MY FAVORITE PEOPLE, MY FAVORITE RECIPES: Lidia Bastianich
There was a time when Lidia Bastianich, James Beard Award-winner, bestselling cookbook author, Emmy Award-winning star of Lidia’s Italian Table, restauranteur and buddy to Mario Batali, had a brief fling with boxed cake mix. She was a girl when she came to New York with her family in 1958 as refugees from Istria. Carved up after World War II, Istria is Italian, but it lies along the Adriatic, with Croatian, Hungarian, Austrian, Bavarian, even Turkish influences as well as the flavors of the Spice Road. Its rich culture and cuisine reflects all that and more, but for a child who’d endured significant hardship, it couldn’t compare to the dazzling bounty and ease of American life and American food.
It wasn’t long, though, before her Istrian heritage eclipsed the American way of instant pudding and automats. Without so much as mentioning the White House or immigration ban, Bastianich told a rapt audience at Miami Book Fair how her success now has its roots in her immigrant upbringing. It turns out the classic American dream isn’t about instant anything. It’s about coming to this country with little and having the opportunity and freedom to work hard to createi a better life — to make a home, to have a career, and in the case of Bastianich, to make a community, bringing people together at the table. She’s the driving force behind iconic restaurants from Felidia to Del Posto. “I want to offer guests a unique culinary experience,” she says, “to elevate the cuisine.”
And she’s really, really good at it. Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization of culinary professional women, just awarded her the title of Grande Dame. There is something grand about Bastianich, but also something no-nonsense — she still rolls up her sleeves and does the job. She wants you to be hands-on, too. She’s co-founder of the Italian emporium Eataly, where she still teaches on occasion. With her stack of bestselling cookbooks, including her newest, Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian, Bastianich empowers you, providing accessible techniques and ingredients that create the dish you can trust will work. It’s not for nothing she subtitles her new book 220 Foolproof Recipes that Make Every Meal a Party. She shares recipes for pasta, of course but also ghoulash, an Istrian-inspired dish so good she served it to Pope Benedict XVI. It’s one of her own holiday favorites.
“I love to entertain,” Bastianich writes in the introduction to her new book. “I get a thrill from serving people good food.” Part of celebrating like an Italian comes from understanding food is precious, in knowing how to use and conserve every scrap, to make much from little. It’s what Bastianich learned as a girl making dinner for her family, it’s what she does now as the matriarch cooking for a culinary tribe including her mother Emilia, restauranteur son Joe and daughter (and frequent co-author) Tanya.
Valuing food, growing it, preparing it, is its own language — not all Americans speak it well. We waste up to half our food. Speaking to the book fair audience, Bastianich’s tone was that of a loving but firm nonna — you can do better.
Creating abundance, even for nervous holiday entertainers, isn’t so hard. During her talk, Bastianich ticked off a detailed Do list starting with Item #1 — relax. Open some wine — for the guests, for you. “Wine is food,” says Bastianich, who grew up drinking water with a drop of wine in it. Platters of antipasto, casseroles bubbling with baked pasta — or ghoulash — welcome guests and make a table look bountiful. They also save hosts from fussy plating (save it for Instagram).
Under her spell, the audience went from brows furrowed with holiday anxiety to relaxed, smiling, nodding. Bastianich was smiling, too. She always does when sharing her cuisine and culture with others, even after 40 years in the restaurant business.
Being named Grande Dame “is an honor,” but not an end. “I don’t think of it as being a pinnacle of my career,” she says, suddenly wistful. “I’m still going places.”
You don’t have to be Istrian to value food. In her new PBS special, Lidia Celebrates America: Homegrown Heroes, Bastianich salutes members of the American military who’ve returned home after defending our country to farm it.