Lidia Bastianich: the Italian roots of a culinary empire

Lidia Bastianich

Lidia Bastianich

Expo Milan 2015 is up and running, and among its many initiatives is WE - Women for Expo, which focuses on women’s contribution to healthy nutrition and sustainability, supported by celebrity ambassadors the likes of Lidia Bastianich. They are successful women from different countries and backgrounds, willing to share their experience, advise, and inspire others. 
 
Short after Lidia Matticchio was born, her hometown Pola and the whole Istria region became Yugoslavian territories. In the mid-1950s her family escaped to Trieste, and eventually settled in New York City. Lidia was then 12 years old. Thanks to her strong Italian roots and interest in cooking, she opened her first restaurant in 1971, preparing genuine, traditional regional recipes. Today Lidia Bastianich – she married Felice, a fellow Istrian immigrant, and had two children - is one of the most influential chefs recognized worldwide, owner of several restaurants, a TV star (Lidia’s Italy; Masterchef), cookbook author, and recently WE ambassador.
 
Leaving Italy at a very young age, how did you manage to keep your cultural heritage alive and to develop your passion for Italian cuisine?
One of the strongest elements that kept me and continued to nurture me in the Italian traditions was the family. As newly arrived immigrants, we spoke only Italian at home and continue to do so ‘till this day with my 95-year-old mother. My father wanted to eat only Italian food and the music at our house was always Italian. I quickly blended into the culture of my new adoptive country and within one year my brother Franco, 4 years older, and I were speaking English, eating Doodles and listening to Elvis Presley. But at home we were Italian. 
Also, the memories of my first years in Italy with my grandma, grandpa, and the friends I had left behind were always very strong. They were beautiful memories and I did not want to let them go. Food is an intense memory carrier and I found myself cooking ever more Italian - the food of my childhood, my Italian roots. Not only did I cook for myself and my family but also began sharing my Italian food memories and recipes with friends, who ultimately became my customers when I opened my Italian restaurant Felidia in 1981.
 
In the best Italian tradition, yours is a family business and your reputation, success and popularity have been constantly growing over the years. What’s the Bastianich’s secret?
I think passion and hard work are behind any success story. I love cooking and I love telling the Italian regional culture and story thru my food. Americans love Italy and Italy has a great culture to share: art, music, style, food, wine and a joy for life. So I shared my native culture with my adoptive culture through food.  Food has become so important in today’s lifestyle, and Italian is one of the most popular ethnic foods in America today. I also have to thank my family, especially my son Joseph Bastianich and my daughter Tanya Manuali Bastianich, for following in my footstep, taking what was a small Italian restaurant passion and turning it into a multiple-restaurant business, bestselling cookbooks, television programs and Lidia’s product line. 
 
In your opinion, what does make the Eataly phenomenon special?
The Eataly concept started in Torino by its founder, Oscar Farinetti. It’s the brilliant idea of bringing the best of Italian food under one roof, where one can buy the best local Italian products recognized by the Slow Food Presidio. Hence, all the small unique Italian traditional food producers would have a platform to educate, discuss and sell their products. Education and awareness of the product is primary in Eataly; all the sales people are required to be informed about the products they are selling and share the information with the customers. There is La Scuola in every Eataly store, where the education of cooking and the products continue, and then there is a restaurant for every major food category for customers to enjoy the finished product in the store. There is a big social element in Eataly at the Piazza, where people can gather to taste wine and have little tastings of Italian traditional products and people-watch just like the cafes in Italy. Eataly is a small piece of the Italian life and food with a big message of Italian taste wherever it is opened.

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