Bringing America Back to the Dinner Table
By Paul Giorgio
To those of us who faithfully watch WGBH Channel 2, Lidia Bastianich is an iconic figure. Over the years, the motherly Dion of Saturday afternoon cooking shows has become a fixture in millions of homes across America. She brings her homespun, old world charm to every episode of Lidia’s Table, the television show based on her best selling cookbook, Lidia’s Family Table.
Bastianich’s show is unique in its simplicity. Each episode is filmed in her Astoria Queens, New York home that she shares with her 86 year old mother. The program is a step backward in time to when life was simpler and families actually shared a meal together, a meal the mother would prepare from scratch, not pick up at the local fast food burger joint. Viewers are treated to frequent guest appearances by Bastianich’s daughter, her son Joe (himself a wine expert, vineyard owner and partner of uber-chef Mario Batali in a number of restaurants), and both her granddaughter and mother.
Bastianich didn’t have a plan when she and her husband Joe opened a small 30 seat restaurant in Forest Hills, New York. According to Bastianich, “I even hired a chef when we opened, but slowly I changed from Italian American food to real Italian regional cooking.” Bastianich is from the Trieste Region of Northern Italy which is on the Adriatic Sea and shared a border with what was then Yugoslavia. In fact, she and her family fled from the country in 1958 when it fell under Communist control after WWII. By 1981, she had sold the two restaurants she owned to open Felidia’s, where Julia Child and James Beard could often be seen. Soon she expanded the breadth of what was to become her culinary empire: Bastianich’s first cookbook was a collaboration with Gourmet Magazine, and after a few guest appearances on Julia Child’s program, she was offered her own show.
Lidia Bastianich now has five cookbooks and several restaurants. When asked about her method for writing a cookbook, she replied, “I have to have a story to tell, people need to take something away with them, something about the culture of Italy. I am very interested in the anthropology of food and the science of it. I make it simple, so the message gets to people. It’s all about simplicity. This isn’t my food, I’m just a conduit.” The food for which she is that conduit is primarily Istrian Peninsular cuisine, different from Southern Italian cooking. It has more of a Slavic/Eastern European influence to it; the region is known for sauerkraut, cabbage, pork, dumplings, strudel, and a great deal of fish. Also, the pasta tends to be fresh, while Southern Italian more often uses dry pasta (and tomato-based sauces).
Chef Lydia is a big proponent of the slow food movement which has been sweeping Italy and the rest of Europe. “Wonderful,” she exclaimed. “It brings consciousness to the product; a traditional product will transport Italy to your table.”
Bastianich, who has been cooking and running restaurants for almost 40 years, is a little put off by the whole “chef as celebrity” craze. “It gets carried to far,” she commented. “But in light of bringing the importance of the table and family and nutrition, it’s wonderful. All this hype about chefs helps bring America to the table. It’s good if my pulpit gets bigger and I can preach about food and families and bring families together.”
Ask the Chef
A Question & Answer session with Lidia Bastianich
By Paul Giorgio
Who is your favorite chef?
A lot of them are my favorites, I can’t say just one but if I had to, I would pick Alice Waters. I admire her philosophy. She put California cooking on the map.
What is your favorite item to cook?
I respond to a good product, not planning what to cook…recipes keep turning in my mind…but as far as product I like to cook pasta and I love fresh vegetables.
How often do you cook for your family now?
As much as I can, at least a couple of times a week. I will make doggie bags if the kids can’t come over and if I’m not here, I leave things for my mother.
What is your favorite seasoning?
I love herbs, especially rosemary & sage. For spices, I like clove and cinnamon.
What are four things in your home refrigerator?
Raddicco from my own garden, Grana Padano cheese, prosciutto, and hot peppers.
Do you consider yourself more a chef, a restaurant owner, or a teacher?
I guess all of the above. I taught a little to Mario Batali and I introduced him and my son Joe, and now they are business partners.
Lidia Bastianich is one of the chefs appearing at the Foxwoods Food and Wine Festival, Sept. 14 – 16. To find out more information about the Festival, head to foxwoods.com/FoxwoodsFoodAndWine. To enjoy Lidia’s website, head to lidiasitaly.com.