In addition to being a culinary quadruple threat – restaurateur, winery owner, reality food show personality and wine book author – Joseph Bastianich now competes in marathons and Ironman triathlon competitions. Yet he remains a devoted family man, spending as much time as possible at his home in Greenwich with wife, Deanna, children Olivia, Miles and Ethan, and the family’s 4-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Quatro.
I first met Joe (as everyone calls him) in the 1980s when he was a teenager – working at his parents’ restaurant, Felidia, in Manhattan – where I’ve been a longtime patron. By that time, he had already learned the basics of the restaurant business from his dad by what he calls “full immersion” – from dishwashing to accompanying his father as he bought meat, fish and produce at the “jungle-like” markets early in the morning. Following high school, college and a short stint as a Wall Street stockbroker, he spent a year in Italy, working in restaurants and vineyards and, as he says, “rediscovering my heritage.” When he returned in 1993, he opened Becco with the backing of his mother, famed chef and PBS darling Lidia. Becco is now a Manhattan Theater District icon, serving modestly priced, top-quality Italian fare and wine.
A few years later, he met chef Mario Batali by chance at a James Beard Award Dinner.
“We hit it off immediately,” Joe says. “We both had spent time in Italy on our own, participating in the wine and food scene and we had very similar culinary philosophies.” Soon Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in Manhattan’s West Village was opened to critical accolades, igniting a partnership that has spawned more than two-dozen establishments, ranging from Tarry Lodge in Port Chester and Westport to B&B Ristorante and Carnevino in Las Vegas to Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles and Singapore. Soon, it’s on to Hong Kong.
And then there’s Eataly – a 50,000-square-foot space in Manhattan’s Flatiron District that houses a gourmet Italian food market, culinary educational center, five restaurants and a wine shop – with more than 50,000 customers on weekends.
Moreover, because Joe believes that “great food should never be enjoyed without equally outstanding wine,” he has established or acquired four wineries – three in Italy and one in Argentina – with his mom and Mario as partners. In addition, he’s co-authored the now classic “Vino Italiano” and “Vino Italiano Buying Guide” and has a memoir, “Restaurant Man,” due out in April.
A regular on the “Today” show, Joe’s continuing his involvement with Gordon Ramsay (whom he describes as “very intense”) and Graham Elliot as a judge on the Fox reality series “MasterChef” and with Carlo Cracco and Bruno Barbieri in the Italian version of the show “MasterChef Italia.”
Add to all this the elite marathons and Ironman events he began training for about five years ago as a way to lose weight, and it’s a wonder I was able to catch up with him about his current passions and future pet projects.
What do you enjoy cooking at home?
“I only cook at home occasionally, and when I do it’s usually pasta or grilled fare. Actually, most of the cooking at our house is done by a very talented woman who my wife and I oversee. For us, dining at home is more about the experience of being together as a family.”
What are some of your favorite dishes to eat out?
“Dim sum and sushi are two of my favorites as well as a well-aged steak. Then there’s mom’s cooking, the best, especially her crab risotto.”
Since you mentioned mom, what was it like growing up with her?
“Mom is a teacher at heart. She always encouraged me and my sister, Tanya, to do what we really loved doing. And she has continued to be very supportive of what I do, although she says I should slow down a bit, not work so hard and eat more vegetable soup.”
Do you have favorite wine and food combinations?
“Yes. I enjoy a good Tuscan red like a Brunello or a big Chianti with a well-aged charred steak. I think that smooth, yet flavorful whites like White Burgundies go well with pastas with ricotta and then racy whites, like those from Friuli, go great with a variety of appetizers like salumes and cheeses.”
What do you eat before and after a marathon?
“Usually before a marathon or even a workout, I’ll eat oatmeal and peanut butter and jelly. Then after the race, I’ll usually have beer. While I believe in pasta the evening before athletic events, I feel that it should be in moderation and don’t see any great advantage to carb-loading with three or four large portions of pasta.”
How are you enjoying your TV gigs?
“Love them! Identifying culinary talent is what I’ve done my whole life and I take it very seriously. And providing inspiration to the participants and the viewers gives me great pleasure.”
Do you have a favorite restaurant of those you own?
“No. They’re all like children. You love them all for their individual attributes.”
What about some favorites of those you don’t own?
“I particularly like Chinatown Brasserie in New York City for dim sum and more locally, I like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, North in Armonk and a number of the small Peruvian spots in Port Chester, especially for ceviche.”
Now that Tarry Lodge in Port Chester seems to be hitting its stride and the more recently opened Tarry Lodge in Westport has already become a popular dining spot, do you see any more ventures in our area?
“First, I’d like to tout the Tarry Market in Port Chester, where items like pasta and desserts are made on site. It’s certainly not as grand as Eataly, but definitely serves a culinary niche. And the wine shop next door, which carries a very opinionated Eurocentric selection, should be a must for serious wine buffs. As to new ventures in the area, yes, we’re definitely looking to open up another restaurant in lower Westchester, like the Yonkers or Pelham areas.”
What about new projects outside our area?
“I’m excited about opening restaurants in Hong Kong this year and expanding the Eataly concept to other cities in the country, which I see as a great way to give people the opportunity to increase the quality of the ingredients in what they eat.”