Lidia Bastianich Interview
("First Lady" of Italian restaurants in the United States)

She is widely regarded as the “First Lady” of Italian restaurants in the United States – and for good reason!!

She has left an incredible mark in the city of New York as food historian, executive chef and co-owner of 3 restaurants there – Felidia, BECCO, and Frico Bar.

It was back in 1981 that Lidia and her husband Felice opened Felidia (the name taken from the combination of both their names). Then, together with their son Joseph they opened the popular Becco in the heart of New York’s theatre district in 1992. The third restaurant Frico opened in November 1995. Each restaurant has it’s own unique style but, common to all 3 is a reflection of true Italian cooking.

A recipient of numerous awards and citations from members of the food industry, Lidia Bastianich serves on the board of many organizations aimed at furthering the understanding and appreciation of Italian food around the world.

And – Lidia sells her unique spaghetti sauce online and at select grocery stores.

Q – Lidia, you say, “I have learned that 50% of good cooking is in the ingredients used”. So, where do you get the ingredients used in your restaurants?
A – All over. It’s becoming easier you know. I need traditional Italian ingredients. And, on top of that I need the fresh (ingredients) which sort of couples with that and that is very seasonal, the herbs. Vegetables are coming along well. I wish we would have better food from on the tree or on the vine rather than harvest it green. Meats are not a problem. Fish is getting even better.

Q – Some restaurants own farms that grow the food they use in their restaurants. Do you also farms?
A – We do. We deal with farms. Our restaurants in Kansas City and Pittsburgh work with farmers. We give them seeds for things that we want which has been a great relationship especially in promoting in the Midwest. In New York City you have sort of the epi-center of the chef community and everybody demands certain things and we have certain things. In mid-America it was somewhat more of a challenge and we’re working with farmers there also.

Q – You own 3 restaurants in New York?
A – Three in New York City, yes. One in Kansas City. One in Pittsburgh.

Q – One restaurant would seem like it would be a full-time job. How do you manage 5?
A – It’s all about good people, people that are talented. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. For me to finish my career behind the ranges cooking would limit my accessibility. I would reach only a limited amount of people. There comes a period I guess when one transcends and goes onto the next step and that is influencing other people, becoming a mentor if you will and working with talent, recognizing energy and passion, taking these energies coupled with the knowledge that one such as myself has accumulated over the years and you make it happen. You make it happen all over again. Each restaurant is really a reflection of our leadership, me and my son and our capabilities and the new talent of chefs and management that come in and are so willing to work with us.

Q – Do you serve the same food in all of your restaurants?
A – I wouldn’t know because there is the philosophy of our cooking. The originality of my cooking is evident in all of them. Each chef has a flavor of his own. There is a basis that will tell the diner that he’s in my restaurant. But, then each of them has sort of a different twist. In Kansas City and Pittsburgh I keep a closer, tighter look on the menu. If they change something, I really need to know what; to taste it, because it is a bit further from me. I need to keep in more control of that.

Q – You came to New York in 1958.
A – Right.

Q – And opened your 1 st restaurant in 1972.
A – ’71.

Q – What were you doing in those in-between years? Working for someone else?
A – Well, yes. It was a progression. I came rather young, when I was 12. I went to school and began working early enough, part-time after school, in bakeries and then in restaurants.

Q – Why did you set your sights on New York?
A – Well, our first restaurant was in Queens where we lived in Forest Hills and our second restaurant was also in Queens. Those are the neighborhood. But, then it soon became evident there was an interest in what we were doing, what I was doing in cooking. It was a bit different. The press began following and it was also a business decision. In Queens, we were renting both and by the time we sold I think it was 10 years and I think we had a 15 or 17 year lease. There was still a reasonable amount of years left to sell it and make some money. We sold them both and bought the brownstone in Manhattan and built Felidia in 1981.

Q – Would you ever expand into an area outside of New York?
A – Yeah. We will expand.

Q – Was it difficult to get the money together to finance that first restaurant? Did you have a financial backer?
A – No. We’re still a family owned co. All family. My son and my daughter and their spouses. But, the first restaurant was opened with a little bit of money that we saved plus money from my mother and father that they loaned us. It was a small restaurant. A 30 seater. Very modest. The whole thing was really on a shoe-string budget, but, it worked out very well.

Q – Where did you get the idea to sell your products online?
A – That has come out of the requests. Most of the growth that happened with my co. is a response to a need. It’s not ‘I’m going to do that’. People would come in and say, ‘Gee, we watch your show. We read your books. We want to do your things, but we can’t get certain things. Can we get a signed book?’ So, we just formulated it into an e-commerce and it turned out quite well.

Q – Did you eat a lot of Italian food growing up?
A – Oh, yeah. That’s what I ate.

Q – You’re from Istria. I’m not familiar with that country. Where is that?
A – Istria is a little peninsula that belongs to Croatia right now. It’s on the Italian border and we were Italian. In World War two it was given to then Yugoslavia. It still has a large Italian community. During Communism it was oppressed and we sort of escaped out of it and went back to Italy and then of course came to the United States. But, now they’re allowing back the Italian schools, but during Communism all of that was abolished.

Q – You frequently travel to Italy. What are you doing there?
A – I have a winery. I go for that. But, I do a lot of research. I go to events, conventions that are going on. Some of them I speak and some of them; it’s just research for my books. For me, I just need to update. I’ve been in the States for years. I just need to live Italy in order to communicate this culture. So, I just trek up and down. I have loads of friends. I still have a great time at what I do.

Q – And how many people can say that?
A – Yeah. Sometimes I hear parents coming in and saying, ‘Oh, my son is thinking of going to cooking school’. Some of them are sort of happy and some of them are, ‘Gee, I wish he would go to medical school’. I said whatever they want to do as long as they do it with passion and they’re happy they’re going to be successful.

Official Website: Lidias Italy
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