The Italian Visionary
With a beloved James Beard award-winning cooking show, acclaimed restaurants in NYC, Pittsburgh and Kansas City (including the industry-changing Felidia that set the stage for authentic Italian food in America), several best-selling books, a cookware line and supermarket products, you could say that Lidia Bastianich is the unofficial spokeswoman of Italian-American cuisine (not to mention she was a driving force behind Eataly and owns a couple wineries in Italy with her restaurateur son Joe). We talk with Lidia about how her culinary career began, her favorite places in Italy and what Italian dishes every cook should master. For more info and recipes, visit lidiasitaly.com.
AndrewZimmern.com: When you opened Felidia more than 30 years ago, what was going through your head? What were your goals and expectations?
Lidia Bastianich: My goal was to cook simple, regional Italian food. I wanted to share with people what I loved cooking and what Italians ate at home. I knew that the Italian American food that I found in America was delicious in its own way, but it was not what was being cooked in Italian homes in Italy. I also knew that there were so many Italian artisanal products that were unknown in the States, and so many different delicious varietals of wine that were not brought to the States. Americans traveling to Italy would come back and ask for the food and wine they had in Italy, so why not have it here in the States.
AZ.com: How did you break into TV?
LB: When we opened Felidia restaurant on east 58th street in 1981, I was the chef and as a young, Italian woman chef I cooked the regional food of Italy. Italy has 20 regions and the regional food of Italy was not well known then and in cooking polenta with guazzetto, risotto Milanese, yota a bean and sauerkraut soup from the Friuli region, I attracted the interest of the journalists. Among my many illustrious guests, one day Julia Child and James Beard appeared at Felidia. I made certain that they ate well, and soon after, we became friends. So much so that Julia asked me to appear on two episodes of her Master Chefs Series. The producer liked my television presence, and with Julia’s blessing I embarked upon my television career.
AZ.com: How did you meet Mario Batali?
LB: I had heard that Mario Batali, this young American chef trained in Italy was cooking delicious Italian food at Po restaurant. I went for dinner and enjoyed his food at Po tremendously. At that time I was asked to chair an Italian dinner for the press during the James Beard Awards weekend, and I chose as the theme “Young Italian Chefs and Someliers in America.” Mario Batali was one of the chefs, and my son Joseph Bastianich was one of the someliers. From that day on, a friendship and eventually a partnership was forged.
AZ.com: What are 3 must-have food experiences in Italy?
LB: Italy offers an endless opportunity of food experiences. I go to Italy 4 to 5 times a year, and always find new recipes, new products, new flavor combinations–but I would recommend a visit to Alba, Piemonte in the late fall where truffles and Barolo wine abound. A perfect finish would be candied chestnuts, or the chocolate and hazelnut combination known as Gianduia. In the winter, visit Friuli and sit by the Fogoler–a 360 degree fire place–with some prosciutto di San Daniele, Frico, baked montasio cheese and polenta, musetto with brovada, shredded pickled turnips and a bottle of Bastianich Vespa Bianco. For spring, a visit to Venice to sit under the Rialto, and enjoy some “molecche,” bite-sized soft shell crabs with a bottle of Prosecco, and then in summer, be sure to head down to Sicily for the delicious eggplant and tomatoes found in Pasta alla Norma, topped with grated ricotta salata.
AZ.com: What Italian dish should every household know how to cook?
LB: One dish is not enough, but let’s begin with 3 must pasta dishes: Spaghetti Aglio Olio (spaghetti with garlic and oil), Rigatoni alla Marinara (rigatoni with marinara sauce) and Fettuccine Carbonara (fettuccine with carbonara sauce).
AZ.com: Seems like you are always cooking for others. On your day off, what chef would you most want to have cook for you?
LB: Most certainly I would have to say my grandmother.
AZ.com: Favorite restaurants in NYC?
LB: I love so many of them, and since I’m always on the move, I find that I most often don’t have as much time as I would like to dine in NYC. It seems that when I do, I find myself close to my restaurants – whether for a bit of pleasure, or business. I also really enjoy good Chinese or Korean food, I love the abundance of fresh flavors that seem to abound in Asian cuisine.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
LB: My fridge reflects the seasons, but there is always some olives, capers, parsley, bacon, eggs, milk, Grana Padano cheese, and of course, mineral water, and good white wine – especially Bastianich Vespa Bianco. The meat and fish I buy as I need it to ensure maximum quality, and freshness.
Check out Lidia’s recipe for Vermicelli with Red Clam Sauce from her cookbook, Lidia’s Favorite Recipes.
Lidia Bastianich is one of the best‐loved chefs on television, a best‐selling cookbook author, restaurateur, and owner of a flourishing food and entertainment business. Lidia has married her two passions in life – her family and food, to create multiple culinary endeavors alongside her two children, Joseph and Tanya.
Lidia’s cookbooks include Lidia’s Favorite Recipes, Lidia’s Italy in America, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, and Lidia’s Italy—all companion books to the three‐time Emmy‐nominated television series Lidia’s Italy in America and Lidia’s Italy. Lidia has also published Lidia’s Family Table, Lidia’s Italian‐ American Kitchen, Lidia’s Italian Table and La Cucina di Lidia.
Lidia is the chef/owner of four acclaimed New York City restaurants ‐ Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as Lidia’s Pittsburgh and Lidia’s Kansas City. She is also founder and president of Tavola Productions, an entertainment company that produces high‐quality broadcast productions.
Along with her son, Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Oscar Farinetti, the team opened Eataly, the largest artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace in New York City. The partners have transformed a 42,500 square‐ foot space in the Flatiron District into New York City’s premier culinary mecca. Lidia has taken her passion for education and enrichment through food, making culinary classes, at La Scuola di Eataly, a defining focus of Eataly.
Lidia’s first children’s book, Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia’s Christmas Kitchen, was inspired by her five grandchildren. The second installation in the series, Lidia’s Family Kitchen: Nonna’s Birthday Surprise, is due out in the spring of 2013.
The fall of 2010 marked the debut of Lidia’s Kitchen, an exclusive line of cookware and serving ware for QVC that combines the beauty of Italy with practical functionality. Designed in collaboration with her daughter Tanya, Lidia’s Kitchen line includes high quality everyday items such as ceramic serving ware, stone bakeware, and utensils. These signature wares will give her fans another opportunity to bring a piece of Lidia to their everyday lives.
Along with her daughter Tanya, and son‐in‐law Corrado Manuali, Lidia launched Nonna Foods as a platform to distribute an array of both existing and new LIDIA’S food products. The line highlights a passion for all things pasta, with seven original varieties of homemade pasta sauce, and eight different cuts of pasta, sold nationally. Together with her son Joseph, Lidia also produces award‐winning wines at Bastianich Vineyard in Friuli and La Mozza Vineyard in Maremma, Italy.
Lidia gives freely of her time and knowledge, and is active member of society who participates in community service activities and special events on behalf of several foundations and Public Television.
Photo by Diana DeLucia.