She arrived in New York at the age of 12 in 1958. Half a century later, she's a cooking icon with five cookbooks, four television series and six restaurants to her name.
Bastianich's most recent PBS cooking show, Lidia's Italy, is such a hit in Dallas that she's frequently asked to help with local pledge drives. But her TV career began way back in 1998. Since then she opened restaurants in Pittsburgh and Kansas City and started a line of pasta sauces.
The author of La Cucina di Lidia loves to talk about Italian cooking, as well as the country's culture and history. The future, too--because she knows exactly when Venice will sink below the waves...
1. Why is Italian cuisine so popular?
Italian cooking and everything Italian is about living well, enjoying life, gratifying your senses. The philosophy of Italians at the table is what it should be all about.
2. What do you think of 'Modern Italian' cooking?
I think if you talk about the foams and all that, they're--the chefs--are justified in trying to be inventive. But at home, Italians are very traditional. They love a great product--great flavors without having to do much. Take caprese: you just have to slice and a little olive oil, you have perfection without doing much. But cuisine has to evolve.
3. Do you watch other cooking shows?
I love Jacques [Pepin], especially his technique. I learn from him. But other cultures also intrigue me--Ming Tsai. And I watch comparatively.
4. So why isn't there a cooking show about German cuisine?
[Laughs] I don't want to be an elitist. It's a valid cuisine that reflects the philosophy and geography and climate of the country. It's just not as sunny and bright and tantalizing as Italian cuisine. But every country has something great.
5. Where have you found the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy? And you can't say New York...
I have to say New York. But San Francisco has some good ones. St. Louis is good. Chicago, too. I just came back from Argentina and Brazil and found some good Italian in both of those countries. Italians are all over the place.
6. Why not just write cookbooks? Why go on television?
Food is history, the identity of who we are. And if I want to communicate with Americans, I want to show them where the products are made. Italy is so influenced by others: cous cous in the south, cinnamon in the north because of the Venetian spice trade--I just want to divulge as much information as I can.
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7. Whatever happened to red checkered tablecloths?
Oh, that had its birth around Naples and Rome. The first wave of immigrants to the U.S. came from that region--and with them came their ways. They couldn't get the same product, so Italian-American cuisine was born. I think the tablecloths were one of the signals that this is an Italian-American place.
8. Don't you hate Mario Batali's shoes?
[Laughs] He's a dear guy. He just wants to make a statement. And it's an orange statement.
9. How 'bout Fernet Branca?
It has a place. You know, Italians are very conscious of what they eat, how they eat and its digestion. The meal is always ended with something like that. In America it is becoming more popular. I drink it. It's something you have to understand and to love, slowly.
10. When will Venice sink?
Never, never, never. It's a problem. They need to address it sooner rather than later. I'm delighted by the world's concern. So we'll make it happen.