January 2, 2019

Bastianich Brings Her Memoir To Dorothea’s House Fundraiser

By Anne Levin

Lidia Matticchio

To her legions of fans, public television personality Lidia Matticchio Bastianich is the smiling face and comforting voice of regional Italian cooking. Watching the energetic grandmother on her show Lidia’s Kitchen; visiting her restaurants in New York City, Kansas City, Mo., and Pittsburgh, Pa.; the Eataly markets in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles in which she is a partner; or reading one of her seven books, it would seem that Bastianich has been a connoisseur of fine food her entire life.

But there are Drake’s cakes, Jello, and Duncan Hines cake mixes in her past. “I loved all of that stuff when we first came to this country,” said Bastianich, who will make an appearance at Princeton’s Dorothea’s House on Sunday, February 24. “I thought it was wonderful. But then of course, I began to revert back to my culture and the Italian cooking that I knew from childhood.”

The junk food shows up about halfway through My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food, Bastianich’s recently published memoir. She will discuss the book — a moving account of her family’s struggles with immigration to America — and sign copies at the upcoming event. Proceeds benefit the Dorothea’s House scholarship program.

“I’ve been to Dorothea’s House before,” she said. “I enjoy book signings, and sharing with people. I connect with the people that really do watch me and read me, and that gives me ideas of what to do in the future.”

Bastianich’s childhood was at times joyful; other times harrowing. She was born in Pola, on the Istrian peninsula (now Pula in Croatia), a formerly Italian city under Tito’s communist regime. She said that speaking Italian, practicing religion, and having any kind of capitalistic goals were forbidden. By the time she was 9, her family had had enough.

They escaped to Trieste and spent two depressing years in a refugee camp before finally getting cleared to move to America. As children, Bastianich and her brother learned early on how to help keep their parents from descending into despair as they waited to make the move, and then struggled to adjust.

Assisted by Catholic Charities, the family landed in Bergen County; later moving to Queens, New York. It was there, a few years later, that Bastianich and her new husband opened their first two restaurants. Years of hard work and financial uncertainty followed, but Bastianich’s ambition and focus on her family, who always helped out, kept her on track.

“My life has been checkered, and I always knew my story was kind of unique,” she said in a phone conversation. “It’s really a story of the times. I wanted to make sure my children and grandchildren knew not just that they were Italian, but also that we were refugees and we knew how to move on. I wanted them to understand the opportunity of being an American.”

Bastianich kept notes throughout the years. “I wrote things down,” she said. “And now with this whole movement about immigration, my publisher said to me, ‘How about your story?’ It was very difficult for me to write about myself. So my daughter, Tanya, and a writer collaborated with me. I just filled in my emotions.”

Bastianich details her idyllic, early childhood in the first part of the book. From her beloved grandparents who grew, raised, slaughtered, milled, and cured just about everything they needed, she learned to respect nature and use every bit of everything, wasting nothing. Faint-hearted readers might have a hard time getting through her matter-of-fact description of the annual pig slaughtering festival that was held in households throughout the town.

“I thought, you know, I have to put this down,” she said. “People don’t know these things. There is a disconnect. People don’t understand that it’s not just the chicken breast and the nuggets. The generations need to understand, to better appreciate and respect the animals and our environment. I was blessed to be able to be involved. That’s a reason I am who I am. It’s because of those experiences.”

While at the refugee camp, Bastianich was eventually allowed to attend a nearby school. She was drawn to the kitchen, where she found solace chopping, preparing, and helping out. Later, she found her first real job at Walken’s Bakery in Queens, when she was 14. Actor Christopher Walken, a son of the owner, remains her friend today.

“I lied and said I was 16, and I worked there on weekends,” she said. “I loved it. Then when I went to college, I worked in restaurants. I just loved it all.”

With her family, Bastianich returns regularly to her childhood home. The family now owns a winery and a small bed-and-breakfast on the property. “We go back every year for vacation, to see relatives, travel, and have a family reunion.” she said. “My grandkids go there now. Everybody really gets into their roots.”

It took several years before Bastianich was ready to return to the refugee camp, which is now a museum. “I had to research it, so I went back. It was very moving,” she said. “I took my children and my grandchildren to see it. It just kind of reassesses you, and makes you say, ‘Listen, life can be hard. Stick with it. There are many good people and life can change.’”

The Sunday, February 24 book signing is being held from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets, which include a copy of the book, are $75. Additional books will be available for sale at the event for $20. To reserve a seat, send a check, made out to “Dorothea’s House,” to Eleanor Pinelli, 143 Mountain Avenue, Princeton, NJ. 08540. Also include your name, address, email, and telephone number. Tickets are limited and are first come, first served. They will be sold according to postmark date on envelope when received.