It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Lidia Bastianich has had on gastronomic culture in the United States and on the renaissance of Italian cuisine throughout the world.
She is to our generation what Julia Child and James Beard were to my mother’s generation (my mother was a James Beard devotee, for the record).
And to her credit, she has never wavered from her devotion to regional Italian cuisine. Long before “peasant” food (what an awful and despicable term!), “rustico” cuisine, or even “Northern vs. Southern” Italian cooking ever appeared in the American gastronomic lexicon, Lidia championed regional culinary traditions from Italy, first in the Croatian neighborhood in Queens where she and her family got their start and then later at Felidia in Manhattan (a restaurant where I used to regularly take my mother during the decade that I lived in New York).
In 1998 — the year that Babbo opened and the year that “regional Italian” became bywords of food culture in America — Lidia launched her first cooking show, “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen” on PBS. To this day, my wife’s Saturday morning ritual is not complete without watching a DVR’d episode.
I asked Lidia to share her thoughts about the renaissance of Italian gastronomy and her role in Italy’s culinary conquest of the U.S. palate and hedonist imagination.
Her response, I must say, surprised and inspired me.
“When you look at the great beauty of Italy,” she said. “It’s easy to understand why the Italians are such creative people. From the [historic] Renaissance to this day, Italians have made so many contributions to the arts and culture. It was only natural that Italian cooking would do the same.
“I don’t know if I’ve been an architect of the Italian culinary renaissance as you put it,” she added graciously. “But when I am surrounded by this beauty and the goodness of the ingredients I find here, I know that I am inspired by them.”
Lidia also told me that she has been asked to be the madrina (i.e., the grand marshal) of the first-ever “Biennial of Cuisine” in Venice. I wasn’t surprised by this news: her celebrity and her contributions to the dissemination of Italian cuisine and culture in the U.S. is not lost on Italians — at least, gauging from my Italian colleagues and counterparts.
“But it’s really Joe [Bastianich, her son] who’s become a celebrity here,” she told me. His appearances on “MasterChef Italia” (the No. 1 rated show in Italy this year, I was told by a journalist at our luncheon) have made him a megawatt star there.
“Just the other day, we were stopped by school children in Venice who wanted his autograph,” she said.
Whether or not her celebrity is or will be eclipsed by her son’s is irrelevant, really. After all, if it weren’t for Lidia, there would be no Joe, would there?
As a proud new father myself, I couldn’t resist the urge to share a photo of my Georgia with Lidia.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but she’s a prettier version of you.”
Words only a mother could utter.
Di mamme, ce n’è una sola … You only have one mother …