The first time I tasted Lidia Bastianich’s distinctive “border cuisine” was at an edible press conference at Ritz Carlton in the summer of 1997.
The menu: nettle and wild herb flan with tomato and herb coulee; Istrian wedding pillows filled with fontina, asiago and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses, citrus rind, raisins and rum with a savory sauce; risotto with crabmeat and lobster; and panna cotta with cherries.
The “first lady of Italian cuisine” had decided to expand her borders from New York City to Kansas City. Bastianich emerged from the kitchen to greet reporters wearing a trickle of that coulee on her white chef coat. Since she was born in Pula, Istria, a region formed by the Gulf of Trieste at the juncture of Italy and the former Yugoslavia, she explained it was not unusual for her cooking to incorporate ingredients such as sauerkraut, beans, potatoes, dumplings, spaetzle and strudel.
Already a wildly successful and much honored restaurateur, cookbook author and public teletivion cooking show host, Bastianich began looking for an “urban” site between the Country Club Plaza and the City Market so I tagged along to watch the story unfold. A dilapidated freighthouse behind the historic Union Station ultimately caught her eye but at the formal announcement of the real estate deal, the dirt floor of the building featured a giant mud puddle that the press, politicians and other dignitaries delicately danced around. Bastianich hired renowned architect David Rockwell to execute her vision and a year later they had transformed the structure into a giant Italian farmhouse-style restaurant.
Today Lidia’s Kansas City is widely recognized as helping to jump start the redevelopment of the eclectic and artsy Crossroads District. “I don’t know if I was dumb or smart,” she tells me during her recent visit to celebrate the restaurant’s 15th anniversary last week. “But I liked the train station. I felt like one of those pioneers who came here.”
Lidia credits her son, Joe Bastianich, a wine expert, restaurant entrepreneur and Master Chef judge, with suggesting she stake a claim in the Midwest, although they also considered Columbus, Ohio. “My son said there is a whole other America that we needed to feed,” she says.
Along with Dean DeLuca, Bastianich was one of the first national culinary brand names to put down roots here. “Kansas City was ready,” she says.
But in reality, there were gaps in product distribution, and from the start Bastianich nudged the local food movement along, searching out sources for artisan ingredients. She recalls a trip to City Market with chef de cuisine Cody Hogan in search of the freshest locally grown produce. They bought every blackberry from every farmer, and still wanted more. But over time, their work with farmers increased the availability of everything from heirloom tomatoes to heritage pork.
Hogan and executive chef Dan Swinney have spent the last 15 years executing Bastianich’s vision of home-style Italian food. Her pastry chef, Danica Pollard, has been with the restaurant for six years. “I think I’m demanding but fair, and I love to teach,” she says of her staff’s longevity in an industry known for churn. “If you see that somebody who has that sparkle, you think of them as apprentices. Some of the great paintings were painted by apprentices. Not all were painted by Michelangelo.”
But as Mayor Sly James swooped in during the 15th anniversary press luncheon to read a special proclamation, Bastianich accepted the accolades with her usual grace and composure. “We’re very honored to be considered one of the agents of the rebirth of the Crossroads,” she told him.
The recipes at the anniversary luncheon gave a sneak preview into her next cookbook due out in mid October, “Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking” (Knopf), which she wrote with her daughter Tanya Bastianich Manuali. Between courses, Bastianich couldn’t resist jumping up to interject a few lessons, like why cooked garlic puree works in risotto. (Heat softens and tames raw garlic’s bite.)
Bastianich made her TV debut when Julia Child asked her to teach two episodes about such unknown Italian specialities as polenta and gnocchi. After taping two shows, a producer told her she was a natural and should have her own show. Bastianich was reluctant at first, and asked that the show be taped in her kitchen rather than on a set. “I figured if I’m in my own kitchen, I know where everything is. I’m safe,” she recalls.
Earlier this year, Bastianich won a 2013 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Culinary Program. But, hey, no pressure. “First of all, I don’t invent recipes,” she says. “I pick them up in Italy and make them Lidialike. It’s not hard for me. I don’t have this pressure of inventing something. I’m stylizing.”
Meanwhile, her empire continues to expand. She’s opening a string of Eataly emporiums in Chicago, Los Angeles and Sao Paulo. She has added a small eatery to complement her Italian vineyard in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia. She and daughter Tanya have partnered with Random House to produce new culinary talent for TV, and they are especially excited about working with Amy Thielen whose book “The New Midwestern Table” is due out in October.
“I haven’t heard of Amy Thielen?” I tell her.
“But you will!” she shoots back.
Closer to home, Bastianich has taken a shine toBoys Grow
, a non-profit entrepreneurial farm and business program for urban boys ages 12 to 15. The boys grow food and process it into salsa, barbecue sauce and agave ketchup they sell to local grocery stores and restaurants. Lidia’s will host a benefit dinner in October to raise money to buy their own land after farming for three years on borrowed land.
But the luncheon wasn’t even over and Bastianich was trying to juggle her jampacked schedule to be back in Kansas City to help with the dinner. “Kansas City is like my second home,” she says.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor and lead restaurant critic. She has won more than 25 national food writing awards, and her work has been included in “The Best Food Writing” anthologies of 2008 and 2011. She is the author of The Star’s Eating for Life Cookbook, the mastermind behind The Star’s Food Truck Friday and a past president of the Association of Food Journalists.