By Xie Sijie and Pan Siran
NANJING, China — If one exits the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), takes a right to walk along Shanghai Road, and makes a right turn at a little alley, they will see a market that looks just like any other Chinese wet market. However, hiding inside the market, with several shabby tables and chairs under a green roof, one finds Uncle’s Pizza — said to be the best pizza shop in Nanjing.
Unlike most pizza shops in China, which are usually located in bustling shopping districts, Uncle’s Pizza is surrounded by vegetable and fruit stalls. The pizzas all cost below 50 rmb ($7.10), about half the price of a meal at other Chinese pizza shops. Uncle’s Pizza attracts hundreds of customers per day and has become a must-go restaurant in Nanjing, a “网红” (online celebrity) shop — and also a second home for the foreign student community.
“It’s the best pizza I’ve ever had in Nanjing,” an international student told the Observer. One of the most outstanding features of Uncle’s pizzas is their authenticity. “Surprisingly, Uncle’s Pizza tastes very similar to the pizza in America,” Sam Olson, a master’s student at the HNC, commented. “They use fresher, chewier dough than the average China pizza,” he added. Other customers praised the pizza toppings: “Uncle’s sauce and cheese are the most authentic and their pizza crust is the only crust I will eat in the whole world,” said Dakota Hughes, also a master’s student at the HNC and a loyal Uncle’s Pizza customer. Hughes says he eats there every week.
大叔披萨的特色之一是地道。“大叔披萨尝起来很像美国的披萨，还挺让人惊喜的！”李志君(Sam Olson)，一名中美中心的硕士生说。他继续补充道：“它的面很有嚼劲。”一些常客，比如中美中心的另一名硕士生孔诚煦(Dakota Hughes)，则对披萨上的料赞不绝口：“大叔披萨的酱和芝士太地道了！他们家的披萨饼边也是我唯一会吃掉的披萨饼边！”
The remarkable authenticity of Uncle’s pizzas comes from the experience of the owner, Zhang Hui, who is known as “Uncle” among customers. After working as a chef in German and French restaurants for nearly 20 years, Uncle knows how to make good pizza. “It has to be the best and freshest ingredients,” said Chen Wei, the “auntie” who is co-owner and wife to Uncle. Uncle’s Pizza currently offers around 20 options of pizza, using recipes that are similar to those Uncle used to make at his previous workplaces. Besides the high standard of ingredients, Uncle and Auntie make every effort to make sure their pizzas arrive at the customers in their best form, which is why they don’t provide take-out. Despite long wait times, patrons can still see a long line in front of the shop every day.
More importantly, Uncle’s Pizza gives foreigners a taste of home. Homesick expats can always turn to the familiar taste of homemade pizza and a community of fellow foreigners at Uncle’s Pizza. Uncle and Auntie are both from a small county in Anhui province and started working in the restaurant industry at a very young age. They didn’t expect the pizza shop would attract so many international students when they opened their doors. “This is really thanks to Fan Liwei,” (an HNC student from several years ago), Auntie said, “he really helped us a lot.” Fan Liwei promoted the pizza shop after it opened and helped Uncle’s Pizza attain a good reputation among international students. He maintains a close relationship with the couple and recently visited the shop when he stopped by Nanjing, which moved Auntie deeply. “I was almost crying when he was standing there smiling at me while I was making pizza.”
The couple is more than the owners of a renowned Nanjing pizza shop — they are often sympathetic listeners to whom foreigners share their own stories. Auntie recalled the story of a handsome boy from Chile who came to the shop every week. The boy attracted the attention of a Chinese girl. In order to confess her crush, the girl asked Uncle what kind of pizza he liked best via WeChat and ordered it for him every time he came. Unfortunately, the boy fell in love with an Australian girl and even introduced the girl to Auntie. Such dramatic love stories unfold all the time at this seemingly shabby restaurant.
The power of human connection, or renqing wei (人情味), might be the most powerful reason why Uncle’s Pizza is so popular. Uncle himself has no idea why this business runs so smoothly without facing any major obstacles. The salutation “uncle” represents the love and appreciation foreign students feel towards Uncle. Before opening this shop, Auntie and Uncle pulled a trolley with sandwich ingredients and sold made-to-order sandwiches on the Nanjing University campus. However, without a proper license, their business was constantly reported to the police, requiring them to constantly be on the move. Lacking the financial resources to purchase a brick and mortar store, they decided to settle down in the wet market, where rent prices were relatively affordable. Still, they used the value of their house as collateral for a loan to afford the space. Fortunately, their efforts paid off. It is the human connections, along with the best ingredients and cheap prices, that make the pizza shop famously popular and guaranteed to be a Nanjing staple for years to come. If you have a chance to visit Nanjing, there is a pizza shop here waiting for you!