While I was dining at New York City’s Felidia with Lidia Bastianich herself, a server came over to introduce one of the restaurant’s well-known pasta dishes.
“This is pasta ravioli filled with fresh pecorino and pear puree…” he began.
“It’s grated pear puree,” Bastianich interrupted gently, demonstrating her intimate knowledge of the menu at her restaurant.
“Yes, grated pears — sorry about that — and it’s finished with black pepper,” the waiter flushed, likely wanting to crawl into a hole.
“The reason that grating the pears is so important is that they’re not cooked beforehand,” Bastianich explained. “They’re grated raw and cooked in the ravioli so they don’t become mushy. It helps them retain some bite.”
Lidia Bastianich, America’s adopted Italian grandmother and one of the original celebrity chefs, probably doesn’t need to know exactly what’s on the menu at Felidia. After all, the restaurant has its own executive chef, and she’s busy running her own culinary empire. Her face can be found on cookbooks, restaurants, TV shows, and on a line of sauces and pastas dried in Italy. She also just released her latest children’s cookbook, Nonna Tell Me A Story: Lidia’s Egg-Citing Farm Adventure, a combination cookbook and storybook featuring kid-friendly dishes like ricotta frittata and egg drop soup. The book is the third in a series of semi-autobiographical children’s books inspired by her grandchildren.
Chef Bastianich’s plate is not just full — it’s overflowing. But being intimately involved in every single one of her projects, she says, ensures consistent quality.
“The one thing is you’ve got to do is deliver every time,” says Bastianich. “You’d better give them the best: give them what you promised. Like my pastas: they’re pieces of Lidia that go out to somebody that might never get to meet me. They’re getting the flavor of Lidia, and it has to be perfect.”
This is not only her own personal methodology: it’s also the advice she gives to chefs who want to open a restaurant, especially in New York City, where the rents are staggeringly high and the competition to catch the attention of New Yorkers and reviewers is fierce.
Keeping up with New Yorkers and approaching perfection at Felidia’s has multiple facets. Chef Bastianich shapes her menu around in-season produce, and she’s constantly refreshing the menus at her restaurants. She also keeps a keen eye on what her customers want (Felidia’s now features many gluten-free and vegetarian options), and she’s always eager to impart her vast Italian culinary knowledge to chefs and customers. During my visit to Felidia’s, for instance, I learned the proper process for drying out pasta (from the inside out is best), and that spaghetti chitarra is a traditional pasta variety from the Abruzzo region in Italy, made by rolling the dough over a device that looks like a guitar.