CTbites Speaks With Lidia Bastianich

Lou Gorfain

Like Oprah or Madonna in pop culture, Lidia is one-name-famous to foodies,  a television star  (Lidia's Italy -- PBS), renowned restaurateur (Felidia, Eataly, Delposto, Becco), a worldwide brand  (Lidia's Sauces and Pasta), bestselling author (Lidia’s Commonsense Guide to Italian Cooking is her latest), mom, grandmother, whew,  one name so many roles. 

So CTBites was delighted that Lidia carved out time from her hectic schedule to chat with us prior to her book signing this Saturday at Stamford's Fairway Market (details below.)

Incidentally, Lidia is no stranger to Connecticut.  Her son Joe and his family live in Greenwich, she tapes her PBS show in Norwalk, and of course the Bastianich clan is associated with Tarry Lodge in both Westport and Port Chester. 

We began the conversation, wondering what Lidia the little girl would think if she could peer into a crystal ball and see the famous Lidia of today.   

“When I was nine years old we had fled from Communist Yugoslavia and my family was in a refugee camp,” she told us, “I think that little girl, her mouth would be open at what I’ve accomplished.”   Then Lidia thought about that youngster for a moment and resolutely stated, “But you know, I always had confidence I was going to amount to something   And food was so very important to me, because we didn’t have much.”

In 1958, her immediate family emigrated from Italy to New Jersey and then Queens.  “Food became my connection to what we had left, like my grandmother.  Familiar flavors and aromas reminded me of family and my past.”

Indeed the theme of La Famiglia informs much of Lidia’s approach in the kitchen. 

“Recipes are handed down generation to generation,” she explains, “The family shares meals together, and food is the centerpiece of celebrations and holidays. Family is so much of what food is about.”

Lidia’s 93 year old mother lives with her in Queens and her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali (with whom she collaborated on her latest book)  and her family have a home nearby.   “Four generations,” she proudly stated.  “Tradition. That’s why and how I cook.”

Surprisingly, Lidia has never invented a recipe in any of her many cookbooks.  “Not one,” she explained. ”I take traditional dishes and make adjustments.”  

“Sort of like a jazz musician riffing on a standard,” we suggested.

“Exactly,” she replied.  “I love improvisation.  Going with my heart.”

In her new book, Lidia lauds intuition and common sense.  “The mistake most new cooks make is overthinking their food.  They should just keep things simple, don’t complicate cooking.”

Humans were born to cook she believes. “It’s how we survive.  So there’s nothing to be frightened by when making a meal, Do what’s natural.  And keep things simple.”

The first recipe in the book, celebrates the simplicity – and virtuosity -- of the common egg.  “Eggs are really underestimated,” she told us. “When my family was struggling to just survive, we couldn’t get much meat, so we relied on eggs for our protein.   My grandmother knew exactly how many eggs a certain chicken would lay each day and planned our menu accordingly.”

She feels eggs took a bad rap back in the nineties during the Great Cholesterol Scare and abhors when good, natural foods are demonized.

“Food from nature is good, it is not our enemy,” she said with a touch of anger.  “If it’s bad our eyes, our noses will tell us.”

With her lines of pasta and sauces  (available at Fairway), Lidia is frequently asked to weigh in on the debate concerning fresh vs dried pasta.   “Each has its place,” she told us.  “Fresh pasta cooks fast and contains eggs, so its delicate, smooh  and rich tasting.”  

But dried pasta, made of little more than semolina flour, water and salt has its place.  “It’s rough surfaces allow sauces to soak and cling, rather than slip off the smoother fresh pasta,” she told us.  “And it can be stored indefinitely. It’s always there ready for cooking --along with other ingredients you just have at hand.  Some of my favorite pasta meals are made up by what’s there in the pantry.”

We felt Lidia was enjoying the conversation, so we went with a couple of whimsical questions.

“Tell us something about yourself that would surprise your fans,” we asked.

“I love to dance,” she told us.  :And I am passionate about sailing.  I enjoy engaging the sea, and harvesting its bounty.”

“There no intermediary between you and the food.,” she rhapsodized. “You catch it.  You cook it.  You eat it.  Simplicity.”

Our last question: 

“What would you fix if Sophia Lauren were a guest in your home, the woman who once famously said  ‘Everything you see when you look at me, I owe to Spaghetti.’”

It turned out that Lidia has always harbored a dream to cook with Sophia, as ravishing a chef in the kitchen as a star on the screen, so she welcomed the invitation to fantasize making dinner for her.

“If it were summer, I’d start with caprese,” she began.  “But it’s hard to find good tomatoes now.  So I would go with a mozzarella and celery salad.  I know she would like that.”

Next, Lidia decided she would serve a clam bruschetta, made with the same clam sauce used for pasta, which she soaks in the bread.  “It’s really delicious and comforting,” she said, (We noticed the brusky will be featured on an upcoming episode of her PBS show.

For pasta, .Lidia wavered between gnocchi and risotto.  “Sophia is from Naples, but I think she would be open to something more northern.”

In choosing a meat, Lidia thought Chicken would serve as a perfect climax to the meal, perhaps breasts baked with gaeta olives and orange.

Lidia surprised us with her decisive choice for desert – pear bread pudding.    “I’d definitely serve it warm, with a simple dollop of whipped cream.”

“It’s so American,” Lidia stated. “And that’s where we are, so it would be perfect “

Lidia guessed that Loren likes American fare, spending much time with her son in Los Angeles.  

We asked her if she had ever met the star, “ Yes,” she said. “Once a few years ago in Washington at an Italian awards ceremony.”

Lidia spoke of her absolute respect for the Italian beauty.

“She was a poor kid who rose up out of the ashes and became a worldwide success. She is what’s good about Italy”

We suggested that tale sounded familiar.   It’s how our conversation began.

“There is a parallel,” Lidia allowed.  “I’m very proud that I can say that.”

Lidia will be at Stamford Fairway. Saturday, December 14 from 1 to 3 pm to sign copies of Lidia’s Commonsense Guide to Italian Cooking.  Samples of her sauces and pasta will be available.

699 Canal Street

If you miss Lidia in Stamford,  catch another book signing at the Nanuet Fairway, Saturday December 21, also from 1 to 3.    75 West Route 59

[Photography Courtesy of...Headshots: Diana DeLucia; Food Photography: Marcus Nilsson]