Television chef, best-selling cookbook author, and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich is most known for her exploration of Italian cuisine, but in her latest book, Lidia’s Italy in America, she goes on a road trip across the United States into the heart of Italian American cooking today. We had the pleasure to catch up with her recently to learn what exciting discoveries she made on this journey throughout Italian American kitchens.
What inspired you to write your new book?
You know, I profess the Italian cuisine, so all these years I’ve dedicated my career, my passion to bringing the Italian cuisine and culture to Americans. And in traveling around, I noticed there were so many Italian Americans and so much Italian American culture based on Italian culture that is alive and well throughout the U.S. And I said to myself, I’m going to have to address this at some point. In this book, I am traveling around America, sharing with Americans their Italian heritage. And it’s certainly intense and vibrant, and there’s a lot of good food being cooked.
What do you hope your readers will get out of this?
I think the message is how great of a place America is, how immigrants came and really made it their home. It’s about how they developed their families and made a good living and business, and all this is what makes America strong. The matrix that makes America so resilient is precisely this diversity of cultures. It’s amazing how much the Italian immigrants have taken for themselves but also contributed to making America what it is today.
Out of all of the places you went to on this tour of Italian American communities, which was the most memorable?
They were all charming in their own way. It was fascinating to find that there were three major ports of entry of the Italian immigrants: New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. I knew about New York and Philadelphia, but didn’t realize New Orleans was such a big entry port for Italians, specifically for Sicilians. New Orleans was a cheaper way to enter, and also it offered a lot of work in the Gulf of Mexico with fishing, so that surprised me. One would expect to find hints of French, Creole, and Spanish in New Orleans but I was amazed to find such strong Italian influences down in the French Quarter, such as muffuletta sandwiches and fried artichokes.
But I also loved the Northern California wine industry. Yes, we know there’s Mondavi and Sebastiani, all these Italian wine producers, but the Italian immigrants were at the base of this whole industry, in making Napa and Sonoma what it is today. The northern Italians came and began to transform the fields—they grew mostly corn and sugar there—and transformed it into vineyards, and now it’s a vibrant big industry in America. All these are amazing segues of a culture and how it influenced the U.S. and how we eat today.
How do you think Italian cuisine has been most Americanized today?
The Italian American cuisine is a different cuisine—it’s not Italian cuisine. It doesn’t represent what happens in Italy. You won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy today. You won’t find veal parmagiana, as it is made here, in Italy today. So I think that Italian American cuisine is a great, venerable, and tasty cuisine, but it represents more of the American history. And the difference—let’s take, for example, the simple Sunday sauce, which you think of as tomato sauce and some meat—if you go to Italy around Naples and southern Italy where the sauce is usually made, you find a nice fresh tomato sauce with a piece of pork, or on the other hand, the Sunday sauce transported here in America, has much more garlic, much more dry herbs, and much more meat. Here you have the meatballs, sausages, ribs, and this is because here in America meat was plentiful and in Italy, they didn’t have meat. Therefore, having the meat and adding it meant living well. So there are major differences because of what the immigrants found here. Also, I think to capture the flavor of their memories, they added a lot of garlic because garlic was the one flavor that was constant in Italy and here. Because if you go to Italy, the use of garlic is nowhere near as it is in Italian American cuisine. So you really can trace the evolution of this Italian American food from the products that they found.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
I have a few. I like the fried artichokes very much because of the simplicity. But in the desserts, there’s the Boston Cream Cake which turns into Italian flavored Boston Cream cupcake where orange and lemon juice is added to the batter, and rum to the chocolate, and so on. That’s a key one that I think Americans will really relate to.
What can your Jersey fans expect at your upcoming book signing at Dearborn Market tonight?
I’ll be there with a presentation, but also, the market itself will make available some of the dishes in my book and they have a deli counter where people can try them. We will be also tasting my sauces and pasta, so they will have an opportunity to talk to me, get the book signed, ask questions, and also taste my flavors of some of the other things that I do.
November 2: Holmdel
Lidia’s Italy in America Book and Sauce Signing
2170 Hwy 35
Holmdel, NJ 07733
6:00 – 8:00 pm
Ana Montoya, Hudson County Regional Editor. Ana is a magazine editor by day and freelance writer by night. During the past six years she’s become quite the sunglass expert at her current post at Sunglasses Magazine, a retail trade publication that covers the sunwear industry. When she’s not writing or editing, Ana is usually plotting where to go next since she’s an avid traveler with infinite wanderlust. And of course, one of her favorite parts of traveling is finding new places to eat! Though she’ll be the first to admit her lack of skills in the kitchen, Ana loves food, especially when one of the main ingredients is either garlic or bacon. And while many might describe her as a meat and potatoes kind of girl, she’s currently gradually expanding her taste buds to change that.