Lidia Bastianich Discusses Her New Cookbook, Family, and Restaurants

Lidia proudly shows her latest cookbook, 'Celebrate Like an Italian.'

Lidia proudly shows her latest cookbook, ‘Celebrate Like an Italian.’

Lidia Bastianich, noted chef, author, restaurateur, and Emmy-winning host of PBS’s “Lidia’s Kitchen,” was in town October 24 for a cookbook signing event and dinner at her Strip District restaurant Lidia’s Pittsburgh. The celebratory dinner highlighted the release of her latest book, Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian: 220 Foolproof Recipes That Make Every Meal a Party. It is Lidia’s 15th book and the seventh with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali.

I had an opportunity to sit down for an interview with Lidia early that afternoon. She greeted me warmly and gave me a personally signed copy of Celebrate Like an Italian. Lidia knows how to set a table for any occasion, even an interview. On the table were bottles of San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna waters. There was a glass for her and one for myself. Also on the table were slices of lemon and lime aesthetically arranged on a plate. I have been a longtime viewer of Lidia’s TV shows and have been a customer at Lidia’s Pittsburgh so it was of great interest to me to interview her. We spoke about her new cookbook and a range of other topics.

When asked what was the impetus for Celebrate Like an Italian she mentioned that people are always coming up to her and asking what they can make for certain cooking and entertaining situations so she decided to create a cookbook with a lot of the answers she has given. She has also included helpful hints on setting a table for various occasions and how to multiply recipes for larger gatherings.

Lidia said there are many different ways to entertain including a several-course meal, family-style service, and even an antipasto table where you don’t have to cook anything. The recipes in the book are for both parties and family meals.

One goal Lidia has for users of the book is helping people to create a dinner or party that is memorable without getting overwhelmed by it. She wants the host to be able to enjoy the event as well and not overwork and overstress. To achieve that Bastianich said “You don’t need to have a full bar at a party; have a few good Italian cocktail choices. Preparation is a key too. Braised meats can be done a day ahead and allow for easy setup. It’s also good to keep some chicken stock and several sauces in your freezer. Sponge cake will freeze well too. I want people to be able to improvise like a pro.”

Her daughter Tanya does a lot of the research and editing for the books. Then Lidia and her other team members test the recipes in her home’s kitchen because, as she said, “People don’t have a restaurant kitchen in their home.”

I asked Lidia what the hallmarks of a great Italian celebration are. She replied ”good food, a welcoming setting, socializing, wine, music, and espresso at the end. Cooking is nurturing; you want people to feel good.” So what would Lidia prepare for one of Pittsburgh’s most prevalent entertaining events, a Steelers tailgate party? Without hesitation Lidia named some delicious ideas: “baked pasta that you could put to the side of the grill, salads, grilled bruschetta, arancini, tomato balls, frittata, sausage and peppers sub with grilled bread.” She added “Pittsburgh is such a great sports town. When I’m in New York [City] I find myself rooting for the Pittsburgh teams.”

Lidia was born in Pola, Italy. As part of the post-World War II treaties Italy had to give Pola to communist Yugoslavia and it is now part of Croatia. When Lidia was eight she and her family fled to live with relatives in Trieste, Italy, eventually settling in Queens, New York. There she married and opened a small restaurant, Buonavia, with her husband Felice. As Lidia gained more cooking knowledge and skills they opened a second restaurant, Villa Secondo. The restaurant became very successful and Lidia began to win much acclaim and awards for her cooking. They would later sell their Queens restaurants and open a flagship Manhattan restaurant, Felidia (a combination of Felice and Lidia’s names), and then added Becco, Esca, and Del Posto to the New York City restaurant portfolio. In 1993 Julia Child brought Lidia onto the PBS program “Julia Child: Cooking With Master Chefs.” Her appearance on the show inspired Lidia to pursue further business expansion. This caused tensions between her and her husband. Lidia and Felice would part ways romantically and business-wise in 1998. 

A Family Affair

Family is such an important part of Lidia’s life—from her mother, Erminia Matticchio, to her two adult children, Tanya and Joseph—that I wondered what Lidia’s first memories of food and cooking with her family are. “My grandmother lived in a small village outside of our town and I remember helping her with preparing food, and she would have a little stool and table for me to sit at and help with whatever she was doing. There were goats and chickens there. We would do a cold harvest of olives and then press them to make olive oil. Each September we would harvest the grapes and make wine. We also made blood sausages and even milled our own wheat flour. I would help pluck the chickens too.” Lidia said this taught her early lessons about local, seasonal foods which she continues to apply to her cooking today. She added “Cooking can sometimes be a reminder of comfort foods of our youth. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.”

When Tanya and Joseph were growing up Lidia told them how tough the restaurant business is and suggested they find other vocations. After working jobs outside the family business they both found their way back. Tanya is partners with her mom in the Lidia’s restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City as well as several other enterprises. Erminia often assists Lidia in the televised cooking episodes. Joe is involved in the wine business and collaborates with the family on the Bastianich wine label and vineyard. He is a TV personality in his own right and sometimes appears on Lidia’s TV episodes, as does Tanya. Lidia is founder and president of Tavola Productions, an entertainment company that produces high-quality broadcast productions including her own TV shows.

The Success of Lidia’s Pittsburgh

With the opening of Lidia’s Pittsburgh in 2001 Lidia helped sow the early seeds of Pittsburgh’s current culinary scene. I asked her what she saw in Pittsburgh at the time that attracted her. She replied “My kids had been telling me that people outside of New York were eager for our food. We opened Lidia’s Kansas City, then were looking around at a few other medium-sized big cities. I really liked Pittsburgh and its rivers and bridges, and the economy here was starting to turn around.”

Restaurants open and close all the time so I asked Lidia what have been the keys to continuing success for Lidia’s Pittsburgh. She said “I think at Lidia’s we provide honest Italian food. We stay on top of things and continue to maintain our standards and research new possibilities. I visit the restaurant regularly as does Tanya. We know and have access to the best ingredients. At Lidia’s we mentor young chefs, taking them to our restaurants in New York and even taking them to Italy to experience the food and culture firsthand.” Lidia is especially proud of her executive chef at Lidia’s Pittsburgh, Daniel Walker, who grew up in Kansas, and like Lidia gained his first experience of cooking with his grandma. Chef Walker prepared a special four-course prix fixe dinner menu for the Celebrate Like an Italian cookbook signing event.

Regarding additional keys to success for her namesake Pittsburgh restaurant, Lidia said that freshness of the food is critical. She mentioned that their signature Lidia’s Pasta Tasting Trio changes according to the season and is freshly cooked, with a pan being brought out to patrons who can have as many servings of the pastas as they wish. Selections in the Trio include one prepared with freshly made pasta noodles, another created using dried pasta noodles, and the third a specialty pasta. Lidia also takes pride in the restaurant’s being moderately priced for the quality of the food and being family-friendly.

Lidia said her newest ventures will be expanding her investment in Eataly, an artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace. She owns several locations with her son Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Oscar Farinetti (who founded the concept in Turin, Italy). Currently in the Americas, there are Eataly locations in New York City, Chicago, São Paolo, and Boston. Two more are scheduled to open: Los Angeles this year and Toronto in 2018. Lidia will also be expanding her line of Lidia’s Pasta and Sauces which she said are organic and all natural.

With all her projects I asked her what she does for relaxation. Lidia smiled and said she loves nature, classical music, and traveling. She also enjoys sailing, mainly out of Long Island, but has sailed the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas.

I enjoyed interviewing Lidia, finding it very informative. Later that afternoon I returned for a media huddle with Lidia in the bar seating area of Lidia’s Pittsburgh. As Lidia spoke informally with the members of the media, servers passed around food made with recipes from Celebrate Like an Italian. Offerings included: Italian deviled eggs with diced red bell pepper and zucchini in the creamy egg mixture, arancini di riso con salsicce (rice balls stuffed with sausage ragu), and a cheese crisp appetizer. All of them were delizioso.

A Young Fan

While we were all sitting and talking, people started to arrive and mill around the media huddle. A young girl and her mother were watching Lidia talk. The girl, Grace, who looked as adorable and nice as Cindy Lou Who, was totally enthralled with watching Lidia speak. Lidia noticed the girl and asked her to come over. Her mother Natalie Kupinski and Grace are big fans of Lidia and had driven in from Cleveland for the cookbook signing dinner. Natalie told Lidia that Grace had a present for her, and Grace handed Lidia a pretty plastic gift bag filled with candy. Lidia who was clearly touched thanked Grace and told her it was so nice she was going to save it for Christmas. Lidia then said I want to give you a gift now and quickly retrieved one of the children’s books she had written from the shelf behind the front host stand of the restaurant, then signed it to Grace and handed it to her. Grace was mesmerized and very happy with the close encounter with the woman she enjoys watching cook on TV. It was truly a magical moment.

Grace from Cleveland looks in awe at Lidia while Lidia signs a children's book for her and talks with her mom Natalie Kupinski.

Grace from Cleveland looks in awe at Lidia while Lidia signs a children’s book for her and talks with her mom Natalie Kupinski.

Celebrate Like an Italian is published by Knopf and printed in the United States. It runs 416 pages with recipes, full color photos, helpful hints, and stories. Signed copies are available for sale at Lidia’s Pittsburgh. The book is also available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and through Lidia Bastianich’s website.

Lidia kindly offered to share a recipe with Entertainment Central visitors from Celebrate Like an Italian. We gladly accepted. Please find below her recipe for wedding soup:

WEDDING SOUP

Zuppa Maritata

I am still not 100 percent certain how this soup got its name, but I’ve narrowed the possibilities
down to two passed-down explanations. One is that there is a marriage between
all the vegetables and the meatballs. The other is that nutritional reinforcements are needed
by the bride and groom, hence the addition of meat to a vegetable soup that is served at the
meal before the wedding night. The latter might have more credence, since an alternative
name for this soup in Italian is zuppa di rinforzamento. In any case, this festive vegetable
soup with little meatblls can be a whole meal by itself. It also works very well as a holiday
antipasto course, to be followed by a roast. As with a wedding, it takes a lot of preparation
to get this recipe together, but it can be done a day or two in advance and reheated when
your guests come. When you reheat the soup, always bring it back to a boil, to give it that
just-cooked flavor. (Lidia Bastianich)

Serves 10 to 12

SOUP
2 pounds veal bones
2 pounds bone-in beef short ribs
2 pounds chicken wings, backs, or necks, or a
combination
2 medium leeks, white and light-green parts, cut
into 2-inch chunks
1 pound carrots, trimmed but left whole
4 stalks celery, halved crosswise
2 medium onions, halved
1 piece rind from a wedge of Grana Padano left
from grating
½ tablespoon black peppercorns
½ bunch fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 large bunch spinach, stemmed and coarsely
chopped (about 10 cups loosely packed leaves)
1 cup orzo or other small pasta (optional)

MEATBALLS
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the cooking
water
1 pound ground turkey
8 ounces ground pork
1 cup fine dried bread crumbs
½ cup grated Grana Padano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 large egg, beaten
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Grated Grana Padano, for serving

For the soup, in a large Dutch oven or soup pot, combine
the veal bones, short ribs, chicken parts, leeks,
carrots, celery, onions, cheese rind, peppercorns,
parsley, tomato paste, salt, and 6 quarts water. Cover,
heat, and simmer for 2 hours, occasionally skimming
and discarding the scum and foam that rise to the
surface. Uncover, and simmer until reduced by about
half, about 1 hour more.

Drain the solids, and return the broth to a cleaned
pot. Shred any meat from the short ribs and chicken
parts, discarding the fat and bone, and reserve. Cut
the carrots into ½-inch pieces, and reserve.
For the meatballs, bring a large pot of salted water
to boil. In a large bowl, combine the turkey, pork,
bread crumbs, grated cheese, parsley, egg, and salt.
Mix well with your hands. Roll into 1-inch meatballs,
and add to the boiling water. Simmer for 5 minutes,
then transfer with a spider or slotted spoon to the
stock.

Return the soup to a simmer. Add the reserved
shredded meats, the reserved carrots, and the spinach.
Simmer until the spinach is tender, about 10 to
15 minutes, adding the orzo in the last 7 or 8 minutes
if desired. Serve in soup bowls with a drizzle of
olive oil and a sprinkle of grated cheese.

Lidia’s Pittsburgh
1400 Smallman St.
Strip District
(412) 552-0150

Hours

Lunch
Monday – Friday: 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Dinner
Monday – Thursday: 5 – 9 p.m.
Friday: 5 – 10 p.m
Saturday: 4:30 – 10 p.m.
Sunday: 4:30 – 9 p.m.

Brunch
Saturday & Sunday: 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Story and the non cookbook-related photos by Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central.