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Felidia’s lunch crowd began to thin out, as we remained on the second floor and Lidia Bastianich described her plight to America. She was born in what was then called Pola under Italy and currently Pula in Croatia. Lidia began to explain her native land and the various forms of governments that have ruled a much disputed territory. The popular Italian chef whom I found to be well-spoken and knowledgeable about a wide range of topics explained her birth place. “It is a city on the peninsula of Istria. Italy has twenty regions Friuli-Venezia Giulia is in the Northeastern region, Trieste is the capital and the Istrian part of Dalmatia was Italian until WWII when Italy lost the war and the Paris Treaty drew the border where Istria was given to the newly formed communist Yugoslavia.”
It was under communist rule that her father, Vittorio Matticchio and her mother Erminia, decided to leave Pola if they were going to have any opportunity for success. “I was just born at the time in 1947” as she cleared her throat and continued to say, “My parents, who were Italian, were part of the big Italian exodus. My mother was a teacher and was expecting me when I was born a few weeks after the Paris Treaty was signed and my father was a mechanic with his own little truck business and they had asked for a transfer since my mother was promised a teaching position.”
After several years of waiting to move out of the Iron Curtain, and Lidia was nine-years old, Vittorio sent her mother, brother and her as tourists to stay with family members at Trieste while he under communist law, had to comply with the government’s policy of at least one family member remaining in Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito’s regime. “My father remained but after two weeks,” she affirmed with her eyes wide open, “He escaped to the border one night while being shot at and made it to the other side.”
From there her family migrated to the Italian side, and stayed with a great aunt in Trieste. “Italy, at that time, had no jobs, and it was already difficult for my relatives to provide for their family let alone worry about us.” Her parents were obviously very grateful to stay with relatives but knew they had to move on and start anew so they made the difficult decision to stay in a refugee camp and declared political asylum. The family stayed in Risiera di San Sabba (currently a museum) for about two years before their application for political asylum was processed and allowed to move to the United States.
Her response triggered a follow-up question and I asked Lidia about her opinion on the current Syrian refugee crisis, she replied, “I certainly understand their hardship and experience. During our stay in the refugee camp we were vetted before we moved to Astoria, Queens.” Lidia and her family never heard of Astoria and knew little about the United States. Similar to most young girls and boys of immigrant households, Lidia had dreams when she arrived to America, and that was to get an education. Her mother encouraged her and brother that opportunity in America will only come through an education; and years later Lidia continued to follow and enforce that rule with her own two children.
The Matticchio family, were confronted with the usual obstacles that are associated with many newly arrived immigrants. The language and different customs took a while to assimilate especially in a neighborhood that did not only have Italians but Greeks and Germans. It was in Queens where the family worked hard especially her mother. “In the beginning, my mother got a job as a seamstress in New Jersey. Most Italian women were skilled at sewing and so she had a long commute. I then had the responsibility of cooking for my parents when they arrived at night.” She went on to say, “My father needed to have the traditional Italian meals on the table every night and even though I was still not a chef at that time, I started to learn from my mother and what I remembered my grandmother showing me in Italy.”
While going to school as an adolescent, she began to work at a local bakery shop called Walken’s Bakery located on Broadway and 30th Street in Astoria, (it’s no longer there). It was owned by Paul Walken, the father of future Hollywood actor, Christopher Walken. Lidia and the movie star have remained in contact with one another and will occasionally talk about the old days when they worked at the bakery.
It was around this time that Lidia also met her future husband Felice, who was from Istria as well. The young couple was ambitious to achieve the American dream through hard work and perseverance. They opened their first restaurant in 1971 and another restaurant in 1977 while simultaneously purchasing real estate in the borough. For the two, owning a restaurant in Manhattan meant the ultimate success and they followed their dreams by selling most of their equity to open Felidia.
The restaurant opened with excellent reviews and Lidia’s risotto became her signature dish. Today she is still involved in the everyday operations of Felidia and her other accomplished New York City restaurants that include: Becco, Del Posto, Esca and several years ago, she became partners in Eataly with founder and creator Oscar Farinetti, along with her son and Mario Batali. “I meet with all my staff to discuss the menu, especially when a holiday approaches.” She has fed a wide range of personalities, from foreign dignitaries, Popes and hosted several fundraisers and press parties.
Throughout the decades Lidia’s culinary expertise, affable personality and succulent Italian regional dishes have earned her the sometimes moniker, America’s Nonna. Before Lidia was about to leave to get “a manicure and pedicure” as a way to pamper herself and celebrate a new year, she gestured with her hands and said, “Food, for me, is emotional, it’s a way to communicate and it serves as a connection to all of us, and that makes me happy when customers walk away feeling good, I feel that I was a part of that delightful moment.”
As Lidia always says at the end of her cooking show, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” everyone at the table to eat!