To say that Lidia Bastianich has had an extraordinary life would be a bit obvious. But when you know her history and all that she has achieved, you’ll certainly forgive me for using an old cliché.
If you love food, you’ve certainly seen one of her PBS TV shows, Lidia’s Kitchen, Lidia’s Italy in America and Lidia’s Italy, for which she won two Emmys, or read one of her many cookbooks. But Bastianich is first and foremost a brilliant cook, a chef with an angel’s light touch. She started out running an acclaimed restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens, with her late husband Felice. And the Bastianiches, with the help of their children Joe and Tanya, were able build a veritable empire of establishments, including Felidia, Becco and Del Posto as well as Eataly, the Italian food mega market that is spreading across the country and into South America.
But her story begins across the world in Istria, which juts into the Adriatic. It used to be part of Italy but at the end of the Second World War the area was given to the newly communist Yugoslavia, as part of the carving up of Europe by the Soviet Union. “We remained there and times were tough. We were caught behind the Iron Curtain,” she remembers. “We couldn’t go to Catholic church and food was scarce.”
In 1956, her parents “decided we had to move back to freedom, and my mother, brother and I were allowed to be with family in Trieste on the other side of the border.” A couple of years later, they all came to America.
Bastianich is not just an immigrant, she’s a refugee. “We lived two years in a refugee camp waiting for the opportunity to go somewhere. Eisenhower was the president who gave us the visa to come to the U.S. I came here when I was 11. The opportunities America gave us, my education, for growth, for my family, are extraordinary. You know, when you don’t have anything, and you are given an opportunity, you don’t let that opportunity slide by.”
More than most, she understands the fragility and often desperation of the immigrant’s life. When I asked her what she thought of the current, dark anti-immigration sentiment festering in this country she said: “I can’t understand it, because America is a patchwork of different cultures. I don’t see this panic, of being afraid, because America is made out of immigrants.”
So it comes as no surprise that she loves to experience different cultures and cuisines. These are her five favorite meals.
In 1958, I was a young 11-year-old immigrant coming to America. Before our departure, I was blessed during a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; it’s hard to believe that was about 60 years ago. I came to America thanks to the Catholic Relief Services who provided my family a safe passage here and helped us settle. As a young Italian female chef, I never dreamed that I would eventually cook for the Pope, especially, two of them. My first experience was with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 during his trip to New York. Several years later, I had the honor to cook for Pope Francis when he visited New York.
My first meal with Pope Benedict XVI occurred in April, and the menu reflected all the blessings of spring. He enjoyed string bean salad with sheep’s milk ricotta, pickled shallots and toasted almonds; Felidia’s famous cacio e pepe ravioli with pecorino, Grana Padano and fresh grated pears; risotto with nettles, fava beans and ramps; whole roasted striped bass with boiled fingerling potatoes; and a frisée salad. For dessert, I tried to bring him back to his homeland with an apple strudel with honey ice cream and intact honeycomb. I had the opportunity to cook and taste in the residence kitchen with my teams of chefs from Felidia, Becco and Del Posto. Years later, I prepared a beautiful meal for Pope Francis who visited in September. We wanted him to taste the American early fall bounty, so we served heirloom tomato, house-made burrata, butter poached Main lobster; capon soup with Grana Padano raviolini; veal medallions “boscaiola,” wild seasonal mushrooms, corn and butternut squash; and Concord grape sorbetto with angel food cake. Both of these meals were at the top of my list; I can’t choose a favorite!
We sang, we danced and we ate risotto. One of my most treasured moments with Julia Child was when she came over to my house for dinner. It was not long after I opened Felidia, and she came over for dinner after I had appeared on her Public Television series, Cooking with Master Chefs. She wanted to learn how to make the perfect risotto, and that is exactly what we did. My entire family was present on that memorable Sunday. I fondly remember Julia swaying back and forth in time to the sounds of the accordion while humming along. That day, Julia was Italian and a part of our family. I loved every delicious moment of it. The menu included prosciutto and figs, orecchiette with broccoli di rape and sausages, mixed wild mushroom risotto, roasted veal shank “stinco” with rosemary, roasted potatoes and radicchio salad, and a nougat semifreddo.
It was 2014, and the Napa Valley Festival del Sole paid tribute to Sofia Loren for her 80th birthday. I periodically attend and cook at the festival, which celebrates music, arts, fine wine and food. During that visit, Sofia stayed at Villa Mille Rose, the home of my dear friend Maria Manetti Shrem. Maria knew of my admiration for Sofia and invited me to lunch the day after the festival. What a glorious day it was, and, of course, I had to cook for my idol! We were eight people for lunch. I went to Maria’s garden to collect the vegetables and pick the peaches from her orchard. It was a simple, seasonal and delicious Italian meal—which is just how Sofia likes it. The menu included Lobster Caprese (steamed lobster with heirloom tomatoes), buffalo mozzarella (with crumbled boil eggs, basil, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt), risotto with seasonal vegetables (onions, scallions, leeks, fresh peas, fresh favas, asparagus, shreds of Swiss chard and Grana Padano), and “Zuppa di Pesche” (peaches, blueberries and mint, marinated in Prosecco and fresh orange juice).
Akelarre is a hotel and restaurant located ten minutes from San Sebastian, Spain. I went there with a friend following a business trip to Italy. We were traveling to the area to taste the delicious and diverse array of tapas, pintxos, and other treats from the Basque region, which is so well-known for its cuisine. While there, we had to also try a few of the multitude of Michelin-starred restaurants in the area. One of those restaurants was Akelarre, led by Chef Pedro Subijana and his team. The restaurant is located in the magnificent Akelarre Hotel, which is perched on the coastal cliffs of Biscay Bay. My friend and I were seated at a table overlooking the Bay, and this unique setting only added to the amazing culinary experience.
There are three menus to choose from at Akelarre, and we decided to go with the “Akelarre Classics”—a selection of the most representative dishes of the restaurant’s cuisine throughout the years. Each course had a strong personality but a gentle execution; there was just enough innovation to not create confusion while staying true to the flavors of the Basque country. Our menu that day included garden vegetables and lobster salad; tubers in herbal infusion; pasta, piquillo peppers, Ibérico ham carpaccio with mushrooms and parmesan; snails and periwinkles rice in a tomato and basil film; pan seared foie gras with “salt flakes and pepper grains”; Integral red mullet with “fusilli” sauce; pigeon foyale with “morokil” (polenta); gin & tonic on a plate; and “xaxu” with foamy coconut ice cream. As an Italian chef, I tend to hesitate at non-Italian presentations of pasta, but the piquillo pepper pasta was particularly interesting and extraordinary in taste.
When we finished, Chef Pedro invited us into the kitchen, and we were so thrilled to see him and his young team as they continued to execute these delicious dishes. They exhibited attention to both tradition and innovation and executed each of their dishes with passion and respect.
I love family vacations. I also offer vacations to my grandchildren when they reach a milestone in their life—whether it’s a big birthday, a graduation or other special occasion. My grandson Miles loves fishing and for his high school graduation present it was time to take him on a fishing adventure, and we both chose Alaska! As luck would have it, I had recently spent some time in Seattle working on a fundraising project and found great information on fishing expeditions to Alaska. We stayed at the Glacier Bear Lodge in remote Yakutat, a tiny coastal village more than a thousand miles southeast of Anchorage. We did sea fishing in the Pacific during the month of June, and the halibut was running. During our open-water adventure, Miles hooked a 40-pound halibut that gave him a long, hard and exciting fight. After about a half-hour of fighting, the fish showed no sign of giving up, but with a little help from the captain, Miles won the battle and brought the fish to the lodge. The lodge was manned by old, experienced fishermen with long gray beards, clad in chest waders, and as soon as we returned with our catch they cleaned the fish and got it ready for dinner. What we did not eat they froze in portions and shipped back home for our return.
Cooking was simple at the lodge; we ate steak or hamburger or the fish caught that day. That night it was the halibut. One of the fishermen was behind the range and it was a slab of our halibut fisherman style, seasoned with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of paprika. Then, he slapped it onto a cast iron sizzle platter and topped it with a mound of butter that looked like the peak of the Denali mountain covered with snow. He sprinkled some breadcrumbs to top it all off towards the end. I squeezed some lemon on top and forked the slab. The halibut was buttery, briny, salty, and crispy all at the same time. Miles and I looked at each other and did not say a word; we just kept on digging in.
There were no fresh vegetables available, so we made do with frozen green beans. There was also no chilled white wine available, so I had a bottle of beer. It was one of the best fish meals I have ever had. I ask myself, what made this one of my top dinners? Perhaps it was the setting, the moment, the fish that Miles caught, the brininess of the halibut, the adventure, or just the fact that I was with my grandson in this beautiful setting. Actually, I think it was a little bit of everything that made this dinner unforgettable. I never had a better piece of fish or a better story to tell.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.