It’s difficult to think about Italian food in New York without thoughts quickly turning to Lidia Bastianich.
Since 1971, when she opened her first restaurant in Queens, N.Y., Bastianich has been instrumental in shaping a kind of quiet empire that has altered the face of Italian food both in New York and across the nation. The seemingly tireless culinarian works with a set of illustrious partners to oversee a stable of popular restaurants and a new 50,000-square-foot culinary marketplace that features its own restaurants, cafes and a cooking school. At the same time, she supervises a slate of extracurricular activities that include television shows, namesake retail products, a personal cookware line and seven books — including a children’s book.
If that weren’t enough, Bastianich also has cooked for the Pope twice and maintained a matronly presence among a storied foodservice family that not only tolerates one another, but also works together by choice.
“For me, being Italian,” Bastianich said, “family is what I’m all about.”
Curiously, it was another storied family that gave Bastianich her start — the Walken family in Queens, who raised a famously eccentric actor son, Christopher Walken, and hired a young Bastianich to work in their bakery when she was 14.
“That was when I first realized I really loved the energy around the way people enjoy food,” Bastianich said.
From there, she went on to open a restaurant of her own in a neighborhood nearby. But it was in 1981 that Bastianich truly started making her name. That was when she moved to the East Side of Manhattan and opened Felidia, the restaurant that established her unique approach — a mixture of stateliness and simplicity that marks great Italian cuisine.
“I have always been tied to food as the real nourishment at the table, rather than creating a super-special experience that will catapult you to another world,” Bastianich said. “Some chefs feel the pressure and the need to invent, but I have always felt much more tied to producing real food that people would eat.”
A similar earthiness marks Bastianich’s other affiliated New York restaurants, including Becco, Esca and Del Posto, as well as two Lidia’s Italy locations in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. This theme is also emphasized in other endeavors like Eataly, the marketplace she recently opened with her longtime partners, son Joe Bastianich and chef Mario Batali, and the “Lidia’s Italy” cooking show she has made an abiding hit on public television.
How does she manage it all?
“I’ve done it all with my family, whether it was my mother helping me in my first restaurant with gnocchi and pasta or working with my children and grandchildren now,” Bastianich said. “Working with family is extremely rewarding.”
But it’s not without its challenges, she added. “When do you stop being a mother and start being a partner?”
Bastianich has a lot of opportunities for partnership with a multi-faceted brand and a multimedia persona to tend. But both the persona and the brand work best when kept close to heart.
“What I’ve really learned and come to appreciate,” Bastianich said, “is the essentialism of food and how little respect we give it. Hospitality is like fashion, with all kinds of new trends and inventions. But there is the underlying reality of food as a nurturer, and I think that is being understood ever more.
“It’s not about food as a toy or a ploy or an adornment. Food is the basis of family, the basis of gathering, the basis of health. That’s its real place in life.”
RELATED: Read more about other inductees in this year's Fine Dining Hall of Fame.