I’ve been a fan of Lidia Bastianich’s ever since I first started watching her cook on PBS years ago. When my husband was gifted her “Lidia’s Italy in America” cookbook, my admiration only grew (try the Chicken Scarpariello recipe, and thank me later!). Whether in her cookbooks or on her TV series, Bastianich has always presented Italy and Italian cuisine in a realistic light, and I really appreciate that. Italian fare is more than just pizza, pasta, and gelato (though those ARE important and delicious components); Bastianich knows that and embraces Italy’s culinary diversity. Needless to say, I was excited to have the chance to interview her for our Autumn 2013 Voicings.
As I expected, the TV chef was gracious, earnest, and chatty, despite having just finished a long day of recipe testing (“Only one thing got burned,” she said with a laugh). We spent a good chunk of time discussing her latest “Lidia Celebrates America” episodes, for which Bastianich traveled around the country learning about and participating in cultural celebrations and milestones. I was particularly struck by her description of witnessing a Navajo house blessing in Utah. Since Bastianich herself was an immigrant to America at the age of 12, she said she found the entire experience—which included roasting a lamb for a traditional meal—particularly fascinating.
“This was a single mother with three children, and the community built her a new home,” Bastianich said. “She was about to move in, but before doing that the [Navajo] always thank the wind and the sun; they have festivities and everybody celebrates together. A medicine man came and blessed the house. For me, it was very moving; the Navajos are real Americans, and this is their tradition. Here I am, an immigrant, kind of exploring, and what I came to explore was not another culture, but a real American culture. I really felt humbled by it.
There was so much more to our conversation than our chat about Bastianich’s series, and obviously far more material than we were able to fit into the magazine. (Bastianich waxes poetic about her ideal, last cheese-containing meal in Voicings, but she had even more to say on the topic of dairy—this woman loves her some Humboldt Fog!). Here’s more from our conversation.
How has your perspective as an immigrant affected the way you approach food?
I grew up in a very, very simple setting. My grandmother had all the animals: the chickens and the goats. When we came to the U.S., I was young, and at 12 all I wanted to do was explore America and become American. But as I grew older, those memories were beckoning me, were calling me. I was remembering my grandmother and connecting with her through the food. And I think my passion for food is precisely that, because food for me is and was memories. When I had my children, I wanted them to know who they were and what a Sunday meal would be: You know, we had to have our pasta; Easter, we need to have our bread with the egg in it, and so on. I still do those traditions with my grandchildren.
What did it mean to you to have your children follow you into the culinary world?
It was kind of unexpected. Well, it also was expected. We raised them in the industry. Joe was 4 when I opened my restaurant [Felidia]. I was just about to have Tanya. The business was growing, I was growing, everything was growing. After Tanya was born, I had to work; that’s what I did. My mother would help me. We would have a lot of our meals at the restaurant as a family and then Grandma would take [the children] home and my husband and I would continue working. So as the children grew and became teenagers, they got involved. They helped bus tables and so on. A restaurant is sort of … it pulls you in; it’s an energy; you’re with people, it’s jovial.
Let’s talk cheese. What cheeses do you love and why? And what do you seek out when you travel?
In California, [Cypress Grove Chevre's] Humboldt Fog, a goat cheese with a streak of ash. I love it.
I love a great cheddar. A great cheddar in cooking is delightful; it’s wonderful.
If I go to Italy, I love my Grana Padano, which is granular, cow’s milk cheese. And then I love my gorgonzola, my soft blue cheese. Then, of course, there’s the fresh pulled cheeses, the burrata in Puglia, [Italy]. If I want a burrata, I go to Puglia or to the south of Rome, where they have the buffalo’s milk cheeses. I went to visit the buffaloes, and they’re the most wonderful animals, and, of course, they make delicious milk and cheese.