Lidia Bastianich has spent more than three decades building a reputation as an authority on Italian cuisine, first in Queens, and later with restaurants like Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto in Manhattan. She’s also a chef-owner of Lidia’s in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, a prolific cookbook author and the host of Lidia’s Italy on TV. On June 28, she helped celebrate the “Summer of Bastianich” at Santa Monica’s Coast restaurant, where sommelier Peter Neptune has filled all 18 slots on the by-the-glass program with Bastianich Vineyards wines that Lidia, son Joseph and Mario Batali produce in Friuli. She hosted a dinner featuring her Italian-born recipes and wines, which will be available at Shutters on the Beach‘s sand-view restaurant through the end of summer. Before the first course arrived, she shared insights on wine, food, family and travel.
Would you say that you have any wine mentors?
Yes. Along the way, some of the great wine producers in Italy have been friends. Maybe I shared food with them, like Ronchi di Cialla or Bruno Giacosa. These are really icons in Italian winemaking and people that grew up in my career. They did their wine and I did my food. We mentor each other.
What do you feel like you still have to accomplish as a chef?
Oh my goodness. I always feel that the job is not done. I’m not finished, so I think as far as I’m concerned, as far as the Italian culinary culture, I feel like a conduit in transporting the Italian philosophy of life, with food. America is very open, they want to know more, so there are a lot of things to do yet. Food, or the culture of the table, evolves continuously. Nutritionally, the proximity of things, things could be had all over the world now, so there’re always new challenges, and I think the best of it all is that America, and the American people, are in love with Italian food. They can’t get enough, so there’s a lot for me to do.
Was it a given that Joseph would become a restaurateur?
In retrospect, now I see that I had a lot to do with it in the sense that Joe was three years old when we opened our first restaurant. He’d always hang around the restaurant. After school, he’d come to do his homework on the tomato boxes. I’m a consummate researcher, so I need to know before I communicate. Every year, up and down Italy, it was vacation time, searching, researching restaurants, wineries, and he was always along, because it was the family vacation as well as research for me. So I can say he’s been in training since he was three years old, and yet when he reached high school and college age, the one thing I told him was, “You don’t want to do this, because this is tough work. You want to go on and get a real job, like in America.” And he did. He went to Wall Street and became an analyst, but then, I guess his passion brought him back, so that maybe what we had with our food and wine was something special and he turned it into a business.
What do you look for when you hire somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
For me, that’s very important, a very, very important question. I need somebody that’s passionate about food, that’s excited about food, that’s willing to commit themselves, somebody that’s excited, that wants to learn from me, that wants to be mentored. I love that. They’re like a sponge, ready to receive, and yet they have a lot of energy because they’re fascinated by this business. Those elements put together, we’ve got a winning team.
What do you look for in a restaurant experience?
The restaurant experience could be different things at different times, but I think the restaurant experience for me should be genuine, should be clean, should be an experience that makes me feel well, that makes me communicate with the people that I’m with. It’s honest about my well being as well as my enjoyment and pleasure. It’s almost in a puritanical sense, and yet the pleasures of eating and of socializing, and being together with family and friends.
What was the last trip you took to Italy, and when was it?
My last trip to Italy was at Vin Italy this year. I’m going there in two weeks, but that was my last trip. I was in Italy, of course, with our wines. Joe was there, letting our wine be known, and entertaining and talking to our customers from all over the world. It’s a unique place. It was very exciting because it was also people that were in the industry, that were focused, that are excited and want to know more. So in a way, at the end of the day, it was socializing, and ending at some table or other, with good food and good wine.
Since you’re a consummate researcher, what did you learn from that trip?
At Vin Italy, I usually give a lot, in a sense. I wanted, especially my customers, friends from America, from all over the world, to understand Italy more. We even cook for them. We get an apartment and cook for them, took them to friends’ restaurants, introduced new products, as well as my wine. I also had an opportunity to talk, and that was an exciting part, I talked to a young culinary university that was offering a Master’s in culinary business. I talked to them about America and the opportunities in the business mindset that America has, versus Italians. The patrimony that they have, as Italians, in their products, and how the world is quite an opportunity for them if they reach out. I’m quite exemplary of that being an immigrant that came here at 12, and having evolved this Italian food into a multifaceted business. That was where I brought to them some of my expertise.
Did this latest trip impact your menus at all?
There is always something that I taste, that I bring back, whether it’s a preparation, a fruit or a vegetable. I had a wonderful raviolo from Piemonte. Sheep’s milk, but it was a triple cream robbiolo, so it was close to a Brie. I came back and had my chef research it and try to bring it in. I’m not sure if it came in yet.
What do you like to drink and where do you like to drink when you’re not working?
You know I like wine. I like from sparkling to rosés to complex whites and reds. I like drinking at home, I enjoy drinking outside, almost in an Italian setting, like we are here. That would be reminiscent of Italy and Europe, a trestle with some good prosciutto, reds and friends, and just relaxing with a glass of wine.