Purpose – Food products' ultimate destination is intended for the general public, but those who supply the international markets are usually composed of a relatively small group of businessmen including international buyers, purchasing agents and importers. Understanding the motivation behind their purchasing decisions and the perceptions they have of the source countries can be considered a key factor in developing a successful marketing approach. This paper focuses on understanding the position of such a powerful minority towards imported Italian, high-quality agro-food products in China, as well as the current communication, marketing, strategic and organizational approaches of Italian producers, especially compared to other European competitors. Design/methodology/approach – An exploratory approach based on qualitative interviews is adopted, with the aim of highlighting Chinese perceptions regarding Italian food suppliers' relevant strengths and weaknesses. The primary data were collected through personal interviews with 25 key informants in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Findings – Survey results indicated that while Italian products are appreciated, current market shares remain inferior to other countries due to inadequate marketing strategies and low investments in promotion. Price sensitivity of Chinese consumers, less-established distribution channels and competition with local products hindered further the market penetration. Originality/value – At the best of our knowledge there is no prior research concerning the gatekeepers attitudes towards quality food in the Chinese market. The paper provides a useful insight into a topic that is relevant togathers of marketing intelligence and planners of marketing strategy for China's market access in the rapidly changing and highly competitive food trade environment.