Felidia, her Manhattan flagship, turned 30 this week. The restaurant staff is celebrating with a special $85 tasting menu of greatest hits and seasonal dishes, including pear and pecorino cheese ravioli and osso bucco with spring barley risotto.
Dinner entrees at Felidia range from $25 to $40 and favor classic northern Italian dishes like steamed full-fish Branzino, deboned at a serving station in the dining room. On Manhattan’s east side, the restaurant is a few blocks from the United Nations and has drawn a heavily business and diplomatic crowd.
Guilio Terzi di Sant’Agata, the Italian Ambassador to the United States and Italy’s former representative at the United Nations calls Bastianich “a tireless promoter of Italian culture,” and believes her dishes inspire those “seeking a healthier, more Mediterranean lifestyle.”
“Chemistry was my college interest. Cooking is about chemistry,” says Bastianich, who had little formal culinary training, but credits passion for Italian flavors and her tight-knit immigrant family with giving her a professional start.
She arrived in the United States in 1958 as a 12 year-old political refugee. Born in Istria, a Croatian peninsula once a region of Italy, Lidia’s family was sponsored by Catholic Charities and brought to New York.
“What I learned being a young child was respect for food. Don't throw anything away,” Bastianich says when sharing tips for recycling bread that’s gone stale, and “respect for others.”
Bastianich says “what really makes your business is your workers — their commitment, their knowledge, how you train them, how you treat them. They have to make the entity a winning entity.”
Lidia’s Italy is the umbrella organization for Bastianich’s personal brand. Including seven restaurants, cookbooks, Italian vineyards, travel company, QVC cookware line, and the packaged pasta and sauces line, Nonna Foods, Lidia’s company impacts the employment of about a thousand people. Eataly employs 600 workers.
More than 600,000 people work in restaurants in New York State. Almost one in ten workers nationwide are in food services.
“Restaurants have helped define neighborhoods” in urban areas, says New York City Commissioner of Small Business Services Robert Walsh. The local government organization worked with Eataly prior to opening on placement for 300 permanent jobs the market created.
“We pre-screened 4,000 applicants before narrowing it down to 1,000 candidates,” Walsh says. Job-seekers interviewed for all types of positions from human resources to line cooks and waitstaff.
The face of a brand that’s a family business with her adult children, Bastianich is also related to many of her closest business partners. “But that’s Italian, you know?”
Long before cookbooks and opening her own home kitchen to PBS viewers, Bastianich’s mother — now 90 and still in charge of the family garden — would regularly roll out the pasta dough to make gnocchi for restaurant diners. “We would feed the kids, then she would take the kids and put them to bed. I would finish work.”
“When I say, ‘everybody to the table and eat,’ I mean it,” says Bastianich. “That is the glue, the center the holds the family, that gives security. Good food brings everybody to the table.”
Lidia Bastianich appears on The Wall Street Journal Report with Maria Bartiromo the weekend of April 23rd and 24th.
Watch"The Wall Street Journal with Maria Bartiromo" every Sunday at 7:30pm ET.