Chen Yu-lung (陳佑龍), 58, had worked as a painter for four decades when he decided to try something new. So he opened an Italian restaurant.
More than a year later his Chencheng Yidali Chumien, which means "real Italian gratin," draws a steady flow of office workers, middle-aged couples and students from nearby Taipei Medical University (台北醫學大學).
Customers are greeted by Chen, who usually wears a white undershirt and reads newspapers at the table nearest the kitchen while his wife, Yang Shu-juan (楊淑娟), cooks in the back. On a recent visit, the radio was playing a song from Phantom of the Opera, while two older women tucked into a plate of green pasta.
With the exception of the restaurant's name, which is displayed in Chinese on a yellow sign, little effort is made to alert the unacquainted passer-by to the unusual nature of Chen and Yang's fusion cuisine. Only the Italian pepper shakers on each table indicate that something different is happening here.
And it is different. A popular option is the bacon pesto stir-fry (培根松子綠醬炒麵). There's pesto and bacon, but also cabbage and carrots julienne mixed with spaghetti. Chen adds a dollop of Knorr pesto sauce, which he imports for NT$300 a bottle, to make his sauce more authentic. The seafood pesto stir-fry (海鮮松子綠醬炒麵) substitutes the bacon with shrimp, mussels and squid.
Customers can choose from spaghetti, penne or rice for the gratin dishes, which include bacon cream (奶油培根焗麵), black pepper beef with cheese (黑胡椒牛肉起士焗麵) and curry cheese (
Chencheng Yidali Chumien is an alternative to the usual lunchbox restaurants, and several dishes are priced at NT$70 or less. One of the more unusual of these is the qing shuang, or refreshing pasta (清爽燴麵). This contains asparagus and other vegetables along with bacon, squid or shrimp and is covered in an opaque white sauce made from flour and cream.
Chen borrowed most of the recipes from his younger brother, who runs a similar establishment in Xizhi (汐止). The qing shuang pasta was slightly bland, but Chen came up with the pesto stir-fries on his own, and these are the best dishes.
Still, both made for hearty meals at a good price, and both had plenty of vegetables.