Lidia’s Italy in America
What could be better than traveling the country from coast to coast to visit Italian American communities and learn about the foods they make and the history behind them? Lidia Bastianich has done this and it’s the subject of her new book, Lidia’s Italy in America.
For those who are not familiar with this Matron of Italian Cooking, Lidia Bastianich is a restaurateur, TV chef, and author. Along with her son Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali, she co-owns the phenomenon known as Eataly, a large Italian market and lifestyle store in New York City. She is also a partner in restaurants in New York and throughout the United States, including Del Posto and Becco, and she founded Felidia, a New York Times 3-star restaurant that has been open since 1981.
Lidia understands the Italian-American immigrant experience because she lived it herself. She arrived with her family in the U.S. from Trieste, Italy in 1958. In Lidia’s Italy in America she explores Italian settlements and Little Italys across America, all with their own food traditions. From the North End in Boston to Mulberry Street and Arthur Avenue in New York to North Beach in San Fransisco, depending on where they came from in Italy and the local ingredients available to them, these Italians built on and modified traditional Italian recipes to create dishes that defined the new Italian American cuisine.
The history of the food is fascinating. Whether its Rainbow Cookies or Philly Cheesesteak, there’s a story behind every dish and how it has evolved. There are interesting tidbits of information scattered throughout Lidia’s Italy in America. For example, she devotes a few page to the story of pizza and the differences in the way it’s made in different parts of Italy. In Naples, generally acknowledge as its birthplace, pizza has a “puffy, well-baked cornice and a juicier, wetter center…” In Rome the crusts are thinner and in Sicily the pizza is thicker. Then she explains how those differences resulted in the pizza we know now. She writes, “Sicilians must have been responsible for the Chicago-style pizza, in which sfincione is transformed into deep-dish pizza baked with mounds of toppings.”
Lidia illustrates throughout Lidia’s Italy in America how Italians made many substitutions to create the new Italian American cuisine when they were unable to find—or to find adequate—ingredients that they used in Italy. In speaking to that, I was delighted to find that she substituted kale for escarole in her Escarole and White Bean Soup, as kale is much more readily available (and less expensive!) here in the states. As far as having an abundance of classic Italian ingredients, it’s heartwarming to know that the Italians who settled in California have not only planted wine vineyards, but also planted fields of broccoli rabe and artichokes, as well as other Italian favorites as the climate and geography of California is very similar to Italy’s.
Lidia’s Italy in America is an easy read and the recipes are just as easy to make. There are both authentic Italian recipes and Italian American recipes and throughout the book she provides all the dishes that comprise a full-course Italian meal or just lighter fare. There are hot and cold antipasti recipes, such as Fried Mozzarella Skewers and Celery, Artichoke and Mortadella Salad. Then there are Zuppa, Sandwich and Panini recipes, such as Roman “Egg Drop” Soup and Salumerio Panino. Salads include the classic Ceasar Salad and others, such as Tomato and Bread Salad.
Then, of course, there is a large selection of pasta dishes, including Fettucini Alfredo and Linguine with Red Clam Sauce. The side dishes she’s included rely on fresh produce as the starting point and include Skillet Cauliflower Torrisi and Sautéed Escarole. For the main course, she’s included many popular seafood and meat dishes, including Shrimp Scampi, Lobster Fra Diavolo, Chicken Parmigiana and Veal Saltimbocca.
The dessert recipes in Lidia’s Italy in America are also a treasure trove of Italian American favorites. These include Rainbow Cookies, St. Joseph’s Fig Cookies, Italian Cheesecake, Spumoni and Limoncello.
The stories behind the recipes add a richness that makes this more than merely a cookbook. Italian Americans and lovers of Italian and Italian American food will enjoy learning about the people that have made it what it is, and still do. The photos that accompany the book are equally charming because they show not only the food but snapshots of Lidia’s travels throughout Italian America.
Enjoy the trip. I did.