Lidia Matticchio Bastianich has a lot of leaves in her table. Best known as a celebrity chef on public television, Lidia is also a restaurateur, cookbook author, magazine editor, vintner, and food manufacturer, among other lines of business.
“I feel like an octopus. I am reaching out in all these directions but it’s wonderful because there is nothing more rewarding than when people enjoy what you give them,” she says of her many enterprises.
Despite the seeming complexity of Lidia’s businesses, each is simply an extension of herself: another leaf in a table laden with good food and wine and surrounded by family.
Her newest restaurant, Del Posto (“From the place”) is already one of the hottest food tickets in New York City. Lidia co-owns Del Posto, and other restaurants and vineyards, with her son Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali. Located on 10th Avenue at 16th street (near Chelsea Market), the menu at Del Posto elevates provincial Italian fare to a fine dining experience.
Del Posto offers Tuscan-influenced dishes from rustic to elegant (with a menu created by Lidia and Mario, along with Executive Chef Mark Ladner). Popular choices include mozzarella in carozza, pumpkin risotto, cauliflower formato, chestnut ravioli with pigeon, and calves liver in a white wine reduction. For dessert, don’t miss the cranberry and apple strudel.
Just as notable as the cuisine, Del Posto is among the most opulent public places in town. Decked in marble, tile, and mahogany, the restaurant is often compared to an upscale hotel in its architecture and interior design, featuring a grand staircase. “It’s a big, a magnificent-looking place,” Lidia says proudly, stressing that appearances matter to a restaurant’s success. “Three elements make a restaurant: aesthetics, service, and food. The more you have of each one of the categories, the better you are.” She adds, “It’s my home, the restaurant. I tell all my workers that (customers) go out of their way to be with us and we have a very special job. The guest has to feel genuinely welcomed, like a star to be nourished, pampered.”
The Big Apple Strudel
Del Posto has three stars (not counting the pampered guest, that is). It’s just one of six restaurants that Lidia owns or co-owns including Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s Pittsburgh, as well as three others in Manhattan.
Felidia Ristorante, an acclaimed East Side eatery, opened in 1981. Chef Fortunato Nicotra, a pasta master, serves up innovative and traditional Italian dishes. Also a New York Times three-star spot, Felidia has been anointed one of New York City’s most popular Italian restaurants by Zagat Survey. Signature dishes include pear and fresh pecorino-filled ravioli, and pan-roasted veal tenderloin with Parmigiano vacche rosse fonduta (cheese fondue) served with asparagus and carrot puree.
For Lidia, the key to coming up with a variety of delectable dishes from all regions of Italy is to choose the freshest seasonal ingredients and let the chefs tap their own specialties and flair. “We bring in a talented chef and look at what they do best. What are they committed about? You take that and you build a restaurant combining my philosophy and their capabilities and then it’s a success. Each restaurant has its own personality within the context of the seasons and Italian cuisine.”
Ecsa, on West 43rd Street, specializes in Southern Italian coastal cooking. The restaurant reflects Lidia’s penchant for combining just a few of the freshest ingredients but using impeccable technique. Esca also reflects Batali’s creativity and the seafood expertise of chef David Pasternack. “David is a fisherman and he’d much rather be fishing than cooking,” Lidia says.
“He just delights in searching out and finding his passion and the customer benefits.” The menu at Esca of course varies with the catch of the day but includes a crudo tasting (raw fish appetizers, a sort of Italian sushi). Another hit is the Mediterranean Branzino cooked in sea salt.
Just a few blocks from Ecsa is Becco on Restaurant Row (West 46th Street) for a classic menu of Italian regional specialties like ossobuco (braised veal shank) served with butternut squash, or lombatina di maiale piccata (pork loin scallopini with salted capers and broccoli rabe).
“If you go to Felidia and Becco both are very true to the Italian form of cooking,” Lidia explains. “The food is genuine and cooked in a very homey fashion and yet it takes an elegant presentation. The food should transmit warmth and be welcoming, hugging and caressing. It’s about harmony and representing centuries of development of this culinary culture . that’s what our business is.”
Made in Italy
It seems Lidia won’t be content until she imports all things beautiful from Italy to the United States.
“I always travel to do research continuously; I feel I am the conduit of new information from Italy to America as far as food,” she says of a limitless resource of ideas for dishes and menus.
If there were one word to describe Lidia it would be unpretentious. “I am a fairly average individual,” she says incredibly. But perhaps her attitude stems from her modest background.
Lidia was born in Istria, a peninsula on the Adriatic that is now part of Croatia. (This lends an intriguing Eastern European accent to some of her cooking, like that strudel featured in her restaurants and on a TV cooking segment in which she assures viewers that they can readily patch any holes in the paper-thin dough). She was raised near Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the Northeastern-most region of Italy, now known for polenta. Her family moved to the U.S. through the help of Catholic Charities in 1958 when she was 12. Her first restaurant was a 30-seat “candy store operation” opened in 1971 in the New York suburbs. Today, she lives on Long Island, N.Y. where four generations of the family gather for meals.
When television viewers invite Lidia into their homes, she invites them into hers. Her own bright, warm kitchen serves as the location of her public television series Lidia’s Family Table. Of course, she owns the television production company, Tavola (table) Productions. Lidia’s show, as well as her books, bring professional techniques to home cooking. But don’t worry, risotto is a labor of love, not a science experiment. She cooks in large quantities to send leftovers home with the kids or to freeze as a basis for future great meals from stocks, soups and sauces. Before savoring a huge mouthful of each recipe she prepares on camera, Lidia often adds a stream of fresh olive oil to give the dish a “smile.”
Her half-hour demonstration cooking show also features Lidia’s mother, brother, two children, spouses, and grandchildren who all get into the act to enjoy cooking and eating with Noni.
“My attitude is all about family, the strength, the roots and security that family give,” she says. In her programs and books she somehow makes great Italian cooking seem within anyone’s reach. Never mind that she was voted best chef in New York City in 1999, and awarded the prestigious Outstanding Chef honor in 2002 from the James Beard Foundation to go with Wine Spectator’s Grand Award in 2000 and 2001. In addition to some elaborate dishes, she throws together exceptional pasta sauces from things found in the cupboard, and reassures us that canned tomatoes (from San Marzano near Naples) can make the best sauce. You don’t have to prepare fresh pasta, but she makes it seem simple to do. Along the way you meet her loving family, including grandchildren “helping” to make gnocchi, or Lidia’s mother, Erminia Matticchio, who prefers her chicken liver well done.
To cook your way through the Lidia experience, get the companion book to the TV series, Lidia’s Family Table. The prolific author and editor’s prior best-sellers are La Cucina Di Lidia, Lidia’s Italian Table, and Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.
In addition to being one of America’s great chefs, Lidia is clearly a great business person. She grasps the keys to business success as firmly as any CEO. “I always knew what I know and what I don’t know. And I always searched for people that excel in what I don’t know. I find myself with them – they’re on my side, I learn from them and I listen to them.”
Her businesses are closely tied to her family including the restaurants and vineyards with Joseph, and a full-service travel agency, Esperienze Italiane, run by her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali.
Lidia’s latest project combines many talents and passions. She is traveling through Italy with her daughter to record and produce a new television series and cookbook, Lidia’s Italy to debut in 2007. “We are going together to 10 special places in Italy that are off the beaten path and I am going to share the recipes, foods and products of that area. Tanya is also an art historian so the program will encompass several cultural areas. “When I travel it is not only about food, it’s about art and discovering the place itself.”
Lidia’s Italy is also the name of a brand new quarterly magazine. And, as though that weren’t enough on her plate, she’s going to be on National Public Radio next year in a program that will explore the many facets of this Renaissance woman.
Vino Vidi Vici
Of course, you can’t enjoy an Italian meal without great wine. Lidia’s restaurants offer an extraordinary selection; for example Del Posto has wines from dozens of regions of Italy and wine racks are part of the d‚cor at Felidia.
“I need all the elements in my restaurant so the customer can have the experience that he chooses,” she says. “I need an extensive wine list with the proper personnel to explain, to help along with the wines. I also need to have an extensive collection of rums, grappas, ports or whatever they may fancy. I do the research so the customer comes in and selects a feast.”
The Bastianich family has two vineyards, one for the white and one for the red. “About seven years ago we bought a little winery (Bastianich Winery) in Friuli which is the great whites of Italy,” she says of the region. The reds excel in Tuscany, where the family has its other winery.
The flagship white wine is Vespa (wasp), a fairly light-bodied and fruity blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Picolit. For the last four years, Bastianich Vespa Bianco has earned the highest rating, Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) from Gambero Rosso, publishers of the renowned Italian wine rating system.
“We are `food’ people so our wine is beautiful with food,” Lidia says, noting Joseph Bastianich’s role as vintner working with locals to combine varietals grapes.
The other winery is in Maremma, Tuscany near the sea and makes popular and inexpensive table wines as well as rare bottles including a Tocai harvested from older vines. Its Casciano, named for a local town, is an inexpensive, very fruity and light wine, which Lidia calls “the new Chianti.”
“We are cultivating the pleasure of the table, which includes wine. People are getting more into wine and will first try wines that are less demanding of the palette and the pocket. If they have a good experience, then they progress,” she observes. “We are taking that into consideration by building, price-wise, a stepladder. Many of these wines can be bought for 15 to 17 dollars a bottle but they are delicious wines, priced correctly.”
Yet another leaf in the table is Lidia’s Flavors of Italy Gourmet Pasta Sauces, available at fine grocers across the U.S. The sauces are produced in New Jersey under Lidia’s watchful eye (no sugars whatsoever!). Her focus on cooking technique, here again, informs sauce production, bringing her proficiency as a chef to a mass scale. In fact, she redesigned the process of making her sauces by changing the timing of the addition of herbs and fresh ingredients to maximize flavor.
“I never cooked in those volumes so I studied the kettles and how they cook with steam and at what temperature and how to retain the maximum freshness of the oil and of the herbs,” she says, noting that some ingredients are added before the initial heating point while others are added nearer to sterilization.
Producing fresh-tasting prepared sauces is in keeping with market trends that Lidia is well aware of. “People are cooking. Everything has been facilitated for them. They will go to the market and have everything cleaned and ready to go, put it in a pan and make a sauce at home. They want to feel like they’re cooking but they need the jump start.”
In addition to recipes, her Web site www.lidiasitaly.com also features balsamic vinegars, extra virgin olive oils, and other products including kitchenware and Italian ceramics. A collaboration with Cuisinartr will bring a line of Lidia cooking kits, with pots, pans and utensils packaged for making specialties like polenta and risotto, but also designed for everyday use. Lidia also has a collection of glassware in the works with Waterfordr.
“I know that my passion is food and that’s where I excel,” she says, comparing food to a multimedia art appealing to all the senses. “What is food? It’s the taste, the visual, olfactory, even the tactile and auditory.”
It’s easy to see how her food empire is fast becoming a media empire. The two are one for Lidia. “The base of who I am is communicating through food. It’s a gratifying art almost like going to the theater. Food is my medium and this is a palette for me. I express my emotions through food. But it’s also a medium to nourish and share anything that’s connected to food. That’s why I’ve extended into many areas.”
As she often says at the end of her TV cooking shows, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare.” (Everyone to the table to eat!) Please pass the octopus.