Nonna tells all
Lidia Bastianich, she of the mononymous cooking shows and books, shares her remarkable culinary-life journey in a new memoir. As Amy Rosen reports, it began with much tumult in Second World War Italy when, 'like that potato plant, I was ripped from the earth'
By AMY ROSEN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 21, 2018 Print Edition, Page P16
I arrive a little early to meet the author and spot her tucked into a banquette in a lobby corner, wearing a silk scarf and frameless glasses. As she's tapping away, sending e-mails on her smartphone, her handler turns to her and says, "Your iced cappuccino will be ready in a minute." Even before officially saying hello to either, I turn to the author and with total confidence say, "You didn't order an iced cappuccino, did you?" Though I had never met the author and wasn't present during the placement of her beverage order, I instinctively knew that Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, the Lidia we all know from her Italian cookbooks and cooking shows, would never order an American style iced cappuccino. She graciously nods in agreement with me and the handler runs off to order a regular, hot, Italian cappuccino.
In the Emmy-winning cooking show host, bestselling cookbook author and restaurateur's new book, Lidia: A Life of Love, Family and Food, is a culinary-centred journey that swims from the Adriatic to the Atlantic. In it, we learn all about Lidia's life as a refugee, a new immigrant, a wife and a mother, and how she became a one-named wonder.
It's a thoroughly told story about a woman living the American dream.
While the writing may lack an evocative punch, the details are there. So too are a smattering of beautiful photos, such as Lidia's family gathered on the dirt path to their first home in the United States (in North Bergen, N.J.), and the visual feast that is the antipasto table in Felidia's dining room.
Super fans will enjoy this thoughtful memoir, but may be disappointed when they don't find any recipes included.
The story begins in her hometown of Istria. "If you look at the map of Italy, in the right hand corner, right across from Venice, is Istria," Lidia explains. "It was Italian, but at the end of [the Second World War], and a few years thereafter, the Paris Treaty came, and that part of Italy was given to the newly formed Communist Yugoslavia. I was just born, and we were ethnically Italian."
When Josip Broz Tito came into power, names were changed; her family could no longer speak Italian or go to church. "We were our family, but we had to become something else." From 1944 to 1947, the allied forces kept peace in the area until it was decided where the border would go. "There was an exodus of 350,000 Italians back into Italy and into the world," she says. But Lidia's family was caught along barbed wire, on the wrong side of history, in Yugoslavia.
Her mother sent Lidia and her brother to the country to live with their grandmother, in what turned out to be an unexpectedly idyllic time. There was the unconditional love of her grandmother, their chickens, ducks and goats. They made ricotta from the goat's milk. They picked fava beans from the garden, and pulled potatoes from the ground.
"I can still feel them, warm in my hand," she says, opening a loose fist to illustrate a potato fresh from the earth. They picked wheat and brought it to the mill to make flour.
Her grandfather made fresh olive oil from the 10 trees on the property. "It was nature. It was the animals. I loved it."
Today, sipping her hot cappuccino in downtown Toronto, where she's excited to be opening the next Eataly food hall in 2019, she becomes reflective as we talk about the next chapter of her early life - and memoir.
After her father was jailed for six weeks by the Tito regime, Lidia's family plotted their escape from the communist country. It didn't go well. The Italian authorities placed them in a political refugee camp called Campo San Sabba - a cold collection of wooden barracks, long food lines and American rations - while they waited to be cleared for entry to the United States.
"Like that potato plant, I was ripped from the earth." Everything she knew was gone: her grandmother, her friends and animals.
"Many years later, I realized my connection to food happened at that moment," she says. "The haves and have-nots of food in the episodes of my life have shaped me." This particularly have-not period, and others, taught her to have a deep respect for food. The sun barely shone through the barracks at the camp, where Lidia's family stayed for more than two years.
And then came the United States.
In 1958, officials at San Sabba received word that the United States had opened its borders to immigrants and was receiving a limited number of refugees. Lidia's was one of the first families allowed in.
Her first job in the United States, as just a teen, was at Walken's Bakery in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. "Yes, that Walken," she says of oddball Hollywood mainstay Christopher Walken.
"We're still friends." Then, it was Hunter College (part of the City University of New York) for biology, marriage, and two children. And then her husband decided he wanted to open a restaurant. In 1971, they hired their first chef for the newly opened Buonavia, where they would serve Italian-American food.
Lidia was in the kitchen throughout, but it was almost a decade later that she realized there was an opportunity to tell the story of her first home to her adoptive home. At that time, much of what Americans ate was shipped in from miles away, packaged in plastic, tins and boxes.
"I wanted them to know the fresh food I knew. And you know who was instrumental in making me really realize that? Julia Child," she says.
Lidia and her husband opened Felidia in 1981. Lidia decided she was going to be the chef and would cook regional Italian cuisine. (She makes sure I write down that she also loves American-Italian cuisine and has written two cookbooks on the subject.) She had travelled to Italy, tasted the regions and learned to make the dishes. The aim was to transport her culture.
So Julia Child showed up one night at Felidia to see who this Italian female chef was that everyone was talking about. "I was cooking risotto, polenta. Nobody knew what they were back then." The two became friends, with Julia twice inviting Lidia to appear on her PBS show The Master Chef. "Julia told me: 'You go out and do for Italian food what I did for French." Soon after, the network offered Lidia her own show. As with Julia, viewers instantly connected with her.
But today, her largest reach probably comes from B&B Hospitality Group, of which Eataly is a part of.
The company has been in the news lately owing to partner, Mario Batali, now under investigation for sexual assault allegations. On May 21, the Associated Press reported that the B&B Hospitality Group has been "actively negotiating" to buy out Batali. Partner Joe Bastianich (Lidia's son) and Batali have signed a letter of intent, with final terms possibly set by July 1.
There are plans to rebrand the group with a new name.
I ask Lidia about life as a women in the kitchen, before sliding into some #MeToo talk. "I think our business is one of the hardest businesses for women for many reasons," she says.
"It has become sort of a boy's club, which is dismantling quickly, and thank God for that."
I ask her if women get equal pay at Eataly and in her restaurants. "Of course," she says. "But it's a big organization and sometimes you don't see everything."
The next logical question is to ask if people ever came to her with problems. "Not as much as I would have liked," she says. "But when I see it, be it e-mails or letters, I take care of it immediately. You have to cut it out, like a rotten apple."
She says growing up in Italy, women were the restaurants. "But somewhere along the lines in America, men took over the profession, and they took the title." Now, women such as her are taking it back.
As we wrap up the interview, I suddenly decide I'm going to make pasta for dinner tonight, using San Marzano tomatoes, slivered garlic, some fruity Tuscan olive oil and basil from my garden. Maybe I'll even put a spoonful of ricotta on top. All I know is that, thanks to her, it's going to be delicious.
Baritone Davide Luciano, left, and bass Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, right, flank chef Lidia Bastianich during intermission of a performance of L'Elisir d'Amore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February. Instead of a prop, fresh pasta cooked by the celebrity chef was served during the staging.