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Chef Lidia Bastianich cooks up a quick pasta at her home in Queens, New York. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

Up Close With America’s Favorite Italian Chef Lidia Bastianich

The Italian refugee turned celebrity chef, celebrating 25 years on public television, reflects on the power of food to unite.

At her home in Queens, New York, Lidia Bastianich cooks with a view of the water. Opposite her sprawling kitchen and dining table, wall-to-wall windows look out over her garden to the idyllic Little Neck Bay, where sailboats bob serenely under blue skies. 

Here is where the Italian refugee turned James Beard and Emmy Award-winning chef, restaurateur, TV personality, and author raised her children and her grandchildren; where she taught Julia Child how to make risotto; where she filmed the PBS shows that introduced millions of Americans to traditional Italian home cooking, inviting them around her table with her signature phrase: “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” “Everyone to the table to eat!”

“I feel very American, and I feel very Italian here,” Ms. Bastianich told American Essence on a recent visit. There’s the proximity to the water, what drew her to buy the house in the first place 38 years ago—“since I came from the Adriatic, my dream was always water,” she said—and the garden lined with Italian fig and lemon trees, rosemary and wild fennel, grape trellises, and potted tomatoes—all echoes of the Mediterranean. “And at the same time,” she said, “I see the Empire State Building from my house.”

A perfectly ripe fig from Ms. Bastianich’s backyard. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

It’s a dual identity that she’s embraced from a young age. When she was 10, she and her family fled their home in communist-occupied Istria, a peninsula in northeastern Italy handed over to Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II. They waited two years in a refugee camp in Trieste, Italy, before finding freedom in America in 1958.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Ms. Bastianich harvests her homegrown fennel. (Samira Bouaou for American Essence)

American Essence: What are your strongest food memories associated with the different places in your life’s journey—from your birthplace of Pola, Istria [now Pula, Croatia], to the refugee camp in Trieste, and finally, to America? 

Lidia Bastianich: I have to go back to when I was born: 1947, after the war. The Paris Treaty was in the same month, February, and the border came down: Trieste was given to Italy, and Istria and Dalmatia were given to the newly formed communist Yugoslavia.

We grew up in a country of radical change. Once the communists came, you could not speak Italian, they changed our name, we couldn’t go to church. My mother was a schoolteacher; my father was a mechanic, and he had two trucks. They took the trucks and deemed him a capitalist; they put him in jail for it. So life wasn’t that easy. Even food was scarce. My grandmother, who was in a little town, Busoler, outside of Pola, she raised food and animals to feed the whole family, so my mother took my brother and me out of the city and put us with Grandma. And I think that’s where my first basic food connections happened.

Ms. Bastianich around age 5. (Courtesy of Lidia Bastianich)

With my grandmother, we had chickens, we had ducks, we had geese, we had rabbits, we had goats, we had pigs, we had pigeons. Now and then it was a chicken that went into the pot, then it was a rabbit, then it was a pigeon. I would be feeding these animals. In the springtime, the rabbits loved clover, so I would go and harvest clover in the woods. We would milk the goats, make ricotta. We had two pigs every year, and slaughter was in November, so you had to feed them to get them nice and fat. After the slaughter, we made the sausages, the prosciutto, the bacon. 


(This is a short preview of a story from the Nov. Issue, Volume 3.)