Since moving to New York at the age of 12, Bastianich has worked her way up from pioneering female sous chef to owner of the well-regarded Queens (and later Manhattan) rustic Italian outpost Felidia. And that’s before Batali entered the picture, whom she teamed with to open Esca and Del Posto. (Without Bastianich paving the way, “sauce as a condiment” may never have entered the food-lover’s lexicon.)
But it’s still her TV show, which debuted in 1998, that we know her best for. Roasted lamb shoulder, chicken liver, chocolate and hazelnut crepes—the dishes roll off her delicate hands like a master Vegas poker dealer. And we all wonder, while lounging on our overstuffed sofas with dreams of fixing a pot of Trieste goulash in 17 minutes: Who is this lady?
You were recently named grand marshal of this year’s Columbus Day parade. What will you eat to celebrate?
It is such a tremendous honor, with all the dignitaries and the mayor attending. The people from my region in Italy, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, are throwing me a party at Del Posto. I think they are serving a traditional Friulian dinner. I imagine they could start with a mushroom fritto made with Montasio cheese or a sauerkraut soup. Next would be a pasta or risotto. For the main course it would have to be something braised like beef or pork chops. Polenta could be on the menu.
Friulian cuisine is certainly not what Americans would consider Italian…
That is right. The region has many German and Slavic influences and is very industrious, especially with the vineyards where they produce some of the best Italian whites like Tocai and Pinot Grigio.
You are involved with the emerging gastro-tourism industry and sometimes lead cooking classes in Italy. What is a typical trip like?
My daughter has a PhD in Renaissance art, so trips combine both cooking and art. The latest one is based around Tuscany and gives people the opportunity to get their hands on the food at the markets. I usually stop by for a couple days to show the group my favorite food artisans like special wineries and cheese makers.
Briefly, describe your four restaurants: Felidia, Becco, Del Posto and Esca.
Felidia is my base. It’s where I made my name as a woman cooking regional Italian food. Last year we received our fourth three-star review. Becco is the first collaboration between my son and I. The food is fresh and popularly priced. It’s in the theater district, and I love the energy. Del Posto is our newest baby, a grand baby really. It’s the space every restaurateur wishes they had. Mark Ladner is a very committed, analytical chef. At Esca, David Pasternack would much rather be fishing than cooking. This man loves fish and handles it so minimally, which is important.
What are some of your favorite non-Italian restaurants in New York?
I like ethnic restaurants like Vietnamese and Korean, and Thai has always been a favorite. I went to Momofuku before they got the review and absolutely loved it. That was our hangout for a while, before it became too crowded. To me David Chang’s cooking conveys a culture, but also shows his flair. Young chefs need to find a traditional root to base their cooking around. Food does not appear. It’s not invented. It follows and feeds a culture and is very logical. But being just creative doesn’t have longevity.
Who is your favorite New York food person?
Eli Zabar. I think he was ahead of his time because way back he was exalting food artisans. He is involved in every element of the restaurant industry. He’s altruistic. An all-around great person.
In Bill Buford’s book “Heat,” it is presented that Mario Batali can, and has, consumed an entire case of wine over the course of an evening. I have endlessly debated the feasibility of this. True?
No, that’s sensationalism. Mario is a great guy and a bon vivant, and he loves his glass of wine, so as a reader I would take it to heart. But I was misquoted in the book, so I think some of it is played up.
What brings you a larger increase in sales: a 92 rating from Robert Parker for a Bastianich Vineyards wine or three stars for Esca from Frank Bruni?
Oh gosh, three stars from Bruni just propels you. And whatever Parker says, you can see the crescendo. It’s slower, but it’s there. You couldn’t ask for anything better from each.
You’re appearing at the Foxwoods Food and Wine Festival on Saturday, Sept. 15. What should people expect from your demo?
I want to bring people into the mood of what I do and how I do it, so I will be showing photos from Italy as well as teaching a dish. I want the audience to be able to take home something, so the dishes will be simple: a mariner’s style of shrimp from Istria and an almond pesto from Sicily. It’s the most wonderful sauce.