Celebrity Chef Lidia Bastianich True to Her Roots

Lidia Bastianich's TV show and cookbooks share the joy of authentic Italian.

August 20, 2009, 5:22 PM

Aug. 23, 2009— -- Lidia Bastianich is not the most famous name in the crowded world of celebrity TV chefs. She doesn't excel at 20-minute meals or semi-homemade dinners. In an era where there is a Food Network star for every kind of cooking, Bastianich has kept to what she knows best for the past 30 years: authentic Italian food.

Bastianich might be best known for her Public Television series "Lidia's Italy" or her companion books based on the series. For the past 10 years, she has taken her viewers along as she cooks iconic dishes from around Italy. Her friendliness and short stature make her the quintessential Italian grandmother. And her fans have reacted: Up to 3 million people tune in to watch her each week, she says.

"I want to make their time worthwhile," she says at her office above the restaurant she owns and operates, Felidia, on Manhattan's East Side. "If they are going to spend a half-hour watching me, then they need to take something out of that. I don't pretend to be what I'm not. I deliver a culture."

But viewers might not know that Bastianich started her food career in a refugee camp in northeastern Italy in the 1950s. Around the time of her birth, in 1947, her home region of Istria, which had been awarded to Italy after World War I, was lopped off to become part of Yugoslavia. Part of the arrangement included mandatory speaking of Serbo-Croatian instead of the family's native Italian. They left in frustration and escaped across the border to Italy, where they joined others from across Eastern Europe in a refuge camp.

"What was interesting was clusters of people, the diversity of languages and songs that they would sing, and so forth," Bastianich, 62, said.

It was there that Bastianich began missing her homeland, she says. Wanting to better connect with Istria, she says she began cooking dishes native to her region, which is now Croatia.

Lidia Bastianich Leveraged Everything

"I really understood how much tradition was important and it was something that was a part of me," she said. "It was not about inventing, it was something that brought me back and connected me."

Eventually, Bastianich and her family were given political asylum in the United States and they settled in Queens, N.Y., in 1958. Drawn by cooking, she eventually took jobs at restaurants and bakeries in the city.

"I worked in Walken's Bakery, which was [actor] Christopher Walken's father's," she said. "I grew up with him [in Queens]. And, then, when I went to Hunter College [in Manhattan], I went to work in restaurants.

"I worked on the West Side at Pietro's Pizzeria and I use to wait on Madonna. She wouldn't remember me."

Bastianich eventually married and she and her husband opened two successful restaurants in Queens, in 1971 and 1973, serving some of the same dishes from her childhood. As time progressed, the two wanted something bigger and sold the Queens restaurants to open a Manhattan restaurant, in 1981. It was a major undertaking and one that didn't come without severe risks.

"It almost didn't happen. We leveraged out our family residence, and I mean everything, to open," she said. "Everything was at stake here at Felidia. So, thank God, we made it."

And the whole family pitched in, she says.

"We saved as much as we could at the restaurant," she said. "I mean, nighttime cleaning, my mother would come in the morning and she would clean the place."

And with Bastianich in the kitchen, the restaurant Felidia became a critical success.

"We didn't deliver so much on the fuss and on the silverware," Bastianich said. "We delivered real Italian food. It was a frill-free deliverance, but what was on the plate was substantial."

Her success caught the eye of authors, journalists and one of the biggest TV food stars.

"And I did a few shows with Julia Child and that put me in front of producers. She said, 'Lidia, you are good at this,'" Bastianich said.

Lidia Bastianich Cooking Right Along

Bastianich said her signature dish is risotto, a traditional Italian rice dish that she cooked with Child and which the New York Times highlighted in a review of Felidia.

She went on to write her first book, "La Cucina di Lidia," in 1990, which is still in print. Today, Bastianich shows no sign of slowing down. She is co-owner of five restaurants located not only in New York, but Kansas City and Pittsburgh. In 1999, she won the James Beard award for Outstanding Chef -- a kind of Oscar of the food world. And cooked for the pope when he visited New York in 2008.

And her business has become a family affair. Son Joseph is co-owner of some of the most popular restaurants in New York and daughter Tanya helped establish a travel company that combines fine art with food and wine.

Bastianich is working on her sixth book and the next season of her TV series. She also hopes to start an animated children's cooking show.

But what she most enjoys is spending time with her 88-year-old mother and five grandchildren who have become celebrities themselves on her TV show.

"They know my whole family because I bring the whole family on the show," Bastianich said. "That's the greatest reward when the family is around and they are happy."