Interview with Lidia Bastianich – Part 1 and a recipe for Rice and Zucchini Crostata (Torta di Riso e Zucchine)
We have had the privilege of meeting some amazing people over the past few years: chefs, restauranteurs, farmers and business owners. People that have impacted our lives in ways I could not have imagined. One of these people is Lidia Bastianich.
I was invited to interview Lidia when we were in New York City for the James Beard Foundation Awards in May of this year. Lidia is known for so many successful ventures including two cooking series on Public Television, Lidia’s Italy in America and Emmy nominated Lidia’s Italy. She owns and operates six restaurants in three different cities and has written seven cookbooks, a children’s book and has a new cookbook due out in the fall of 2012. Partnering with her son, Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Oscar Farinetti, Lidia opened Eataly, a 42,500 square foot Italian artisan food and wine market (with several restaurants) in New York City in August 2010. She is the founder and president of an entertainment company, Tavola Productions.
In addition, she has several other business projects with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali. These include a tabletop and cookware line and line of specialty food products. Tanya, a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history, is also a partner with Lidia and Joe in four of the restaurants. Tanya plays an important role in Lidia’s television series and has co-authored two of Lidia’s books.
Lidia owns two vineyards in Italy with her son Joe which produce award-winning wines, Bastianich Vineyard in Friuli and La Mozza Vineyard in Maremma. She has had numerous James Beard Foundation Award nominations and is the recipient of five of the prestigious awards including one for Best Chef U.S. in 2000, Outstanding Chef for Felidia (New York City) in 2002, and for Best Cooking Series, Lidia’s Italy in 2009. This year, Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions, was a finalist for Outstanding Documentary in the James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Awards. Lidia is also actively involved in the community and participates in special events for several foundations and on behalf of Public Television.
When we mentioned our interview of Lidia to a well-known chef from Texas, his comment was, “Food Hero.” I would have to agree. Lidia has brought an unprecedented awareness to Italian and Italian-American cuisine, regional artisans, farmers, and small business owners, in both the United States and Italy. We were so inspired by our time spent with Lidia that this interview will be in two parts since there is so much to share.
I like to know as much as I can about someone before I meet them. In the case of Lidia Bastianich, I knew of her past but couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her telling her story. Some of you may know of Lidia’s childhood, but I’ve decided to share it here because it sets the stage for what is truly a remarkable life’s journey.
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich was born in 1947 in the town of Pula. Originally a part of Italy, this town on the Istrian peninsula (located on the Adriatic Sea), was turned over to communist Yugoslavia after World War II (this area is now part of Croatia). During that time, Lidia’a mother was pregnant and it was difficult for them to flee the country as many other families did by crossing over the border into Italy. Therefore, they lived under communist rule without the things that were most important to their Italian heritage. They were not allowed to attend church or permitted to speak Italian. However, they were permitted to travel to visit their grandparents when Lidia was a young girl.
Lidia’s grandparents lived in the nearby countryside and spoke Italian. Her grandparents raised and slaughtered their own animals and grew and produced their own food. There were freshly laid eggs from the chickens, house cured prosciutto and bacon from their pigs, and homemade ricotta and cheeses from fresh milk. The wheat was harvested in June and the kernels remained on the floor until they chose to grind their own flour. Olive trees provided the olive oil for cooking. Lydia recalls, “I remember plowing potatoes with my grandmother, following behind her with a basket. The potatoes were warm in my hand as they came out of the ground. Perfect with a little olive oil or in a fritatta. These foods were seasonally foraged. I loved it. I was given a gift of nature.”
In 1956, when her parents decided to leave their home because they no longer wanted to raise their two children under communist rule, Lidia’s father, Vittorio, sent his wife and children to Trieste, Italy to visit family. He was required to stay back to ensure the rest of the family would return. The children did not know they would not be returning home and their goodbyes to their grandparents would be their last. They left with just enough of their personal belongings to fit in a suitcase. Vittorio, in the dark of night, soon escaped over the border to join the rest of the family in Trieste.
The Bastianich family sought political asylum and were placed in a political refugee camp in Trieste for two years waiting to emigrate. When President Eisenhower opened immigration to the United States, Catholic Relief Charities were able to intervene and the family was moved to North Bergen, New Jersey.
“We came from a basic life. That was the reality. This move propelled us into the United States and the land of opportunity. My parents eventually found jobs. Meanwhile, I found a real connection with food. I had unfinished business (from leaving Italy) and discovered that food was the connection to my grandmother and the home we left behind.”
Lidia’s first job at age 14 was in actor Christopher Walken’s family bakery in Astoria, New York. “If someone needed a cake on a Sunday and the bakery was closed, I made a cake.” Working full-time in local Italian restaurants after she graduated from high school, Lidia’s connection to food became even stronger. “I met my husband in this industry and opened my first restaurant with him (Buonavia in Queens) at age 24. I was not a chef, but I knew food.”
I was interested in how Lidia went from owning one restaurant at age 24 to the impressive food empire that she presides over today. “I became the conduit; people looking for their roots and heritage, not just Italians. I represent that. I always look, research, learn and apply these things. Along the way, there was always someone that nurtured me or fed me energy in different ways. People bring you an element and you make it your own. I did this. I grew.”
One of the people that had a major influence on Lidia and her career was Julia Child. Julia would come to dine at Felidia (Lidia’s flagship restaurant in Manhattan where we met her). She would most often be accompanied by James Beard. The two eventually became friends. Julia recognized Lidia’s talent and asked her to tape two shows with her, one of which was nominated for an Emmy. Lidia told us, “Julia said I was good and should have a television show.” At that time Lidia was interested in transitioning from a chef and an artisan into communicating her message through television. She was not sure of the path to get there, but soon found encouragement working with Julia.
Julia’s inspiration on Lidia’ s television career was evident. “I love to communicate a way of life, a passion, a message. It is what Julia did so well. It was never about her. Some chefs that are on television, it is all about them. That is why Julia was so great. She was interested in the viewers and getting something going in the kitchen. If she made a mistake, she let it go. If I have a hole in the pasta, I patch it. It is okay. It happens. I am comfortable with that.”
How does she remember James Beard from those days? “He was certainly way ahead of his time. He was a big man, heavy and quite jovial. He was always very proper and wore a bow tie.”
Of all of the different businesses Lidia has owned over her vast career, what has been the most challenging? Restaurants. She said this with no hesitation. “There are so many ways to fail. You can have the best chef, but not the ability to manage people and you will fail.”
As one business opportunity has led to another during her journey, she says, “It is all about getting the right people together. Talented, ‘I can do that’ people. I look for passion and a willingness to get in and roll up your sleeves and make it happen. People who believe in something is more important than having people who come to work fully prepared and equipped and set in their ways. I am committed to the people that work for me. Once you built the trust of people, there is also understanding. You fuel their talent. You have to have a vision and be a mentor. They need to respect you.”
Part II of my discussion with Lidia Bastianich will cover more about her food philosophy, the importance of family, and where we are headed with cooking and food.
We had lunch at Felidia before meeting Lidia and had the pleasure of being introduced to Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra who has been at Felidia since 1995. Nicotra earned a Michelin Star at the age of 23 at Villa Marchese Restaurant in Milazzo, Sicily. Since his arrival at Felidia, the restaurant has received numerous accolades including earning three stars from Ruth Reichl of the New York Times just three months after Chef Nicotra arrived. Felidia was named by Wine Spectator as one of the “Top Ten Italian Restaurants in the United States” in 1998. In 2008, USA Today’s Jerry Shriver said Felidia was #2 in his year-end round up of best restaurants in the world.
Our lunch at Felidia was one of our highlights while visiting New York City. The beautiful scallop appetizer I had (no photo) was exceptional. The Nantucket scallops were perfectly seared and incredibly sweet. Chef Nicotra said they cannot always get those scallops, but they are very special when they do. I also had Tonno, Yellow Fin Tuna “Palermitana”. The fish was grilled on just one side, served rare with roasted fennel and an Agrodoci Sauce.
Mr. B had a gorgeous seafood dish, Grigliata Di Pesce, with scallops, lobster, calamari, shrimp and razor clams. Everything was presented beautifully and perfectly cooked. The quality of the ingredients was evident in every course. We only took a few photographs with the iPhone so that we would not disturb other diners, but each dish that arrived outdid the one before it.
I have made several of Lidia’s recipes at home and they have been excellent. I would like to share one with you here, Torta di Riso e Zucchine (Rice and Zucchini Crostata). This dish did have a few steps, but the results were outstanding. We ate it as a main course with a salad since it was quite satisfying. It would also be perfect to serve as a first course or appetizer. The following notes about the recipe are from Lidia:
This is a generously proportioned version of the delicious rice-and- zucchini crostata, or tart, that my cousin prepared when our family first visited Genova, nearly fifty years ago. She made hers in a small baking pan, and mine is the same, only bigger! I use a half-sheet baking pan (a jelly-roll pan will work, too) lined with the olive-oil-based dough that has no leavening, is easy to make, and fantastic to roll. The large size of this crostata is necessary, I find, because the crostata disappears right away.
Whether I put it on a buffet in bite-sized party pieces, bring it to a picnic, or serve it as a plated appetizer or main course with salad, everyone loves it—and has to have another piece. And in the unlikely event you do have leftovers, they can be frozen and reheated—just as good as when freshly baked.
The procedure is straightforward and quick, though there’s one important (and interesting) step you must leave time for: steeping the uncooked rice with the shredded zucchini. Since squash is a watery vegetable and rice is dry and starchy, this steeping allows the rice to extract most of the vegetable water from the zucchini. In this way, the grain is softened enough to cook during the baking time, and without absorbing all the liquid from the ricotta and milk. The result is a moist, creamy, and flavorful filling.
Torta di Riso e Zucchine (Rice and Zucchini Crostata
Yield: Serves 15 as an appetizer
Prep Time: 60 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 3/4 hours
For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup cold water, plus more as needed
For the filling:
1 pound small zucchini
1/2 cup Italian short-grain rice, such as Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano
2 cups ricotta, preferably fresh, drained overnight
1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 bunches scallions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Butter for the baking pan
You will need a food processor; a baking stone, if you have one; a 12-by- 18- inch rimmed baking sheet (a half-sheet pan).
To make the dough:
1. Put the 2 cups flour and the salt in the food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse a few seconds to aerate. Mix the oil and water together in a spouted measuring cup. With the processor running, pour the liquid through the feed tube and process about 30 seconds, until a soft dough forms and gathers on the blade. If it doesn’t, it is probably too dry. Add more water, in small amounts, until you have a smooth, very soft dough.
2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for a minute, until it’s smooth and soft. Pat into a rectangle and wrap in plastic wrap. Let rest at room temperature for 1/2 hour. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to a day, or frozen for a month or more. Defrost in the refrigerator, and return to room temperature before rolling.)
To make the filling:
1. Shred the zucchini on the coarse holes of a box grater into a large bowl. Toss the rice and shredded zucchini together, and let sit for 30 minutes to an hour, so the grains absorb the vegetable liquid.
2. Fold in the ricotta (breaking up any lumps), then the grated cheese, scallions, beaten eggs, milk, and salt, stirring until thoroughly mixed. When you’re ready to bake the torta, set a rack in the bottom half of the oven—with a baking stone on it, if you have one—and heat the oven to 375º. Spread the butter on the bottom and sides of the pan.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a rectangle that’s at least 4 inches longer and wider than the baking sheet. Transfer the dough to the pan, either by folding it in quarters and lifting it onto the sheet, or by rolling it up around the floured rolling pin and then unfurling it over the baking sheet. When the dough is centered over the pan, then gently press it flat against the bottom and rim of the pan, leaving even flaps of overhanging dough on all sides. (If the dough tears as you are moving it, patch it with a bit of dough from the edges.)
4. Pour and scrape the rice-zucchini filling into the dough-lined pan, and spread it to fill the crust in an even layer. Fold the dough flaps over the top of the filling, pleating the corners, to form a top crust border that looks like a picture frame, with the filling exposed in the middle. Set the pan in the oven (on the heated stone), and bake until the crust is deep golden brown and the filling is set, 45 minutes to an hour. About halfway through the baking time, turn the pan in the oven, back to front, for even color and cooking. Cool the torta on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes to set the filling before slicing. The torta can be served warm or at room temperature, cut into appetizer or bite-sized pieces in any shape you like— squares, rectangles, triangles, or diamonds.
Recipe from lidiasitaly.com
Reprinted with express permission