TV chef Lidia's got a new show, also starring her mom & kids
All in the family
By SONO MOTOYAMA
Posted on Wed, Mar. 30, 2005
WITH A DEMEANOR suggesting both a warm, buxom Italian nonna and a stern drill sergeant ("Pay attention!" she admonishes her viewers, or, "Got that?"), Lidia Matticchio Bastianich has endeared herself to television audiences and diners alike.
With her public-TV series and restaurants - including three restaurants in New York and a Lidia's in Kansas City and in Pittsburgh - she has spread her gospel of homey Italian cooking, the importance of family meals and of eating fresh, seasonal food.
While middle-aged women may make up the core of her fan base, Bastianich points out that she also has young mothers who watch her shows with their children and men too. She says of her male fans, "They tell me, 'You make me look good.' "
With her new show, "Lidia's Family Table," which WHYY will begin airing Saturday, she took into account the desires of her followers. The show is based on her new cookbook, published last November, also titled "Lidia's Family Table."
"I get a lot of feedback from my viewers and they tell me what they'd like to see, what they want to know," she said from her home in Douglaston Manor, N.Y., where she tapes her shows. "The overwhelming message was, We want to know more about your family, how you cook for your family."
"I'm so excited about this 'Family Table,' " Bastianich said recently, cheerful despite a recent, painful knee surgery. "The new show, it has more of the family, it shows more of my house because that is what [viewers] wanted to see. I talk about techniques and how I behave at home so they can emulate that, so that they can take it and make it their own."
She includes useful tips on how to cook in quantity, make quick sauces you can prepare while the pasta cooks (see accompanying recipe) and use scraps one might normally throw away - such as a stale loaf of bread, or the rind of a cheese. Her techniques, described in detail in her book, involve using all of the senses - for example, to listen for the "clicking" of rice when making risotto so you'll know it's time to add wine.
Her house and garden take featured roles in the new series, along with members of her extended family. Her grandchildren are shown plucking tomatoes from the garden. Her mother, Erminia, demonstrates how she makes her special skillet chicken dish (see accompanying recipe). Her son, Joseph - a former bond trader turned wine merchant, winemaker and restaurateur in his own right (including a partnership with star chef Mario Batali) - and daughter, Tanya - an art historian by training, who is collaborating with her mother on a book and Web site - make appearances to assist, taste and joke with their mother.
SUBHED HERE: A turbulent history
With a restaurant and entertainment domain that also encompasses a line of specialty sauces, including ones developed for Williams-Sonoma, and a culinary travel company offering trips to Italy, Bastianich said she still has time to have her family over for dinner at least once a week. (Her mother lives with her; her daughter's family lives within walking distance and her son's family is in Connecticut.)
But things were not always so cozy and secure for Bastianich.
She was born in Pula, on the Istrian peninsula, which has a turbulent history. Istria, within the last century, has been a part of Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia and is now Croatia (op-ed precisely would be: occupied by Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia and now free Croatia) . But Bastianich has warm memories of her childhood there, of olive and grape harvests, and of her grandmother's farmyard animals.
"I would go forage to get the eggs," Bastianich said. "We had a pig, and the slaughter of the pig and making the sausage and prosciutto - I remember all that vividly." She remembers that the family pressed their own olive oil and distilled their own grappa.
"That was imbedded in my mind, those pristine flavors."
These memories became no doubt even more precious to her because this idyll was disrupted when the family fled their home during the communist Yugoslavian regime and were forced to live in a political refugee camp.
The family had the opportunity to emigrate to America, eventually settling in Queens, N.Y., but the adjustment was not easy. Bastianich, not yet 12, and her older brother, Franco, learned the language more easily than their parents, so took on responsible adult roles at an early age.
Her father found work as a mechanic and her mother was a piece worker in a New Jersey factory. "I remember many times my mother crying," Bastianich said. "My father never really did get adjusted. He had difficulties learning the language. He was always nostalgic."
One can imagine that these difficult times, coupled with memories of her homeland, cemented the importance of food and family in Bastianich's mind. Today she emphasizes implanting food sensory memories in children, by allowing all sorts of cooking smells and tastes to permeate the home.
SUBHED HERE: Spaghetti and meatball beginnings
Because Istria has had such a varied history, the cuisine of the region shows Austro-Hungarian, Italian and Slavic influences. These traces eventually found their way into the cuisine of Bastianich's signature Manhattan restaurant, Felidia, which she opened with her then-husband Felice Bastianich, with items like sauerkraut and bean soup.
Their early restaurants, however, had much more recognizable fare. They opened their first restaurant in Queens, in 1971.
"At that time the Italian restaurants that were in vogue were the Italian-American restaurants," Bastianich remembered. "Spaghetti and meatballs and manicotti and all of that, and that's the restaurant we opened."
Bastianich, only 24 at the time, was not yet a professional chef, so the family hired a chef to head up the restaurant, and Bastianich learned along the way as sous chef (this experience became the basis for her Italian-American cookbook and TV series). The success of the first restaurant prompted them to open a second Queens restaurant.
Somewhere along the way, Bastianich developed the confidence to cook the way she liked to cook at home. "So while the chef was doing his meatballs and parmigiana and all that, I would make polenta," she said. "This is how I began to build my reputation. People would begin to ask, Well, what did you cook today?"
Soon the food press began making pilgrimages to Queens. Bastianich and her husband decided to sell the Queens restaurants and put everything they had into Felidia.
With the opening of Felidia in 1981, she cooked full-time the regional Italian cuisine that she had grown up with, which was unusual at the time. "The press and Julia Child and everyone else began to come down," Bastianich said. "It was very exciting."
With press attention came offers to appear as a guest chef on cooking shows, including Julia Child's. Eventually she was offered her own show. "I'm a communicator, you know. I love teaching. I said I would love to do the show."
The rest, as they say, is history. The cookbooks, the TV appearances, the restaurants (if you can't afford the upscale Felidia, I heartily recommend New York's theater-district Becco - which she co-owns with her son - which has a terrific, pasta-centric $21.95 prix-fixe dinner and a wine list of all $20 bottles).
Though Bastianich may have a mini empire, she likes to bring the focus back to family and home. For example, for service in her restaurant, she said, laughing, "I have radishes pickling right now in my garage."
Her kids are currently in the business with her, and her parents, she points out, helped out when she was just starting.
"We were always a family support group," Bastianich said firmly. "Even the first restaurant, [my parents] loaned us some money and they watched the kids while I worked. And on Monday when we were closed we would all go with the kids and clean the place... . My success is really a family story."