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Interview: Rocco Capasso

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Sitting at a table at his newest restaurant in an upscale mall near Kunming's old Bird and Flower Market, Rocco Capasso is attempting to relax after a day's work, but his ringing phone won't let him. He answers his phone and goes into a mixture of fluent Mandarin peppered with Yunnan dialect – all with his unmistakable Neopolitan accent.

Capasso, best known in Kunming for his 11-year-old Italian restaurant Pizza da Rocco, is talking business. Mushrooms, to be exact. In recent years he has been busy exporting tons of mushrooms from Kunming to Europe and the US.

We first met Capasso in 2000 when we 'disovered' his restaurant, which was hidden in the back of a mud-brick building on Wenhua Xiang. The restaurant was only one year old, but word had quickly spread that in a hard-to-find courtyard home near Yunnan University there was a man from Naples making homemade mozzarella and cooking pizzas in a wood-burning oven – he even had real tiramisu. At a time when there was very little authentic Western food anywhere in China, it all felt a little too good to be true.

Back then, Capasso did almost everything at the restaurant, from greeting customers to taking their orders to cooking their meals. At the end of the dinner rush, he'd sit in his restaurant's small courtyard and have a smoke and a drink.

Photos from the original Pizza da Rocco on Wenhua Xiang
Photos from the original Pizza da Rocco on Wenhua Xiang

Just as Kunming has changed over the last decade, so has Capasso. Now in his mid-forties, he is a father of four, oversees dozens of employees at his restaurant and mushroom factory and has recently quit smoking. We joined Rocco for a glass of wine at his restaurant to find out more about his years in Kunming:

GK: When did you first come to Kunming?

Rocco Capasso: In September 1996 I first came to Kunming. I cannot forget arriving in Kunming airport, there was only one place to pick up luggage in the whole airport. I remember at passport check I didn't notice the red line on the floor and crossed it before it was my turn. I was quickly grabbed by a policeman, which was pretty surprising for me at the time.

That day I arrived at the main gate of Yunnan University on Cuihu Bei Lu, where I was going to study, with two large bags that were very heavy. I was trying to find the foreign students' dormitory and ended up walking up all those stairs and across campus with my heavy bags before eventually finding it. I had already studied some Chinese in Naples, but nobody could understand my Chinese that day.

GK: In 1996 most foreign students were studying in Beijing, why did you choose to come to Kunming?

Capasso: I chose Kunming because one of my teachers in Naples had been here for several weeks and recommended it. She told me to stay in Kunming because it was cheaper than Beijing. She also said Yunnan's minorities were interesting, and that the weather here was sunny and pleasant like Naples. And it was cheap.

GK: What was the foreign student scene in Kunming like in 1996?

Capasso: At that time there was only one foreign bar, Journey to the East [which was located on the northwest corner of the same building where Paul's Shop is today], we'd go there for lunch at noon and after class we'd go there to drink and exchange travel stories. The Western community was only about 20 people, mostly women, and there were about 10 Japanese and Koreans. But every night was a party. Our gate would get locked at midnight every night – we would often stay out later than that and have to climb over the gate to get back in.

GK: How did you make the transition from studying abroad to living and working in Kunming?

Capasso: I finished my semester in February 1997, went back to Italy and got my degree and six months later I returned to Kunming... I have been living here ever since.

My first paying job in Kunming was doing laundry for Bike Mike [former Kunming resident Michael Sutherland], but I also wrote some stories for Italian newspapers about the Three Gorges Dam, but the newspapers never paid me.

I met my wife at Journey to the East in 1998 and in November 1999 I opened my first restaurant on Wenhua Xiang in a small traditional house with a courtyard and several small rooms. There were not many Western restaurants in Kunming at the time, just Journey and Teresa's.

GK: Why did you decide to open a restaurant?

Capasso: My wife saw photos of my family's boulangerie in Naples, my family has been running it for more than 100 years. She encouraged me to open my own restaurant, so I used all the money I had plus some money that I borrowed, and I opened my restaurant with US$300. I would buy ingredients at the market myself, all the furniture and equipment came from the second-hand market.

GK: Wenhua Xiang rents are quite expensive now, how much was rent for your restaurant back then?

Capasso: 500 renminbi a month. We had no toilet. We didn't have a sign – I spray painted 'Pizza Da Rocco' on a wall with a big arrow. Later when I had money I bought a wooden sign. We also had one of the only lights on Wenhua Xiang, the other light was at the old public toilet on the corner of Wenhua Xiang and Wenlin Jie.

GK: How was business in the early days of the restaurant?

Capasso: When I started the restaurant I didn't have a license. We just started out with my foreign friends and some of my wife's Chinese friends. We were full every night because we didn't have many tables. In the beginning we had no menu, we'd just tell people what we had. After a few months we made our first small menu.

In 2001 we moved the restaurant to the Bird and Flower market because much of Wenhua Xiang was being demolished to make the buildings that are there now. That old house was beautiful.

The first Pizza da Rocco was demolished in 2004, long after the restaurant had relocated to the Bird and Flower Market
The first Pizza da Rocco was demolished in 2004, long after the restaurant had relocated to the Bird and Flower Market

GK: When and how did you get involved in the mushroom trade?

Capasso: I started in 2004. Some Italians with a factory in Italy would come to my restaurant – they were coming to Kunming to buy mushrooms from local people. I would help them with interpreting. After two years of helping them, I decided to start my mushroom factory in 2004 because I knew all the things that were important to my customers.

It all came from the restaurant, if there was no restaurant there would be no mushroom factory.

GK: How much are you exporting these days?

Capasso: In one year I'm exporting around 100 tons of dried mushrooms and 2,000 tons of frozen boletus edulis – which are usually called porcini – from Yunnan. We also export cultivated mushrooms from Fujian province. Our primary markets are Italy, France, Germany and the United States. Italy is our biggest market – we ship more than half our mushrooms there.

GK: What are the biggest challenges you deal with in the mushroom exporting business?

Capasso: One of the biggest challenges is teaching local employees the importance of hygiene – what might be ok in an open air market in the countryside in Yunnan will not be acceptable for export to Europe.

The courtyard of the Bird and Flower Market incarnation of Pizza da Rocco, which was located in a Qing Dynasty home
The courtyard of the Bird and Flower Market incarnation of Pizza da Rocco, which was located in a Qing Dynasty home

GK: You've been in Kunming since 1996, what have you seen change during your time here?

Capasso: [Laughs] I knew you were going to ask me this question...It's a completely different city from what it was in '96. It seemed like there were only 1,000 cars on the road then, now it's more like one million.

The entire city has changed – everything is different now. When I first arrived I did not imagine that the city would develop so fast. After 2002 or 2003 I started to understand what was happening to the city.

GK: In your early days in Kunming did you get out of the city much and visit other parts of Yunnan?

Capasso: In '96 I stayed in Lijiang for a month, several months after the big earthquake. I was working as a chef for the representative from UNESCO – I would translate for him. There was one old woman who kept offering me her courtyard home in the center of town next to a stream for 100,000 kuai. It was 300 square meters and very beautiful... now it would be several million renminbi. I haven't been back to Lijiang since then.

I used to also go to Dali and Jinghong often to buy traditional minority products. I would go back to Italy every August and sell the stuff. That's how I made my money for the first few years in Kunming. Back then it took 20 hours to get from Kunming to Jinghong by bus. It felt like being in Amazonia or the jungles of Africa.

GK: What's the best thing about being you?

Capasso: My favorite thing about my life now is that I am still a free man. [Laughs.] I have no boss bothering me. I can wake up at noon if I want and nobody will say anything. I like this a lot... I can't imagine any other way. I used to work at a restaurant with a Chinese partner and met everyone – the mayor of Kunming would go there, I met the mayors of Beijing and Shanghai too. They paid me great money. But I had to run away because I was always busy and couldn't have my own life.

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Comments

Interesting story. I think it's hard for us more recent arrivals to understand how Kunming was just 10-15 years ago. After having tried a pizza at his newest place I personally am glad Rocco decided to settle here :)

Great article. I remember the old location in the Flower and Bird Market...beautiful building and really quite difficult to find unless you knew exactly where it was. The old location on Wenhua Xiang I was never able to visit, but I remember those old buildings down on the corner and where the new police station is. They had massive marijuana plants growing in there when it was being torn down. Things really have changed!

Kind of makes me nostalgic...I remember getting to Rocco's in the market in no time by bus and now it would take twenty minutes on a good day! Now we're really quite spoiled when it comes to food choices.

Yea, great article. Thanks for writing this. Rocco is a great man, and he has some of the best food in Kunming.

I want to tell one story about Rocco. Last year when he was near Wenlin Jie, a friend and I went to eat at Rocco's. While we were eating, someone tried to steal my friend's electric bike. In the process, they messed up the locking system on the handlebars. As a result, my buddy couldn't unlock the steering column. Rocco found out what happened,and him and an employee helped us carry the bike up his stairs and into his restaurant to store for the night. The next day when my friend went to see about the bike, Rocco had sent an employee down the street to find someone to fix the steering column, so the bike was ready to go when he arrived. There aren't many people who would do this for a complete stranger.

We have tried to go often to eat at Rocco's to say thanks. Everything is so good. My wife's favorite is the gnocchi with white sauce. I love the pumpkin raviolis, but everything I have ever eaten has been good. If you haven't eaten at Rocco's go. This is a great man who cares about the quality of his food, and he is willing to go out of his way to help a stranger.

great guy rocco...i love the great italian taste of pizza and pasta at this restaurant..i have been to the restaurant when it was at the old flower bird street, sometimes climbing up the old stairs to the second floor with foreign friends i wondered if the planks will give way and we will land up on the ground floor! i still go to the restaurant at the new place ocassionally. love the new design and furnishing.

I loved this article...nice job, Chris...and Rocco...
I really want to also relate how kind and helpful Rocco was and has been to my wife Cas and I — ever since we moved here in '04. His restaurant was on Wen Lin Jie when we met him. Food, great. And each time we would go to eat there we would ask: "Hey, is Rocco in the kitchen cooking?" That's because we heard, and found out, that if Rocco is cooking, like in the old days, the food was going to be extra-special! But the food is always good.

We love Rocco and though we don't always see him too much these days, he is truly a good friend...

I'm confused about your location. Is this information correct?

Pizza da Rocco
乐客比萨
9 Qianwang Jie, Zhengyi Fashion Mall, Kunming
昆明市正义路正义坊钱王街9
Phone: (0871) 8369330

And is the Google map link on the page with your ad accurate?

If you aren't familiar with that area it can be a bit tricky to find. Start at Wen Miao bus stop (Confucian Temple) on Ren min zhong lu. You can spot a Dairy Queen from there. Turn left at the Dairy Queen and you'll be walking along the back of the mall, it's a small pedestrian street. It's probably a 3-4 minutes walk and Rocco's is in the left side. There are plenty of decent restaurants on that street as well and the prices are reasonable.

Thanks, Dan.

When my daughter had her fourth birthday, we came into Kunming from a small town in this province. Rocco was very kind and made my girl an entire Tiramisu for her just to wish her a happy birthday! This was the old days in Wenhuaxiang! We still go to Roccos today and the food is still the best! Thank you, Rocco...and bless you and your family! When you go, try to Tortelini ham and mushrooms in white sauce or the pumpkin ravioli! They are just the best!

grande Rocco!!!!!!
un saluto da Roma
Carlo ( carlo il vecchio)

Rocco is really a great man, very friendly and fond of his family. But, poor Rocco, he lives in the insane hope that Napoli can win the scudetto in italian serie A .

mandami in profilo facebook mettiti in cottatto con me

[email protected]

Rocco how are you? Claude here. you know well about what eating in Kunming. you almost a native Kunminger. thank you.

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