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Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen


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Italian-American food--what cuisine is it? Is it Italian, American, or a piece of Americana with Italian roots? Like a beautiful hybrid flower that takes its genetic makeup from its seeds but derives its colors and aroma from the particular patch of earth in which it grows, it is unquestionably some of each.

I emigrated from Italy to America in 1958. We were considered political refugees, since we came from Istria, the part of Italy that was given to Yugoslavia after World War II. My parents didn't want to raise their children--my brother, Franco, and me--under communism, so we all became political refugees, escaping from Yugoslavia back to Italy. We were housed in San Saba, a refugee camp in Trieste, where we awaited our chance to cross over to the United States, the land of freedom and opportunity.

We spent two years in San Saba with other exiles whose lives had been as torn apart as ours. Although we had family in Trieste, the aftermath of war left everyone in Italy scrambling for survival. Our relatives could offer us only temporary shelter, so my parents decided to search for a new life on a new continent and new opportunities for their still-young children.

There were thousands of Istrians who made a new home in the States during that period, but Italians from all over the peninsula have been putting down roots for years in the United States. The biggest influx of Italian immigrants to the States took place at the turn of the last century, and by 1920 more than 4.5 million Italians had entered the country--most of them from the southern-Italian regions of Sicily, Campania, and Apulia. It is with these first immigrants that Italian-American cuisine and Italian-American culture were born.

As a young immigrant, I was most fascinated by this cuisine, which, although it was called Italian, I did not recognize. True, Italian cuisine is very regional and diversified, but I knew there was something distinctly different about this version of Italian cooking. It was years later that my fascination with food and culture turned into a profession, then into a quest to understand better this particular cuisine. Clearly, it had been developed by a people who came with a rich collection of memories of intense flavors and aromas and a patrimony of recipes and cooking techniques that in this new land had to be executed with different ingredients from those with which the immigrants were familiar.

I guess my fascination with cooking comes from growing up with grandparents who ran a trattoria, grew most of the food they sold and ate, produced their own olive oil and wine, distilled their own grappa, and cured their own meats--prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, and salsicce. My grandma dried beans, figs, and raisins, as well as herbs and all members of the onion family, for the winter. I still remember going with her to the communal mill to grind the wheat into flour for pasta and bread. This "from-the-earth" understanding and respect for food has given me a definite advantage as a cook. Those pristine, unadulterated flavors remain with me and have become my reference library throughout my professional life.

My mother, Erminia, was an elementary school teacher in Italy and was very concerned about her children's education. She anticipated great opportunities for us in the States and felt that education for her children was the greatest gift America had to offer. But for her, life in the new country was not easy. She worked hard and long hours as a piece-worker, tailoring men's clothing at the Evan-Picone factory in North Bergen, New Jersey, so we could go to school.

Throughout high school, I worked part time at Walken's Bakery on Broadway in Astoria, right across the street from our apartment. I loved it. I began as a salesgirl but slowly gravitated toward the "back of the house," assisting the bakers in their baking, decorating, and really getting into the production of breads and desserts. It soon became evident to me that this was what I loved doing.

By no means was I a chef then, but I loved cooking. Throughout my younger years I used to prepare dinner for the family almost every night, when my mother commuted from New Jersey to Astoria, Queens, where we lived at the time. It was then that I first began exploring the world of new foods. I had never tasted a grapefruit before, or coconut, mango, or peanut butter. Tapioca was a novelty, and so were all those prepackaged goodies such as Jell-O, instant puddings, and cake mixes.

Every one of these alien foods was exciting to try. I especially remember baking blueberry muffins from a mix. We all loved them, and they were so easy to make. I thought they were the ultimate until I discovered Wonder Bread. To me it was a true wonder that one slice of bread could be rolled into a lump the size of a glass marble, or that two slices of this wonder bread could, with a little pressure, take the shape and color of whatever they were sandwiching. What a marvel of food technology, I thought then.

My brother earned his Ph.D. in electronics engineering, and I received scholarships and attended Hunter College in New York City to finish my major in biology. But I fell in love and married without finishing out my years at college, much to my mother's dismay.

Courtship with my then husband led me to restaurants, and I began working in Italian-American restaurants, first as a hostess or waitress, then, inevitably, in the kitchen. I enjoyed working in the Italian-American restaurants of that time, but I was still puzzled at how different the food was from what we prepared and served at home. I can't say that I did not recognize everything. Most of the ingredients--tomatoes, cheeses, dry pasta, and fresh pasta--were familiar, but finished dishes like veal parmigiana, for example, was a dish I did not recall eating in Italy. Vitello alla parmigiana as served in Parma was a breaded veal cutlet or chop, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Spaghetti and meatballs was another dish that I had not encountered. We may have had spaghetti al sugo, or spaghetti bolognese, and we ate polpette, flat meatballs fried and served as a main dish with vegetables, but we never had the two served together.

In 1971, when I was twenty-four, my husband and I decided to open our own restaurant. A good opportunity came about when a small, thirty-seat restaurant went up for sale on Queens Boulevard, a busy, well-populated neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens. With a little money we had saved and a loan from Mom and Dad, we were in business. We named the new restaurant Buonavia, "on the good road," and began planning and building. Looking over the many menus we had collected from the most popular and successful Italian restaurants of the time, we realized that what our clientele knew and wanted was Italian-American food. But we had a plan: We hired the best Italian-American chef we could find, and I went to work as his sous-chef. I learned as much as I could from him while cooking some of my traditional dishes, such as gnocchi, polenta, and risotto, and adding them slowly to the menu. We became wildly popular, and for the next ten years we ran two of the most popular Italian restaurants in Queens, adding Villa Secondo, in Fresh Meadows, about six years after we opened Buonavia.

I received many accolades for bringing traditional Italian cooking to my customers. But what I did not realize then was that in those ten years I had learned a new cuisine, the Italian-American cuisine.

In 1981, we were ready to move to Manhattan and sold both restaurants to open Felidia, a restaurant that went on to receive three stars from the New York Times and nationwide recognition for serving "true" Italian fare. Felidia is still the epicenter of my activities, although our reach has extended to several restaurants--Becco and Esca in New York City, and Lidia's in Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Several years ago, we started Esperienze Italiane, a travel company that specializes in the food, wine, culture, and art of Italy.

My infectious passion has touched both of my children. Joseph, besides being a great businessman and restaurateur, is passionate about wine and produces wonderful wines in Friuli, Italy. He is married to Deanna, and together they have blessed me with two grandchildren, Olivia and Miles. My daughter, Tanya, an art historian with a tremendous passion for Italian culture and art, received her Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance art from Oxford. Tanya and her husband, Corrado Manuali, a Roman attorney, have blessed me with another grandson, Lorenzo.

But there is an irony in all this success. While I, along with many of my contemporary colleagues, preached and practiced "la vera cucina italiana," and set out to bring the True Italian Culinary Culture to America, Italian-American cooking was being dismissed as an impostor by journalists and professionals alike. Still, the experience of those ten years in Queens, and the popularity of the dishes I served there, haunted me. I felt there was something real in that cuisine, a feeling that was reinforced by my frequent travels across America, where Italians--by now third- and fourth-generation--are still cooking this food, and their customers are still in love with it.

I just needed to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. Some of the answers became apparent when I read La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale (HarperPerennial Library, 1993).

Five hundred years ago, what did my compatrioti (countrymen) find in this new land? Did they find basilico, oregano, or rosemary? Did they find sweet and ripe San Marzano tomatoes, broccoli di rabe, or radicchio? I doubt if they found virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh mozzarella, or ricotta. How sad and unaromatic their cupboard must have seemed to those early immigrants. They had to cook with the ingredients that were available, led by the memory of the flavors they recalled. And therein lies the beginning of the answer to "What is Italian-American cuisine?"

In Italy, the herbs are so aromatic, the San Marzano tomatoes are so sweet and intense, that with a touch of virgin olive oil and a sliced garlic clove you have the best marinara sauce in the world. How did the immigrants, who had no access to such ingredients, capture those flavor memories? I assume they tried to re-create the intense flavors of their homeland by adding a lot of what they did have--garlic, oregano, and other dried herbs, herbs that they most likely brought with them. On the other hand, meat was abundant in this new land. It was a symbol of well-being for the immigrants--a sign of the good life--and so the Sunday ragŁ, which back in Campania would have been flavored with a piece of pork, was enriched with sausages, braciole, and meatballs. This new cuisine devised by the early Italian immigrants was one of adaptation--one that went beyond cooking. It was a way for them to retain their culture proudly by using the ingredients they found in their new home. I would call this a venerable cuisine indeed.

Among the diversified ethnic immigrants who came to the United States, most Italians intended eventually to return home, after making enough money to build a new house for their families, according to La Storia. This led to the immigration of many single men, who in most cases lived in boarding houses where food was provided along with lodging. It is there that the Italian-American restaurant most likely had its birth. Not only were the residents fed, the public at large enjoyed the food, and the families that ran the boarding houses saw an opportunity to make additional money. With the increase in business from restaurant guests came the need for authentic ingredients, so Italians became the first ethnic group to set up import companies to provide the products they craved.

Americans love Italy and the Italians, their style, cars, wine, and food. So much so that, according to a poll taken by the Restaurant Association in 1998, the number-one ethnic cuisine is Italian. Americans fell in love with Italian-American cuisine first, then with regional Italian cooking. There is an old Italian saying "Il primo amore non si scorda mai" (the first love you never forget). And so it is with Americans and Italian-American food.

Here I offer you not only the classic Italian-American recipes--your "first love"--but some of my own creations and some classic Italian dishes that have become part of the American culinary culture. After all, cuisine, like other aspects of our lives, is not static but constantly evolving. Every time I return from Italy, I bring with me another piece of my homeland, sometimes traditional and sometimes contemporary. Culinary culture is not just what has happened in the past; it is what is happening today and what will be tomorrow. Today's innovation is tomorrow's tradition.

My life has been a commitment to carrying on the authenticity and tradition of the Italian cuisine in the United States. I recall the excitement created over the years by the arrival of authentic Italian products and how those products introduced my guests--who had been enjoying the pleasures of Italian-American cooking--to regional Italian cooking.

By the early seventies, I could get Arborio rice here, and that meant I could finally offer my clients a true risotto--not one made with long-grain rice. When Gorgonzola dolce latte became available, I served it drizzled with honey alongside ripe pears, or just melted over gnocchi. These simple flavors said "Italy" with every bite. In the beginning of the eighties (when I was running Felidia and Becco in Manhattan), fresh porcini mushrooms and white truffles caused a sensation. That was my first opportunity since I opened my own restaurant to sense the excitement, which still exists today, of inquisitive guests experiencing the pungent aroma of truffles floating throughout the restaurant and their delight when this potatolike tuber is shaved on top of a steaming plate of fresh egg pasta, right under their noses. When the import ban was lifted in the late eighties, traditional Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele began coming into the States to join the other newly discovered pleasures of the Italian table. These breakthrough products were imported and brought to the restaurants mostly by Italian merchants who, along with chefs, sensed that America was ready for these delicacies.

Italian-American food is a cuisine unto itself. It has become a part of us--a slice of Americana. And that is what makes America, the piecing together of a slice of every culture, which in total makes a great whole.

With this book I'll humbly try to pay homage to all of those Italians who came before me and laid the foundation so that we could all have a better life, immigrants and natives alike.

To you Italian-Americans I raise a glass of wine--a glass of Italian wine--as I salute you.

P.S. Running restaurants in New York, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City and hosting a cooking program that airs nationally on PBS give me an advantage that most cookbook authors don't have. I am accessible to my readers, both in person at the restaurants and via our website (lidiasitaly.com), through which I receive many letters and e-mails from you, my readers, viewers, and fellow cooks.

I appreciate this connection with you very much. It gives me a sense of what you like, what new things you'd like to see, and how I can improve. But most of all, I love when you share with me your sentiments and feelings. The first Italian-American Kitchen television shows that aired evoked many special sentiments among you. I would like to thank you for conveying them to me and, as you will see, I have selected some excerpts from them and scattered them throughout this book. I am sorry that there wasn't space enough to include all. But keep those e-mails coming. I read every one of them.

Excerpted from Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich Copyright 2001 by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.