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
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
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
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
Q – Where did you get the idea to sell your
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
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
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.
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