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4/24/2018 3:32 pm  #1

Chef Lidia Bastianich’s immigrant success story

Chef Lidia Bastianich’s immigrant success story

The title of the first chapter of Lidia Bastianich’s new memoir provides the first clue that her memories of childhood are going to include more than idyllic days of climbing fig trees and milking goats. It’s “Giuliana,” for the name she was called the first five years of her life. And the story of how and why it changed involves a baby smuggled in a bag out of a hospital in the middle of the night, a secret baptism — and plenty of risk.

These days, Bastianich is a beloved restaurateur, cookbook author and TV personality with a grandmotherly demeanor and a quiet confidence. But in 1947, she was born into uncertainty, a feeling that followed her for decades. Earlier that year, as part of the Treaty of Paris, the Italian region where her parents and brother lived was given to communist Yugoslavia. And while scores of other ethnic Italians on the Istrian Peninsula headed across the Adriatic Sea while the border was open, her parents hesitated because Lidia was only a month from being born — and after she was, they found themselves stuck when the border slammed shut.

Bastianich’s book is titled “My American Dream,” appropriate for what reads like a quintessential immigrant story, making her another example of figures who came here as outsiders but became beloved and famous for their way with food. (Others include New York chef Marcus Samuelsson, San Francisco’s Charles Phan and Washington’s José Andrés.) And it lands amid anxiety about the potential effects of the Trump administration’s policies on the restaurant industry, which depends so heavily on immigrant labor.

Bastianich stays away from any overt political commentary. But her memory for evocative detail — if she didn’t keep a journal her whole life, the memoir sure reads as if she did — and her writing style make for compelling reading nonetheless. Rather than squeeze every drop of sentimentality out of sometimes-painful accounts, she reflects on her life with a matter-of-factness that makes the stories all the more poignant.

Here’s how she describes her time as one of the “profughi” in San Sabba, a refu­gee camp in Italy: “Guards watched everyone at the camp twenty-four hours a day. I no longer had a home, a bed, a place to call my own; I felt vulnerable, and the only security I found was when we were huddled together as a family, just like my cat and her kittens back home in Pola.”

Before the family escaped from Yugoslavia to Italy, Tito’s rule was not kind to them and other Italians. They couldn’t openly practice their Catholicism (hence the secret baptism) or even speak their native tongue. Lidia’s father, Vittorio, had a trucking company, whose capitalist business practices were under scrutiny by the secret police. Her mother, Erminia, was a schoolteacher expected not just to teach her students Croatian but to indoctrinate them in the ways of communism.

And even though little Lidia and brother Franco did have their fig-tree-and-goat-milking moments, most of them at the country home of their grandmother, things ultimately went from bad to worse in Yugoslavia. After a dramatic escape that involved temporary separation from her father in Italy, they registered as refugees and lived in San Sabba for two years before the United States opened for immigration when Lidia was 11.

In America, the parents struggled while the children began to thrive.

To read it now, Bastianich’s future as a food-world star seems almost preordained. As a toddler she would mimic her Grandma Rosa, “sitting on the rocks in the courtyard preparing ‘sauce,’ by filling old tin cans with rocks to emulate tomatoes and pouring them into my pretend pot to stir and simmer.” Later, she planted her own vegetables alongside Rosa, played her sous-chef, and learned about market shopping and food presentation from an aunt who was a private chef in Trieste. When she was allowed to leave the refugee camp to attend a Catholic grammar school in a nunnery, she paid for her food with kitchen labor alongside the nuns and learned large-scale cooking. She dabbled in cake decorating while working for Walken’s Bakery in New Jersey (owned by the family of actor Christopher Walken) and made mental notes at waitressing jobs in restaurants in New Jersey and New York while she watched cooks finish orders.

One influence was an early date with the man who would become her husband and, later, ex-husband: She and Felice Bastianich went to Mamma Leone’s, a huge Italian American restaurant in New York’s Theater District that is now considered so influential that Paul Freedman included it in his 2016 book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.” Bastianich wanted to know what it was that made the spaghetti-and-meatball brand of Italian cuisine in America so beloved. As an immigrant, she was perfectly positioned to learn, and in “My American Dream” she gives a one-paragraph rundown of how Italian food became Italian-American that is so concise and thorough I’m tempted to blow it up and tape it to my office wall for future reference. Why does Italian-American food use so much more garlic than the cuisine in the homeland? Because garlic was one of the only ingredients immigrants found in America that was close to the Italian version, so “the immigrants ate a lot of it, because it reminded them of home.”

Much of the later chapters of her memoir is devoted to the opening of her and Felice’s first, second and third restaurants — the latter being their Manhattan flagship, Felidia, four months late and over budget — and moves into public television, thanks to an encounter with Julia Child; writing; and empire-building.

Bastianich’s devotion to family infuses “My American Dream.” Her beloved father died before Felidia could open, “but he was there with me that night, in my heart and in my soul. It was because of his and my mother’s courage in bringing our family here to America that I had come this far, and I remain forever grateful to them both.” She writes that she never could have raised two children on such a busy schedule if her mother hadn’t been there, living with the family and looking after the kids while she was working late. She also credits her Catholic faith, writing not only about her prayers of thanks but her thrill at being invited to cook for two popes: Benedict XVI in 2008 and Francis in 2015.

Perhaps the most touching moments, though, are when she reunites with her Nonna Rosa on a return trip to Istria as a newlywed, and when she returns years later to the site of the former refu­gee camp where she and her family had spent some of their darkest days.

With her daughter, Tanya, she co-founded the company that produces her public television shows, and with her son, Joe, she owns the restaurant company Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. And here’s where her account gets dicey. About four months before the book’s publishing date, the other B&B co-owner, Mario Batali, acknowledged years of sexual misconduct and harassment of employees after multiple allegations were reported in Eater, The Washington Post and the New York Times.

Did the news come too late for Bastianich to address it in her book? The omission is a shame — and makes for some jarring reading. Of a dinner she organized for the James Beard Foundation in the late 1990s, she writes: “One of the people I invited was Mario Batali, an up-and-coming chef at the time, who had his own place, Po, in the West Village. . . . That night, Joe and Mario met for the first time, and soon they were talking about going into business together.”

The innocent statement now sounds ominous. And it’s hard to read without thinking of the accusations that Joe helped create a “boys’ club” atmosphere with Batali that facilitated the abuse, as Eater reported, and of Joe’s admission that he heard inappropriate comments and “should have done more.” In the wake of the allegations, B&B has undergone a corporate shake-up, with Batali pushed out of day-to-day operations and Lidia (along with Nancy Silverton) taking on a larger role. I hope one day she writes about it.

It’s also strange to read the following, in Bastianich’s musings on the solidarity and obstacles of female chefs: “Physically, women have some challenges in the kitchen, like lifting heavy pots on and off the stove. You learn to adapt, you learn to find a way. But the biggest challenge for women in this industry is how to balance a family with such a demanding career.”

Is it? I imagine that some of those who have suffered sexual harassment at the hands of Batali — and so many others — might have a different idea.

A Life of Love, Family, and Food
By Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

Knopf. 339 pp. $28.95


We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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