“Why do I keep writing cookbooks?,” Lidia Bastianich asked the audience of more than 400 at a recent book signing at Barnes & Noble Eastchester. “Because you have questions.”
And in turn, she cheerfully fielded several from her devoted fan base gathered for the release of her 11th cookbook, “Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian” (Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 383 pages). This is the seventh book she has co-authored with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, and only partly representative of the massive culinary empire Lidia has been building since 1971.
Now she admits to slowing down, feeling the wear and tear of 40 years on her feet as a chef, so she is cutting back a bit on her schedule. Still this has not deterred her from the current rigorous book tour or her many other responsibilities. You see, Lidia is also the proprietor of the original Felidia’s, now with locations in Kansas City, Missouri, and Pittsburgh, and Becca, Esca and Del Posto, all in Manhattan. She appears regularly on the Emmy-winning series “Lidia Celebrates America” and “Lidia’s Italy,” broadcast on public television, and partners with son Joseph Bastianich, Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti in Eataly, the successful food and wine marketplaces, now with seven locations in the Western Hemisphere. Under this ever-expanding umbrella of businesses, there’s a line of tableware and cookware sold on QVC and a line of sauces and pastas, LIDIA’s, both co-ventures with daughter Tanya and son-in-law Corrado. Two award-winning wineries in Italy produce wines under her own label and are overseen by her son.
To spend time with Lidia, as I did in our one-on-one prior to the book signing, is to be instantly charmed by her warmth, enthusiasm and Italian charisma. She tells me that she’s just left her 97-year old mother, Erminia, at home in Queens, the family’s base since they immigrated to the States in the late 1950s when Lidia was 12. She is a native of Pula, Istria — once part of Italy, now Croatia — which was disrupted in a geopolitical upset after World War II. Following a brief period as refugees in Trieste, the family was sponsored by a Catholic relief organization to come to the U.S.
For Lidia, as she tells it, “It was always about food.” Her early childhood years may have been spent cooking at her grandmother’s side and tending to the chickens and goats, but once in America, Lidia found herself under the tutelage of nuns, peeling potatoes in a convent for a stipend. By 14 she was working the counter at Walken’s Bakery in Astoria (yes, as in Christopher Walken, the actor whose family owned and operated the bakery, and, by the way, they are still friends). “There I was, delivering wedding cakes with him.”
So, there’s lots of color and interesting stories, tales of the two original restaurants in Astoria as a young bride with her husband, Felice, from whom she divorced in the 1990s. It was the sale of those two establishments that enabled the purchase of the elegant townhouse on East 58th Street, home to the original Felidia since 1981.
Is there ever time for the family to sit down together for dinner? Almost every weekend, she tells me happily. “I’ll make a big pot of soup for my mother, dishes that will last her through the week.” Also on the menu are the ones her grandchildren request time and time again — tortellini in brodo, roasted chicken with potatoes, baked pasta and, on special occasions, her signature homemade gnocchi. Lidia’s favorite go-to dish — simple linguine with garlic and oil, made with good quality imported dry pasta. Out of respect for her colleagues, on her nights out she’ll frequent other Italian restaurants, but given the choice, she’ll opt for one of her other loves, sushi, Thai or Chinese food.
Lidia is here to talk about her book, but I want more of her backstory. What was it like being a female chef and restaurateur in the ’80s in New York City? Groundbreaking — my word. Lidia humbly speaks of her success, attributing it to word of mouth, the quality of ingredients — she can’t stress this enough — and creating dishes that were representative of regional Italian cuisine, not “your typical Italian-American experience,” as she puts it. At the time, new on the Manhattan restaurant scene, there was lots of buzz about her place. Big name chefs of the day would come by Felidia’s — James Beard and Julia Child, who wanted Lidia to teach her how to make risotto. Lidia credits Child’s producer with helping her achieve her own series on public television. She may have cooked for two popes — Benedict XVI and Francis — during her career, but modesty is a virtue Lidia employs skillfully. She gained more and more attention but not acceptance from the “French toque’d chefs who wore their stiff white hats and looked down their noses at me. Yet, they would come to talk and drink and eat my food,” she says. This inspired her to travel back and forth to Italy, honing her skills with the masters there and building strong relationships with her peers.
What about reviews? Everyone’s a food critic on social media platforms today. I ask her if she pays much attention. To a degree, she admits. She is interested to know what the public thinks because she still learns from criticism and makes improvements. Del Posto Restaurant in the meatpacking district of Manhattan — recently awarded a Michelin star for the fourth time — has just promoted a female chef who worked her way up the ranks for the past six years, to be its executive chef. Lidia’s advice for the female chefs of today? “Don’t define yourself by your gender, define yourself by your accomplishments. Let the quality of your food speak for who you are and you will succeed.”
Lidia acknowledges her good fortune, “I was blessed,” she tells me, and so she generously shares her time in the service of others, working with two nonprofit organizations of women leaders in food and hospitality and serving on the board of Arrupe College, a program of Loyola University Chicago supporting underprivileged students. She also participates actively in countless special events on behalf of several foundations and PBS.
But tonight she is focused on promoting her latest cookbook, a compilation of tried-and-true recipes from the past and some new ones, as the subtitle suggests — “220 Foolproof Recipes That Make Every Meal a Party.” Her intent, particularly with this one, is to enter our homes and join our celebrations as we recreate her recipes. It includes well-crafted plans for executing everyday family meals, dinner parties and even an Italian wedding. All you need, she tells the crowd, is a nice baked pasta as the mid-course following a traditional antipasti and finished off with a big roast and you have an Italian feast.
Next, don’t forget about the beverages and, if you’re hosting a dinner party, don’t stress having every brand of alcohol you think your guests like to drink, just have one specialty cocktail: There are more than 20 in her book. She strongly encourages the use of fresh, quality ingredients, displayed appropriately with a back-up in the fridge, all ready for the guests to create their own. Of course, always have red and white wines on hand, and nonalcoholic choices such as sparkling water with fresh garnishes.
To receive advice from Lidia — especially in person, but also from her cookbooks — is to gain bits of wisdom from a master who knows her way around a kitchen, the grandmother you wish were cooking dinner for you every day, as mine did for me when I was a child.