In the high-profile world of celebrity chefs, few have more name recognition than Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, the woman who almost single-handedly redefined American palates when it comes to what Italian cuisine is, and should be, in this country.
The breadth of her knowledge and passion as it relates to Italy’s food traditions through its various regions can’t be underestimated, as her take on the cuisine virtually revolutionized the idea of what we mean when we say “Italian cooking.”
Bastianich is an Emmy award-winning public television host, cookbook author and a restaurateur with three acclaimed New York City restaurants — Felidia, Becco and Del Posto. She was also among those responsible for bringing Oscar Farinetti’s Torino-based artisanal food and wine marketplace, Eataly, to New York’s Flatiron District. She now has restaurants and Eataly locations throughout the United States.
On Saturday, September 14, at 11 a.m., Bastianich will be at Stony Brook Southampton’s 2019 Food Lab Conference take part in a keynote conversation with author and New Yorker magazine contributor Adam Gopnik titled “The Power of Local: Taste The Terroir.”
It’s a topic near and dear to Bastianich’s heart, as the notion of food and locale were extremely powerful influences in her early life. Her role as head of a present-day food empire stands in stark contrast to her modest roots, which began with her birth in 1947 in the city of Pula on the Istrian peninsula in present-day Croatia. Born in what was then part of Italy, in the aftermath of World War II Istria was soon transferred to the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.
It was a turbulent time for the region and Bastianich’s family.
“Istria was Italy and given to the communists when I was young. We remained behind the iron curtain at the time it went up,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Things weren’t so bright then — even food was hard to come by.”
But it could have been far worse.
While her parents remained in Pula where life was a struggle, both physically and politically, a young Bastianich was sent to live in the countryside on her grandmother’s farm. So, it was rural life that informed her first memories and much of the food philosophy which she embraces to this day.
“I was the helper with the animals. We had chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, pigs, a little of each,” recalled Bastianich who noted that, unlike in the city, there was no shortage of food on the farm. “We’d eat a rabbit one Sunday and something else the next. I used to milk the goats. In November, we’d slaughter the pigs and make blood sausage. I was also a runner and you can’t help but remember these things, like harvesting olives. When you’re at that formative age, everything remains imbedded, even more so in my case.”
But in 1956, Bastianich’s parents made the decision to flee the communist state. Her mother took Bastianich and her brother to purportedly visit a sick aunt on the other side of the border. Her father remained in Istria, as was required by law to ensure his family would return, and he did — until he found a way to sneak over the border and join them.
“When my father appeared over the border, that’s when I realized I wasn’t going to go back to that beautiful setting,” Bastianich recalled. “I didn’t say goodbye to my grandmother and my animals.
“From then on, I continued with food and brought food with me. That’s why tradition is so important,” she added. “It was even more important when I was given the blessed opportunity to come to the U.S. I was 12, in my new country I wanted to share my traditions with friends and neighbors. I think that food was my connecting link to a part of my life I was pulled out of.”
And it was in the U.S. where Bastianich discovered that Italian food was defined by a fairly narrow subset of earlier immigrants who set out to cook native cuisine without the benefit of the ingredients found in their native land.
“Cuisine is a result of climate, tradition and occupation of the area,” Bastianich said. “The first influence here came at the end of the 1800s from Calabria, Sicily, and Campania, the area where Naples is. The Italian American food really reflected those three regions.”
However, she adds the food products available in the United States in decades past were often very different from those found in Europe.
“For example,” said Bastianich, “tomatoes are a new world product, but Italians are great agronomers, the climate and the topography lends itself to having great production … the tomatoes are quite different there.”
That means American tomatoes behave very differently from their European brethren when used in recipes. Bastianich notes that while a typical tomato-based Sunday sauce in the United States cooks for upward of three hours, in Italy, it’s a quick 45-minute process.
The difference? Those tomatoes.
“In Italy, they made sauce with summer tomatoes. But the tomatoes they made sauce with here were big, beefsteak tomatoes with lots of seeds and juice,” she explained. “They were highly acidic with bitter seeds, hence the addition of sugar, and you had to cook them a long time to get them to concentrate.”
Bastianich’s own professional food career began in 1971 when she began working as a sous chef for an Italian American chef at his New York restaurant. Ten years later, she opened her first restaurant, Felidia, and continued to hone her skills and philosophy by presenting Americans with the full range of what Italy has to offer in terms of cuisine.
“I decided I was going to cook the food from Italy — that’s 20 regions, 20 ways of cooking pasta e fagioli,” she said. “Then the products began coming available, including Arborio rice. We didn’t have it at first. Once we did, then you could cook a good risotto.”
As more ingredients became widely available and American palates began to understand and desire the complexities inherent in Italian cooking, Bastianich grew her food business. Eventually she reached out to Oscar Farinetti, an advocate of the Slow Food movement who opened the original Eataly in Turin, Italy, back in 2007.
“He wanted to come to America and New York, so we decided to do a partnership. That was really the right transition to bring Italy to Americans who love it and were ready for real espresso and real gelato,” explained Bastianich. “What makes it, is the association of Oscar and Italy with the Slow Food movement. At the time, even Italy was kind of recapturing the traditional products being made and was afraid of losing them.
“Oscar got to know those traditional artisans and put them in the store, and now we have access to that and continue to do the traditional produce that the big chains can’t provide.”
The first Eataly on this side of the Atlantic opened its doors in the Flatiron district of New York City in 2010. For those not familiar with the concept, it functions like a large indoor piazza and food marketplace for all things Italian — whether that be sampling a slice of mozzarella, indulging in a salami plate, diving into a big bowl of pasta, buying cookware and wine, or even taking a cooking course, often taught by Bastianich herself.
Like riding the crest of a wave, Bastianich has been at the forward edge of a trend that has brought Americans of all ages back to the roots, so to speak, of authentic food sourced with real ingredients. That sourcing, of course, extends to the East End where Bastianich has a long history of visiting farm stands in search of the freshest products available.
“It’s so wonderful to see all the young farmers there now,” she said. “We went out to the Long Island farm stands years ago. I was so happy out there and buying these things. That was a big trip for us — the eggplants and the corn. We couldn’t understand why you couldn’t get the products in the store.”
Now, of course, things have changed and fresh food produced by a new generation of growers and purveyors is both expected and enjoyed by a wide swath of America.
And Bastianich? She continues to spread the word and her passion for the food of her native land.
“During my growth, there were so many who mentored me and were willing to share their technique,” said Bastianich, who is Dean of La Scuola at Eataly, which means she helps build curriculum, oversees programming and teaches classes several times per year. “It’s about giving back and teaching young chefs. Even if they don’t have a 100 percent Italian repertoire, everyone uses Italian products and recipes.”
Stony Brook Southampton’s fifth annual Food Lab Conference “Cook, Eat, Drink: Taste the Terroir,” is Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14 at the Southampton campus. “The Power of Local: Taste The Terroir,” Lidia Bastianich in conversation with Adam Gopnik, takes place at 11 a.m. on September 14 in Duke Lecture Hall. Tickets for the 2019 Food Lab Conference are $150 at TheFoodLab.org.
In addition, on October 29, Bastianich’s new cookbook, “Felidia: Recipes from My Flagship Restaurant,” will be officially released. In it, she shares 115 recipes created with longtime executive chef Fortunato Nicotra, including many of her classic dishes.
Tomato Sauce (Sala di Pomodoro)
by Lidia Mattichio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali
(Makes about 1 quart, enough for six servings of pasta)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped (about 1/3 cup)
¼ cup finely shredded peeled carrots
¼ cup finely chopped celery (including leaves)
Two 35-ounce cans peeled Italian tomatoes (preferably San Marzano), seeded and lightly crushed, by hand or with a food mill, with their liquid
4 fresh bay leaves, or 2 dried
Salt and hot red pepper flakes to taste
Heat the oil in a 2-to-3 quart nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Stir in onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes.
Add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaves and bring to boil. Season lightly with salt and red pepper. Lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 45 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. Taste and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
From “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrées”