelled his registration.
Now Cai handles deliveries to customers who live fewer than 3km (1.9 miles) from the pizzeria.
Chen and his wife followed the path of millions of other Chinese who have left children behind with family members to seek employment in cities.
While the couple focus on making their business a success, their two daughters, who are in kindergarten and primary school, remain in Anhui.
Since their restaurant became the subject of a story in a local newspaper, many Chinese have flocked to try the pizza. Ironically, the resulting queues created by the crush of locals caused some foreign customers to become frustrated and leave, Chen said.
“I expect as time goes by, the number of Chinese customers will go down,” Chen said.
“After all, our pizza is what foreigners like, but Chinese people won’t be accustomed to its particular taste.”