Features Food

Up Close With America’s Favorite Italian Chef Lidia Bastianich

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.)

Features American Success Entrepreneurs Generation to Generation Giving Back

Remembering Henry Villard, the Renowned 19th-Century Railway Financier, Through the Eyes of His Great-Granddaughter

Her name alone is nearly poetic, but it is history and grandeur that give Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave her befitting nomenclature.

She is the great-granddaughter of Henry Villard, a Bavarian native who came to America with only 20 borrowed dollars in his pocket—only to make groundbreaking financial ventures and become president of the Northern Pacific Railroad and owner of the New York Evening Post. He also built what has become one of Manhattan’s most recognizable architectural landmarks: the Villard Houses, a Gilded Age mansion that today houses the luxurious Lotte New York Palace hotel.

He believed so much in the greatness of America that he put his whole soul into the railway company—allowing it to complete the country’s second transcontinental railroad—and funded Thomas Edison’s early experiments in electricity, Alexandra reflected. Meanwhile, the Villard Houses remain one of the few surviving examples of stunning design by the acclaimed architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White.

Villard de Borchgrave attends the American Ballet Theater Gala in Washington, D.C., circa 1985, when she served as the chairwoman. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The American Story

Villard immigrated to the United States in 1853 from Germany at the age of 18. Within five years of arriving in America, he mastered the English language and began working for leading daily newspapers at the time. Villard covered the famous presidential debates between Abraham Lincoln and Democratic Illinois senator Stephen Douglas over the issue of slavery. Lincoln took a shine to him, and included him in his entourage. Villard was the only correspondent, then working for the Associated Press, to accompany the president-elect on his inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois to the nation’s capital. Then, during the Civil War, he was a war correspondent for The New York Herald and later for the New-York Tribune. In his coverage, he made sure black soldiers were properly commemorated for their service.

Henry Villard was a man of grit and determination. Portrait taken circa 1881. (Photo credit: Corbis Images/ Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)
Henry Villard (R) with his wife, Fanny Garrison Villard, and daughter, Helen, at their Dobbs Ferry estate in New York state, circa 1898. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

He was there when Thomas Edison famously lit up the first incandescent light bulb at Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1879. Villard would later hire Edison to install lighting aboard his new steamship, the S.S. Columbia. That was the first commercial installation of Edison’s invented light bulb. The installation was successful as the ship made its trip around South America. “Of all of my patrons,” Edison said, “Henry Villard believed in the light with all his heart.”

In 1881, Villard secured control of the Northern Pacific Railroad company through what modern-day finance would call a leveraged buyout. At the time, Villard was the president of major railway companies operating in the Pacific Northwest. But one major competitor, Northern Pacific Railroad, stood in the way. He started buying shares of the company quietly. But it was not enough to gain control. He came up with the idea, known as the ”blind pool,” of raising money for the venture by asking his friends to invest in a secret opportunity. By not revealing the plan, the investors became eager to get in on the novelty. Meanwhile, his intentions would be hidden from the competitor company. The tactic worked, and he became president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Later, he bought two of Edison’s electric utility companies, Edison Lamp Company and Edison Machine Works, and formed them into the Edison General Electric Company in 1889. He served as president until its reorganization in 1893 into the General Electric Company.

A horde of visitors attends the “last spike” ceremony announcing the opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad, September 1883. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Villard built his wealth from the ground up and was generous with it, paying off debts for universities and financing some of America’s most iconic colleges and architectural preserves, including Harvard University, the University of Oregon, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He was so inspiring to his great-granddaughter, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave, that she honored his legacy in a 2001 biography co-authored with John Cullen called “VILLARD: The Life and Times of an American Titan.” The book tells of his remarkable rise from humble beginnings, eventually becoming a powerful financier and befriending luminaries like then-general Ulysses S. Grant (while covering the Civil War), and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, among many others.

The Descendant

As a photojournalist, Villard de Borchgrave built a reputation on the merits of her own talents, with her work appearing on the covers of international magazines such as Newsweek and Paris Match. The late president of Egypt Anwar Sadat, Henry Kissinger, and the late U.S. president George H.W. Bush are among the many world leaders she photographed, and her portraits hang in government offices around the world.

Villard de Borchgrave covers the October War in Egypt as a photojournalist, 1973. (Photo credit: J.R. Bonnotte)
Villard de Borchgrave greets Anwar Sadat, the third president of Egypt. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

She went on to establish a charitable organization called the Light of Healing Hope Foundation, which gifted books of hope to comfort patients receiving treatment at hospitals and hospices. With an eye toward helping those in the military, her foundation donated thousands of gifts to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Navy Seal Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project, and American Gold Star Mothers. During its 12 years of activities, her organization also provided uplifting books and journals to several children’s facilities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House Charities, and the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Villard de Borchgrave donated over 70,000 gifts which included her books of poetry and musical DVDs, for those who could not read, to over 100 medical centers nationwide. She developed and shared a total of eight inspirational publications including her first book, “Healing Light: Thirty Messages of Love, Hope, & Courage.”

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, United Nations secretary-general during the 1990s, wrote the foreword for “Healing Light.” Villard de Borchgrave and her husband Arnaud, who enjoyed a long career as chief foreign correspondent for Newsweek, had become friends with Boutros and his wife Leia while in Cairo in the 1960s. The couples were having dinner together in Paris when Villard de Borchgrave asked him to write the foreword, and so he did. “He just took a paper napkin on the table,” she recalled, and “penned it.”

Villard (R) holds his first grandson, Henry Serrano, with his son Harold beside them. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave)

Despite her many accomplishments, Villard de Borchgrave is most proud of her long marriage. She and her husband Arnaud, who passed away in 2015, were bonded for more than 45 years by their love of adventure and for each other. “In the 47 years since the first moment we met, Arnaud never failed to inspire me with his courage and determination,” Villard de Borchgrave passionately professed.

She also humbly pays homage to her parents, describing her mother as “a warm and giving person” and her father as someone who instilled a good work ethic in her, having worked on the U.S. Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European countries after World War II. Most of all, Villard de Borchgrave said, she draws inspirational humility from those who have been forced to overcome unspeakable tragedies. “I’m most inspired by the ability of those who are suffering,” she said, “to find a way to express gratitude despite the pain and hardship they are experiencing.”

Alexandra at the launch party for her book of poetry “Love & Wisdom,” at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., 2018. (Photo credit: Colleen Dugan)

Not only has Villard de Borchgrave honored her great-grandfather’s legacy through her biography about him, but has also, through her own work, continued to carry forth the same message of hope, courage, and resilience that he displayed throughout his life. “Henry Villard believed in America,” she said. “To this day, our country offers unique opportunities to anyone with the courage and determination to realize a dream, just as he did.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 


Investing in the American Dream

Growing up, the only person Charles Mizrahi knew on Wall Street was an uncle who waited tables in the New York Stock Exchange dining room.

“My father was a warehouse manager, and the block I lived on in Brooklyn was as working-class as you can get,” he said. “Three cab drivers on the block, security guards, sanitation workers, school teachers.”

Investing expert Mizrahi today is known for having an impeccable record in money management, and it has a lot to do with his working-class roots.

“My parents couldn’t afford to send my brother and I to camp,” he said. “That’s a big thing in Brooklyn—all the kids go to summer camp.”

Instead, Mizrahi spent his time in the library, and remains a voracious reader today. He’d read everything from comics to businessmen’s biographies, but it was in the back of comic books that he found his first opportunity.

An advertisement said that readers could sign up to sell greeting cards, then submit earnings in exchange for one of several prizes. So Mizrahi sent his name and address by mail, and a few weeks later a big box showed up at his house, alarming his mother.

“I told her what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘Okay, stay on this block, don’t go into anybody’s house, and take your brother with you,’” Mizrahi said. They left at noon, went door to door, and sold out by 1 p.m. He sent in the money and soon received a microscope.

Mizrahi at age 8. (Courtesy of Charles Mizrahi)

“I always had the bug to find a way to make money,” Mizrahi said. That greeting card event set off an entrepreneurial streak; he’d write to sports teams, ask for stickers, then sell the decals to classmates for a dime or two each. Soon he was reading books about business, Solomon Guggenheim, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. It became clear that all these successful businessmen had one thing in common: They made their money on Wall Street.

A 40-Minute Ride Away

Wall Street was 40 minutes away by subway, but it felt worlds away from where Mizrahi grew up.

“I always primed myself to one day go down and make money there, because I read so many great stories about people who were smart, and hustled, and who were able to make money on Wall Street,” he said. In fact, he’d tried to get a job as a busboy there, to no avail. But at the age of 20, he left college for a job at the New York Futures Exchange. He would regularly disembark the subway at Rector Street and marvel at the reality of the opportunity.

“I was walking into the New York Futures Exchange, right next to the New York Stock Exchange, with computer screens all around. I wasn’t lifting heavy boxes like I was working in the warehouse, which I did every summer, I wasn’t doing jobs like my friends who were lifeguards. I was actually in the center of capitalism, and I used to just wake up every morning excited to go to Wall Street,” he said.

Excitement and optimism alone didn’t translate into success. Mizrahi found he wasn’t any good at what he was doing, at least in the beginning. There was much he couldn’t make heads or tails of.

But he experienced a spirit of generosity that has continued throughout his career.

Wisdom, Experience, and the Spirit of Generosity

“I always had a good way, throughout my life, of finding people who were older and much smarter than me, and just attaching myself to them and asking them for advice,” Mizrahi said. He also said he’s been lucky: never too shy, nor too proud, to ask for help, he’s made a lifelong habit of reaching out to those he admires.

When Mizrahi started trading in 1983, most everyone was using technical models.

“They looked at the stock price and they built all these models based on moving averages and things like that,” Mizrahi said. One mentor, a former engineer, took the time to explain it all to Mizrahi, taking out graph paper and charting the details. Mizrahi was amazed. He took to the technical models and soon was managing money for his father, brother, and grandparents. After two years, he left the Exchange to start his own business.

“We had an office on 8th Avenue,” Mizrahi said with a laugh. “It was the slums then, it was terrible. We were just so happy to have an office.”

Charles Mizrahi in his office in 1985. (Courtesy of Charles Mizrahi)

The business he began in that terrible office ended up managing money for some of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks, sidestepping the 1987 crash, and being named top trader in the country by Barron’s. For Mizrahi however, the accolades don’t leave as lasting an impression as the lives he’s seen changed.

“It was so great because my first clients were people that I knew. To make someone who was a cab driver or a family member 20 or 30 percent a year when they were making 3 or 5 percent in the bank, it was like ‘Wow, I really changed their lives,'” Mizrahi said.

Then in 1999, Mizrahi looked at the dot-com bubble and knew something was wrong.

“I had a look at my models and I said, this is really unprecedented and something is really disconnected,” he said. “Interest rates are going one way, and the stock markets are going the other way … and it’s just absolutely astounding what’s going on. People were quitting their jobs and day trading—it was 1929 all over again.”

Two of Mizrahi’s longtime mentors-from-afar were Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

Munger said to take your best idea and try to destroy it; if you can’t, it’s still your best idea, but if you can, then move on to something better—Mizrahi took out all his technical models, and realized he didn’t have the same faith in them that he had the year before.

Buffett, whose reports Mizrahi had always followed (though they were more relevant to a different kind of business than his), subscribed to a method called value investing, which is based on evaluating businesses directly rather than by developing models from stock prices—this approach resonated with Mizrahi, but just to be sure, he went and bought 50-some books about investing, from Amazon, and read them over the next three months.

“It just confirmed what I was thinking, that this makes much more sense,” Mizrahi said. He changed the way he looked at stocks. “Investing into a stock was like buying into a business, and that changed everything.”

Mizrahi looked at Buffet and thought: “Here’s the richest, most successful trade investor of all time. If he’s doing it this way, why shouldn’t I?”

Back when Mizrahi was looking at technical models, it was an hour-to-hour affair. “It’s insane, absolutely insane,” he said in retrospect. After he changed his strategy, he said with a laugh that he could sleep again. “Forget about the stock market. Because over time, the stock market follows the worth of a business, not the other way around.”

Buffet started as a technical trader too, Mizrahi added, remembering a speech Buffett gave where he talked about how value investing wasn’t for everyone, and perhaps only 10 percent of traders subscribed to the strategy.

“Which is great because that creates market opportunity for us,” Mizrahi said. It’s the philosophy behind Alpha Investor, Mizrahi’s current newsletter and mission to help 1 million Americans evaluate stocks and invest smarter. “Why would I want to follow the fifth guy, or the twentieth guy? Don’t you want to follow the top guy?”

Make the World a Better Place

These days, it’s not about the money.

In 2001 Mizrahi got into financial publishing along with money management, and then a few years later started writing a newsletter about investing. It’s what he still does now, with the newsletter Alpha Investor, and every week he gets dozens of detailed and personal thank you notes.

“They run the gamut,” Mizrahi said. A professional banker wrote in, saying, “I’m living the American Dream due in large part to you,” then signing off with a thanks and a “God bless you.” A retired police officer said that he and his wife had lost everything in the 2008 crash but have since achieved financial security thanks to Mizrahi’s advice, writing “Thank you very much for your selfless and noble mission; you’re helping Americans from all walks of life secure a safer financial future.”

“Where else can you get a job where people write ‘God bless you?'” Mizrahi said as he scanned through emails. “Every day I look forward to getting emails from people who are—it’s, this is not about making money anymore.” More recently, Mizrahi has started a podcast (The Charles Mizrahi Show), which has also shot up in popularity.

Success, for Mizrahi, means doing his part every day to make the world a better place—even the tiny contributions, because over time everything adds up. We live in a time where plenty of Americans are frightened for their financial futures, and Mizrahi’s mission in sharing his knowledge freely is to show people that it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Nobody ever got rich shorting America,” Mizrahi said. “There is nothing to be disillusioned about. Any morning you can wake up and be partners with anybody: with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, by buying a share; with Warren Buffett, buying a share of Berkshire [Hathaway Inc.]. I could be partners with these people, passive partners, investing in their business for any price I want.”

“Nothing’s preventing you from buying a share—you buy a share, be partners with them, sit back, and admire their genius,” Mizrahi said.

“This is fertile ground for anyone who wants opportunity, who’s willing to work hard, and serve the American consumer, and come up with another mousetrap,” Mizrahi said. From patent work to bankruptcy laws, there is a whole system in place that protects the individual, unlike in any other country. “The smartest, greatest, most adventurous entrepreneurial minds in the world, they come here and start businesses,” he said. And the average American can partner with every one of them.

“You have every advantage,” Mizrahi said. He knows that he and his children certainly have, over his parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Most of those working-class neighbors on the block where Mizrahi grew up were first-generation Americans who sought opportunity in the land of liberty and worked harder than anyone he knew, with never a thought of throwing in the towel. In fact, their mindsets were always that tomorrow would be better than today, and Mizrahi adopted that mentality too.

The cab driver’s child went off to college and became a professor. Mizrahi’s friend from across the street, whose father was a high school shop teacher, became head of currency trade for a major bank. And his friend from down the block, whose father was a truck driver, became a lawyer.

“That’s what was so amazing to me. It could not have happened if they didn’t believe and live every day of their life believing they have an opportunity,” he said. “If not for them, their family, their children wouldn’t have a better life. How many countries can you say that about?”

But it wasn’t sacrifice that stuck with Mizrahi, it was the importance of family.

His parents passed this down to him and his brother along with Jewish education, so as to ensure that their traditions and culture would continue, and he’s made sure to pass these things down to his children as well.

“Family is the only thing that’s important,” Mizrahi said. “Everything else takes a back seat.”

(Courtesy of Charles Mizrahi)
Entrepreneurs Features

Gemstone Dreams

How a Romanian immigrant discovered a new path in America

Dorian Filip was a massage therapist in 2009, working aboard the Seabourn Odyssey on its maiden voyage around the Mediterranean. After some years in the industry, he had developed aches in his neck, shoulder, and hands that were increasingly painful, and thoughts of quitting were on his mind.

“I said, ‘If nothing works, I’ll go to the army—I’ll go spend five years there, and they’ll give me a pension after.’”

One fateful day, Filip was assigned to take care of one of the cruise passengers, Brian Albert, who had booked a spa appointment. The two struck up a conversation about life plans. Albert is a wholesale jewelry dealer, with an eye for spotting beautiful things from a young age; when he was 16, he started buying up trinkets at junk shops and selling them to family and friends.

Albert invited Filip to come to New York and learn the trade. Filip was unsure if this was his path, but Albert encouraged him.

“He asked me, ‘What do you like in life?’ And I said a few things that I liked,” such as cars and watches, Filip said. “He said, ‘If you like and understand those things, you’ll understand jewelry too.’”

American Dream

Filip took a leap of faith; about three months after that cruise, he flew to New York from his home country of Romania.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t really tell what was costume jewelry or what was really fine jewelry,” he said, referring to jewelry made with imitation gems or inexpensive materials, versus pieces crafted with precious metals and gemstones. “It was a little confusing.” Albert brought Filip to trade shows, antique shows, and estate sales, showing him the ropes of how to procure exquisite pieces for a bevy of Madison Avenue fine jewelers.

A Tiffany & Co bracelet with rubies and sapphires. (Sam)
Vintage Chanel earrings. (Sam)

Albert tends to buy from estates and other dealers, so as to procure for his clients one-of-a-kind items they haven’t seen before. He also taught Filip the importance of maintaining long-term relationships with clients—Albert is the kind of person who would throw cocktail parties for cruise staff, or meet a maitre d’, become fast friends, and sometime later end up on a vacation in Hungary together.

“We have been dealing with the same people … for 30, 40 years, and even longer,” Albert said.

There are plenty of fascinating stories from traveling around the world in search of beautiful jewelry. Albert recounted a time when he was visiting Turkey while on a cruise trip. He walked into a local shop and began chatting with the store operator.

“He pulled the box out of the safe and in the safe were some of the prettiest things you ever saw. There was a sautoir necklace with pearl and diamond tassels,” Albert said, getting excited as he recalled spotting the rare find. At the time, Albert didn’t have any money with him and had to return to the cruise ship soon, but the shop operator let Albert take the piece, telling him to send a check to his sister in the United States.

Sometimes “there’s this feeling you get when you do business with people, there’s a certain comfort level,” Albert said. Filip and Albert both deeply believe it was destiny that led to these seemingly happenstance discoveries—and also brought them together.

“When I met Brian the very first time, I had the feeling I knew Brian a long time already. … I guess people connect at the right time,” Filip said.

A New Venture

In 2010, Filip experienced his next life-changing event. While having dinner at a restaurant with Albert, he met the hostess, Alexandrina, who was working part-time there while pursuing a career in fashion. The two immediately connected, having both come from former Soviet countries—Alexandrina is from Moldova. Although they were good friends from the start, it was a business trip to Australia that made Filip realize how much he missed Alexandrina. The couple grew closer, and in 2015, they were married.

Alexandrina Filip wears a pair of David Webb 18K gold and rock crystal earrings. (Sam)

Around 2013, Filip and Albert opened a retail shop for the first time, DSF Antique Jewelry. With Alexandrina on board, the shop expanded its offerings to vintage designer handbags, costume jewelry, and other accessories. Albert does much of the sourcing, while the couple handles day-to-day operations. Amid the pandemic, they had to close the physical store, but have kept their online shop going.

As believers in traditional craftsmanship, they hope that more ordinary consumers will make wise investments and buy old. Antique pieces don’t have the costs of manufacturing or advertising in their price tags, and thus represent greater value for the money. Alexandrina said that among their clients, “the younger generation are more responsive to this … because they want a part of history, they want something that nobody else has. And it’s fashionable.”

Alexandrina Filip wears a pair of vintage tanzanite 18K white gold earrings; a Bulgari Parentesi watch in 18K white gold; a Bulgari Parentesi diamond necklace; and an estate diamond 18K yellow gold bracelet. (Sam)

Albert said that from his experience, antique pieces tend to exhibit finer workmanship: “They’re made by hand, they’re one of a kind.” People also cared for and maintained their valuables back in the day.

“Years ago, people bought things and they took care of them. That’s why so many of the old pieces that we buy, that come from the original families, are so well-preserved and loved—because they appreciated that.”