Lidia Bastianich, the matriarch of both Italian-American cooking and a wildly successful foodie family, spoke with IgoUgo about where to find her favorite Italy. Like her favorite foods, it all depends on the season.
IgoUgo: In your restaurants, TV shows, and cookbooks like Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, you’re known for your adaptation of classic Italian dishes for the American cook. Are there differences between the way an Italian cooks and the way an American cooks?
Lidia Bastianich: There definitely are. I think what I should first address is Italian-American cuisine versus traditional Italian cuisine. Even though sometimes they’re thought to be the same, they’re really two different things. The Italian traditional cuisine—the cuisine that is cooked in Italy and that Italians eat—is ever more present in the States and it is the true Italian cuisine representing the Italian culture. On the other hand, the Italian-American cuisine is a cuisine of adaptation where the Italian immigrants, when they first came, especially in the late 1800s, cooked with the ingredients that they found, so they adapted the traditional cuisine.
What makes a cuisine authentic or traditional? Basically you need the traditional ingredients and you need the technique. So these early immigrants had the technique but they didn’t have the ingredients, and a different cuisine came out. So, when I cook, do I try to adapt? No, I try to cook as traditionally as possible with the real elements that I have, with the products that I have. If I do not have a ripe San Marzano tomato at it’s best, my sauce will become a little different than what one would have in Italy. But that sort of traditional cooking is coming ever closer because we are able now to get most of the traditional ingredients.
IgoUgo: If you could import any Italian product that is not available in the US, though, what would it be?
Lidia Bastianich: Well, as I said, a lot of it is coming—some of it is not. And basically the problem is with a lot of the vegetables; now, coming into spring, the primizia. Primizia is the “primi of”—the first of the season. So, the wild asparagus—the thin, wild asparagus that is gathered there. The beautiful sclopit, which is a grass. It grows here in the States but there is no culture of collecting it. But with the sclopit in Friuli now, there are wonderful risottos, stuffed pasta.
Also, some of the meats: the traditional cullatello, which is a cured meat, somewhat like prosciutto, but is not imported yet. So these unique products that are not imported yet that are available in Italy now, I would run for those.
IgoUgo: You own a travel company now; if travelers are looking to cook with some of the ingredients you mentioned, can they do this through your company?
Lidia Bastianich: They can. Esperienze Italiane is run by my daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, and Shelly Burgess. My daughter has a PhD in Renaissance art history from Oxford. Shelley has a Masters from Syracuse on, specifically, the de’ Medici family. So this started when these young ladies were in Italy getting their degrees, and they combined their knowledge of the art in Italy with my food and began this little company. The company now basically caters to special interest groups; that is, if there’s a group of about 14 or more, they come to us and we can really, really customize and bring them to their interests in Italy or recommend things to them.
We incorporate food and the production of food: meeting cheesemakers, going to markets, ultimately using these products in a cooking class and meeting with local chefs to see how the traditional macaroni la chitarra is made, how the traditional carbonara is made, and at the same time, enjoying it and tasting it with the chefs cooking.
And we explore the art, because to understand a culture, it’s not just the scenery. You need to eat its food; travel through its topography, through its gardens, to see what grows; talk to the farmers, the artisans, that make this food; see the art and understand what drove these great artists to make these masterpieces. Music. And just socialize with people in markets, in cafés, in restaurants. This is how you get to know a culture, and a country.
IgoUgo: One of the things that seems to surprise visitors to Italy is how much the cuisine there differs from one region to another. It’s so much more varied than the more narrow definition of Italian food elsewhere in the world.
Lidia Bastianich: Italy is no bigger than California, and it has 21 regions. And the uniqueness of each region is amazing. It’s like a mosaic of vibrant colors, and each one has a different hue. And it is quite evident if you travel to these regions, even when you just cross over the border, in how they cook, in their folklore, in the different occupations that passed through. I mean, the architecture is so reflective of who dominated, where, when, and how long. So to travel and to understand Italy, and the uniqueness of its regions, is a magnificent way to really understand what Italy’s all about.
IgoUgo: You’re from the Istria region; do you go back there often?
Lidia Bastianich: I go there often. You know, I have always traveled. Of course, I was born in Italy, but when my children were small, every vacation was going back to Italy. But not only one place to see family; up and down, to do research. I wanted to know more so that I could transport it here in my restaurants, in my books, on the website, on the shows. And my children always came along.
Istria is my grandmother’s home, and her home is still there, the home that I grew up in as a child. We redid the house very simply as it was, and I go there regularly: to feed my soul, to feed myself. I love sailing, so I sail the Dalmation Coast every single summer. It is just beautiful. So, you know, I can’t get enough of Italy. And one would say, “Lidia, you’re 60+, you were born there, you go there every year, haven’t you seen it all?” Let me tell you that every single trip I discover and discover and rediscover.
IgoUgo: Now that your children are grown, do you still travel with your family?
Lidia Bastianich: Yes! There’s something about an Italian family. As you can see, we’re in business together, and we absolutely vacation together. We also have a winery and a home in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which is the region that we originally came from and is in Italy—Istria is no longer in Italy. So we go to the Bastianich Winery, and the family of the children come regularly. I make sure that I join them; the children—my grandchildren—stay there up to two months so that they can reabsorb the Italian culture, and we are there together for at least two or three weeks every year. I meet them, even if they’re traveling throughout Italy. I join them. And together we savor the land.
IgoUgo: Can any traveler visit the Bastianich Winery?
Lidia Bastianich: Yes, yes, absolutely!
IgoUgo: On Lidia’s Italy, you talk about your love of sauerkraut. Is this is a dish from your childhood, and how does food from the Istria region fit into Italian cooking?
Lidia Bastianich: It is, it is. You know, Istria is now in Croatia, and that region borders Slovenia to the east and Austria to the north. Also, that area was very much under the Austrian-Hungarian influence and Mitteleurope. So sauerkraut, pickled turnips, apple strudel, are all very much part of that culture. And what is so interesting in traveling is that, through food, you can trace the history and the different occupations. What influence these people had! The languages—most people there speak two or three languages, and I happen to speak five languages.
For a traveler, the splendid, big cities are certainly the first stop. But to really understand is to go deeper into the culture and really relate and see how wonderful Italy is, and how diverse. And how, looking at the buildings, you can see, “oh, this looks Venetian, this looks Hapsburg, Austrian-Hungarian.” And in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trieste, Cividale, and all of those cities, you can see the different architecture going through time for you—as well as the food.
IgoUgo: What are those five languages you speak?
Lidia Bastianich: Italian, Croatian, English, Spanish, and French. And German a little bit on the side too.
IgoUgo: How big a role does food play in your travels?
Lidia Bastianich: In my travels, food is the entrée to any culture, even outside of Italy. I want to eat the food, I want to see the markets, and that will tell me a lot. If I was just plopped somewhere, and you brought me to the market, and I saw the products, I could tell a little bit about the topography, I could tell about the climate, and I could tell many things about this culture.
IgoUgo: What would you say is your favorite food destination?
Lidia Bastianich: You know, I don’t have one, per se! Seasons exalt certain regions better than others. So certainly if it were fall, I’m going to be in Chiomonte. I love Friuli for winter cooking—the polenta!—and spring cooking. I love the foraging and the primizia that come out in Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the spring. If I want some pasta I’m going to go to Abruzzi for the really gutsy pasta. If I feel like having certain vegetables and seafood, I’m going to go down to Puglia, which is the heel of Italy. I like eggplants, tomatoes, all of that—that’s Sicily in summer.
And with Lidia’s Italy, that’s exactly what I’m trying to capture and bring to people; the 10 chapters of the book have 10 different regions and my favorite places in those regions for food, for beauty, and for art (because I go into that with my daughter Tanya). So that when you watch the television show, I go on-site and I bring those regions alive for viewers. I can’t tell you how many emails I get from people saying they’re going to Italy and they’re going to follow the book. So it’s become somewhat of a guidebook!
IgoUgo: We watch you cook on your public television shows all the time. But years ago, you cooked on Julia Child’s TV show. How do you decide what to cook for Julia Child?
Lidia Bastianich: It was one of my first big appearances on television, which actually maybe opened the door for me to be on public television. The menu had a lot to do with Julia, and it reflected her inquisitiveness: she wanted to know how to make the right risotto, the “real way” risotto. And at that time, broccoli di rape was just sort of coming in—the food from Puglia, these bitter vegetables—and she wanted to know how to handle that and how to make a good plate of pasta, like orecchiette. So the recipes that I did with Julia were determined on that basis.
IgoUgo: Have you had opportunities to cook with many other chefs along the way?
Lidia Bastianich: Oh my goodness, absolutely. Because you always have to continue to learn and exchange information with other chefs that are passionate. And I’m always very willing to give and inevitably you always receive something when you’re sharing information. So it is absolutely essential that I connect with my peers. And specifically in Italy; what are they doing? Where is Italy going now? Because they are leading. You know, food evolves; it’s not stagnant. So I want to know what the chefs in Italy are doing. I also go to conventions there. I get asked and I give them my American point of view of Italian food, but I bring a lot back.
IgoUgo: Do you often get to eat at your own restaurants and at the restaurants of your son, Joseph Bastianich?
Lidia Bastianich: I do. I enjoy going out and eating, again for the same reason. If there’s a new restaurant or a new chef, I want to pay them my respects, wish them well, and, of course, taste what they come up with, what’s next on the menu, what innovations they’re up to!
I eat in my restaurants because I want to taste, as a guest, how everything is coming out and then ultimately meet with the chef and discuss other possibilities; how are we going to grow, how are we going to change, what seasons are coming, what are we doing next? So absolutely this continues—mentoring and meeting with the chefs that we have.
And I take them to Italy. I just came back from a trip with five chefs, which we do every year. I’m going back in April with the sommeliers because there’s a wine fair in Italy. So I’m going back with managers and sommeliers so they can learn about Italian wines, meet the producers, bring back the culture. It doesn’t happen out of thin air—I can’t invent an Italian culture. I need to go back, assimilate, and bring it back here.
IgoUgo: You just talked about going to new restaurants and seeing what’s next. What’s next for you?
Lidia Bastianich: Well, certainly Joseph, my son, is very much into wine and new restaurants, so I will be with him on whatever new projects he wants. Will I open another new restaurant myself? No. My daughter works with me, of course, on the travel, so we’re always working on new ideas and meeting people in Italy. We’re collaborating on a new book on the 11 regions that we haven’t touched in this book. And of course, a new television series with this coming book. And I am actually also working on a children’s animated Christmas special. I love to work with children; I think that at an early age is when people should really develop their eating consciousness and habits.
Photo courtesy of Tavola Productions