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Now That's Italian

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Up on the stage Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, just named America’s best chef by the James Beard Foundation, is giving her acceptance speech. Down in the audience, 6-month-old Ethan, her newest grandson, wakes up. “As I’m talking,” says Bastianich, “he let out a scream. To me, it was ‘Go, Grandma!'”

In the Bastianich clan, it seems, you’re never too young to get involved in the multimillion-dollar family business. Lidia, 55, certainly deserves to be the first woman in a decade to win the food world’s equivalent of an Oscar; she has five top restaurants and three cookbooks, including the latest, named for her own PBS show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen. But she is not exactly going it alone. Her three older grandchildren knead gnocchi and pasta in her home in Queens and appear on the TV show along with Lidia’s 81-year-old mom, Erminia. Her son Joseph, 33, co-owns four of her restaurants. And daughter Tanya, 30, is her partner in a company that runs food-and-art-focused tours of Italy.

And that’s just the current generations. The roots of Bastianich’s fascination with food go back to postwar Istria, a region of northeastern Italy that is now part of Croatia. There her maternal grandmother, Rosa, ran a small osteria, serving her own olive oil, wine and home-cured meats. “She worked so hard,” says Bastianich, who lived nearby with her father, Vittorio, a mechanic who died in 1981, and Erminia, a schoolteacher. “From the earth, my grandmother and grandfather made life, food that sustained us.”

It requires little insight to suggest that Bastianich’s longing to re-create her Edenic youth led to her eminence on the American food scene. “I was never one of those avant-garde chefs,” she says. “I’m all about tradition.”

Bastianich remembers stomping grapes with her brother Franco, now 57 and an IBM engineer who lives in East Fishkill, N.Y. “Us kids would jump into the barrel barefooted,” she says. “I was lucky to experience that.”

Unable to continue living in Istria—ceded by Italy to Communist-controlled Yugoslavia after “World War II—the family escaped when Lidia was 10. After two years in a refugee camp they made their way to Queens, where a cousin lived. There, as Vittorio worked for an auto dealership and Erminia did piecework in a garment factory, Lidia became the family cook. “She make dinner every night,” says Erminia in accented English. “I leave her $5, and she make everything.” Says Lidia: “I remember having a blast.”

After marriage to maître d’—and fellow Istrian exile—Felix Bastianich in 1966, Lidia went to work as a waitress, inevitably ending up in the kitchen and always moving on after a few months. “She wanted to learn,” says Erminia.

In 1971 Felix and Lidia were ready; they opened a restaurant in Queens. Serving traditional red-sauce Italian food, the restaurant, Buonavia, was an instant hit. Gradually Lidia introduced the venison dishes, the risottos and gnocchi of her northern childhood. For reluctant diners, she recalls, “I said, ‘Just taste it.'”

A second restaurant also did well, and in 1981 Felix and Lidia were able to move to Manhattan and open Felidia, its name a combination of theirs. With Lidia in the kitchen and “all the things we ate at home” on the menu, the restaurant quickly became a beacon for lovers of northern Italian cuisine. Since then she has added, in partnership with Joseph, two new Manhattan restaurants, Esca and Becco, as well as Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s Pittsburgh. “She cooks in a feminine, grandma way,” says renowned chef Mario Batali (a part owner of Esca). “She represents what Italian food is all about.” Bastianich also markets her own pasta sauces under the Lidia’s Flavors of Italy brand, and she has a new sauce line coming out for the Williams-Sonoma kitchen chain.

Bastianich visits Italy frequently. But when Felix, from whom she was divorced in 1998, wanted to move back permanently, she demurred. “I said, ‘You can’t uproot me like this,'” she says. Childhood, after all, isn’t a place to return to; it’s the memory of smells and tastes. Bastianich returns to those every day.

Mike Neill

Eve Heyn in New York City