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Lidia Matticchio Bastianich & Joseph Bastianich

Jim Poris - May 2001

Food Arts presents the May 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, who begot a son, Joseph, with whom she has spread the gospel of Italy's boot-size culture via its food and wine. From her base at Felidia, her 20-year-old Manhattan restaurant, Lidia commands a culinary conglomerate that includes televisions shows, cookbooks, a line of pasta sauces, a tour company, and, in partnership with Joseph, four other restaurants and a vineyard in Italy.

"In Truth, what I try to do is transport Italian culture on a plate," Lidia states. "It's about transmitting a philosophy of life rather than having anything to do with the profession of chefing. I want people to not only appreciate a particular product but to understand the people, the land, the history behind it, and how to prepare it in an authentic and heartfelt way."

During the 1970s, Lidia and ex-husband, Felice Bastianich, ran two restaurants in Queens that created a buzz among food cognoscenti. They ventured into Manhattan in 1981, a time when no region of any country was too obscure to whet Americans' inquisitive palates. Lidia satisfied the culinary thrill-seekers to no en, parlaying the polenta, risotto, sguazet (slow-cooked dishes with sauce), and other similarly obscure Italo-Slav foods of her native Pula on the Adriatic's Istrian Peninsula from well-received curiosities into often-imitated successes. "My food was regional because it was what I knew best," says Lidia, a self-educated chef. "It also happened to be new to Americans. The way I was received was way beyond what I thought food could do. That I could speak through food, as if it were music or art, endows it with a certain power."

Lidia has done much with her platform, including an inordinate amount of work with various United Nations agencies on behalf of war victims. With Joseph, who ditched a nascent career on Wall Street for the excitement of restaurants, she opened the modestly priced, wine-friendly Becco in 1993 and Frico in 1995, both in the Theater District. Lately, she and Joseph bound elements of Becco and Felidia into Lidia's, which they took first to Kansas City in 1998 and then two months ago to Pittsburg. With her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, and Shelly Burgess Nicotra, her marketing/public relations director, Lidia founded Esperienze Italiane to organize and lead food-and-wine tours of Italy. And, of course, there are books—La Cucina di Lidia (1990) and two companion volumes to her two PBS television series, Lidia's Italian Table (1998), and Lidia's Italian Table: Italian-American Favorites (due later this year).

For his part, Joseph has forged a flashy partnership with chef Mario Batali to create three critically acclaimed restaurants—Babbo, Lupa, and Esca—with Sergio Esposito in the mix, a wine store/demo studio called Italian Wine Merchants. "My partners are the artistic types, so I help them to be who they're going o be without worrying about logistics," Joseph says about his role as a facilitator and master of business infrastructure.