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Out Late with Lidia Bastianich

Everyone’s favorite Italian chef welcomes OPERA NEWS to a post-show meal at her restaurant Felidia.
by F. Paul Driscoll. 

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Bastianich and editor in chief F. Paul Driscoll at Felidia
© Dario Acosta
“You need to feed your soul to do your work.”
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Lidia’s Latest

Double Bar 250

Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook
By Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali

Double Bar 250

243 East 58 Street

355 West 46 Street

85 Tenth Avenue

402 West 43 Street

(an Italian marketplace)
200 Fifth Avenue 

IT'S JUST PAST 11 11 P.M. on a Wednesday night in October, and Lidia Bastianich and I are drinking Vespa Bianco at a corner table in Felidia, the restaurant that is the “epicenter,” as Bastianich calls it, of her activities as the best-loved Italian chef in North America. A regular presence on public-television cooking shows since 1998, Bastianich is the chef/owner of four restaurants in New York, as well as restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, the founder of a line of Italian food products and the broadcast production company Tavola and the author of more than a dozen books. Her latest cookbook, Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, was published in October; her new television special, Lidia Celebrates America: Home for the Holidays,aired on PBS in December.

Bastianich is just as warm, welcoming and unaffected in person as she is on television. She makes me feel as if I were a guest in her home, rather than her restaurant. After a few brief, pointed questions about food preferences, she orders us a perfectly calibrated meal that features a sequence of delicious small portions of tuna, Bartlett pear, pecorino and mascarpone ravioli (“I made this for the Pope last month,” she says offhandedly), tagliatelle bolognese and spigola (striped bass), followed by burrata cheesecake. “Make it nice,” she teases the waiter. “We are hungry.”

Felidia’s “Before and After” menu, designed for post-show dining, suits the occasion well. Tonight Bastianich has visited one of her “favorite places in New York,” the Metropolitan Opera, to see Il Trovatore, starring one of her favorite singers, Anna Netrebko. “I loved the performance. Anna was extraordinary, of course. But so was the tenor [Yonghoon Lee] and everybody else. Anna I saw for the first time in St. Petersburg. She is so human on the stage. So open. She includes the audience in her space, and people eat it up. But she has worked hard. I was listening, and the Italian diction was right on. Some singers can make you feel tense, but Anna is like the usignolo, the bird that serenades so easily and so freely. Amazing.” 

Bastianich is a great opera fan. “You need to feed your soul, your energy, to do your work. And for me, music does that—specifically, classical music inspires me. Opera, of course, but symphonies as well.” Bastianich is a native of the Croatian city of Pula at the tip of the Istrian peninsula, a region that was part of Italy when she was born, but which became part of Yugoslavia before her first birthday. Some of her earliest childhood memories are centered on music. “In my grandmother’s town—a little town right outside of Pula—there was one road. And there were about ten houses on one side, ten houses on the other side. And Sunday, they synchronized the two radios in the town to the same station, and you could hear them in the street, and the whole town was stereophonic! They played all the contemporary Italian singers—Claudio Villa, who was a big star then—but opera arias as well.”

Bastianich’s family moved to the U.S. when she was twelve, and she made her first visit to the Met a few years later, to hear Aida with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli, an experience she remembers as “fantastic.” Bastianich loves encouraging newcomers to experience opera. When Felidia’s general manager, Jenni Guizio, stops by our table, Bastianich tells her that tonight’s Trovatore was “extraordinary—really right on. You have to get to the Met. It’s part of the getting Italianissimo!” Bastianich goes to the opera when her schedule allows, but, as she explains, “My business keeps me occupied at night, so I have to select very carefully.” Often when she attends opera performances, she is recognized by fans; at the intermission of Trovatore, a gentleman greeted her and said, “Lidia, you are the greatest chef ever.” Asked if she ever gets used to it, she replies instantly, “I love it. When strangers call me by my first name, I love it. It’s informal, but that means that they feel comfortable with me—because of the TV, of course.

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Orechiette with clams and zucchini, featured in Bastianich’s latest cookbook
© Steve Giralt

“I have never considered myself an haute chef, in the sense that I invent. I don’t invent things. I am a conduit. I am a conduit of the Italian food in Italy, of my culture there, to my culture here. And I feel very responsible to bring over that food the way it was, especially when we began in ’81 with Felidia. When I began here, I began by cooking the food of the region that I came from in the northeast—polenta, risotto, you know. And that’s what intrigued the press. But I didn’t do it because I planned to get attention. I did it because that’s what I felt was the right thing to do. 

“The food that Italians cook at home, it’s simple and straightforward. It’s not so complicated. And I communicate what I know best about Italian food—its simplicity, its flavors. It is just food that makes sense, you know? If you follow it, it’s seasonal, it’s regional, it’s doable. Some people are better than others in the kitchen, but everyone can approach food. I’m here to empower the people watching me—to let them know they can do it. They can cook, if they want to. It’s about them. It’s not about me.” spacer 

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