Lidia Bastianich has a successful, long-running food television career on PBS, too many cookbooks to count, a mini Italian restaurant empire, namesake retail pasta sauces, and even a new QVC ceramic cookware line (sure, why not?). Yet chat with Bastianich about her accomplishments, as we did recently, and she is refreshingly humble. Intelligent too, damn it. Maybe that's because she earned her food celebrity the old fashioned way — after years of hard work.
Working is something the New York-based grandmother still does in overdrive. We caught up with Bastianich on her taxi ride from LAX to Mozza, where she was recently in town for all of 36 hours to film an episode of “MasterChef” with her son, Joe Bastianich, and Gordon Ramsey at Mozza. Or “La Mozza,” as Bastianich prefers to call the restaurant by its proper Italian name. Turn the page for more on her recent visit to L.A., her next book project, and what Eataly is really all about.
Squid Ink: You're in L.A. to film “MasterChef”?
Lidia Bastianich: Yes. I'm filming an episode with my son and Gordon Ramsay at La Mozza. Then I'm going to Vegas.
SI: A day of fun?
LB: No, for public TV, though Vegas is always fun, isn't it?
SI: Sure, but we usually go for vacation, not work.
LB: No vacations [laughs]. I've always got too much going on for vacation, but that's fine because I love it all.
SI: What are you working on these days?
LB: Right now I'm working on my next book, Lidia's Italy in America, and my next show. The book is coming out in October, and I am filming the cooking aspect of it for shows. Both are on Italian immigration throughout America and how people settled here, how they permeated the American business of making food.
SI: Interesting, sounds like a somewhat different angle than your past cookbooks.
LB: Yes, I became very interested in the history of Italians in America. So I am looking at foods across America, how ingredients and Italian dishes in various parts of the country are so different. Artichokes, garlic. How did Italian immigrants use them? At the end of the century, Sicilian immigrants had things like fava beans… but the Italian Swiss colony was the first one that started the wine industry in California. There are all of these distinct styles of Italian cooking that came from that.
SI: In a sense, capturing that Italian American history is the book version of what you have created with Eataly, the massive Italian food market you opened with Oscar Farinetti, Mario Batali, and your son, Joe.
LB: That was a major project, about three years in the making. Our Italian partner, Oscar Farinetti, is the originator of the project with Eataly in Italy. About three years ago, I did an event for him in Italy, and he tells me he wants to come to New York. My son, myself and Mario were all interested. The retail side, combining that with restaurants, was very interesting to me. Will it work? Sometimes two things that are good on their own don't work well together. We didn't know what to expect.
SI: It's been successful?
LB: It has been. We have seven eating venues, restaurants, a café, and then we have all the retail shops. You can buy fresh fish, homemade pasta — 350 pounds of homemade pasta a day is what we are going through now. We have a wood burning oven for bread and make 2,000 to 3,000 loaves of bread a day.
Now, it's almost like a social phenomenon. People come in, have a glass of wine, go shopping with their glass of wine, like in Italy. Right now we're working on opening a brewery on the rooftop with imported Italian beers, so that's next. We collaborate very closely with the Slow Food movement, so everything is artisan, people like that.
SI: You've essentially created another Little Italy in Manhattan, only perhaps arguably more authentic.
LB: Yes, actually. The epicenter of the Eataly space is like a piazza, there we have the tall tables. From each you can get raw fish, salumi, whatever you need. Sit, eat, share like you do in Italy.
SI: Any plans for other Eataly venues at this point? Specifically L.A.?
LB: [Laughs] Well, we already have people asking, of course. But this sort of thing needs a concentration of people to work. So it has to be in the right place. Who knows, maybe.
Check back later for more with Bastianich as she talks about adding Facebook and Twitter fans to her already packed workday/family time schedule and adds her two cents on social responsibility.