It wasn’t that David Rockwell was the designer. It wasn’t the blown glass chandelier of magnificent proportions. It was the plasterers.
Because my two dear friends, Charlene Welling and Mary Simpson, were already working for Lidia’s, I was poking around one day about a week before the opening.
And there they were, this handsome crew of men carefully working on the walls. Some had New Jersey accents, some Italian accents. And they explained they had been here in Kansas City for days applying the Italian plaster process to the interior of Lidia’s.
That’s when I knew Lidia’s was going to be something special.
If Lidia Bastianich was going to the expense of bringing in plaster men, she was going to pay attention to the little things that make a restaurant a good experience. And 15 years later, I know that I was right.
But what these 15 years have taught me is that Lidia herself is special.
She has made the effort, as her empire has grown, to participate in this community as if she lived here all the time.
She never left Public Television for a chance to make more money on the newer, flashier food networks. And in 2013, Lidia’s Italy, her public television program, was awarded an Emmy.
She has recognized talent and built a Kansas City team. Mary Simpson was her first General Manager before moving to Capital Grille. Charlene Welling manages reservations at the front desk still. Charlene’s former chef at Classic Cup is the executive chef of Lidia’s, Dan Swinney. Another of Charlene’s former crew is the Chef de Cuisine, Cody Hogan, who also helps Lidia with her television show.
Two of her original crew from the East Coast have stayed in Kansas City and enriched our food culture. Linda Duerr is the chef of the River Club and Tony Glamcevski is the general manager of The Reiger restaurant.
Lidia herself never makes a big deal of it, but she has the classic immigrants success story. Born in Istria after World War II, her part of Italy became Yugoslavia under Soviet rule. Trying to move to other parts of Italy meant spending time in a relocation camp, then Trieste, then in 1958, Lidia and her family were accepted to come to America.
Her first restaurant was in Queens, in 1971 and in 1979 a second restaurant opened in another section of Queens. Then the big move to Manhattan. Felidia’s opened in 1981. I would say, “the rest is history” but you can tell that for Lidia, history is still being written.
I’m including two of my favorite recipes from Lidia’s cookbooks. One is a classic Istrian-Slavic dish and one is not from Lidia’s neighborhood at all. But whenever I make her meatballs, they are applauded as the best.
Thank you, Lidia, for coming to Kansas City and celebrating life with us through sharing food.Sauerkraut with Pork 1 pound smoked pork butt, halved 1 pound kielbasa sausage 1 pound smoked pork ribs (usually available at Fritz’s or Bichelmeyer’s) 1 tablespoon olive oil 4 pounds sauerkraut 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced 6 bay leaves salt and pepper to taste
Before proceeding further, boil the meats for 10 minutes in plenty of water and drain.
Pour the olive oil into a large straight-sided skillet, a large saucepan, or a Dutch oven. Add half the sauerkraut and strew with garlic, bay leaves and salt and pepper. Arrange the meats over the sauerkraut, cover with the remaining sauerkraut, and add 2 cups of water. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes, occasionally stirring from the bottom up.
With a slotted spoon, remove the kielbasa and ribs to a warm oven. Cook the remaining ingredients over medium heat 20 minutes longer, until the liquids are almost evaporated. Return the kielbasa and ribs to the pan, cover and let stand 15 minutes off heat. Slice the meats and arrange them on a serving platter with the sauerkraut at the center.
La Cucina di Lidia, Lidia Bastianich Jay Jacobs, Doubleday.Spaghetti and Meatballs Makes 6 servings
For the sauce:Two 35 oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid 1/4 cup olive oil 1 medium onion, chopped 1 teaspoon crushed, hot pepper 2 bay leaves Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the meatballs:1/2 pound ground pork 1/2 pound ground beef 1 cup fine, dry bread crumbs 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 1/4 cup chopped parsley 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine 1 large egg 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly black pepper All purpose flour 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 pound spaghetti 2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
Pass the tomatoes and their liquid through a food mill fitted with the fine disc. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a 4-5 quart pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring, until wilted, about four minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, add the crushed red pepper and bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, crumble the pork and beef into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the bread crumbs, 1/3 cup grated cheese, the parsley, garlic over the meat. Beat the egg with salt and pepper in a small bowl until blended. Pour over the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with clean hands until just evenly blended. Don’t over mix. Shape into 1-1/2 inch balls.
Dredge the meatballs in flour until lightly but evenly coated. Heat the olive and vegetable oil together in a large, heavy skillet to medium high.
Slip as many meatballs into the skillet as will fit without crowding. Fry, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides., about 6 minutes. Remove the meatballs and repeat if necessary with the remaining meatballs.
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in an 8 quart pot over high heat.
Add the browned meatballs to the tomato sauce and simmer, stirring gently with a wooden spoon, until no trace of pink remains at the center of the meatballs, about 30 minutes.
Stir the spaghetti into the boiling water. Return to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta until done, about 8 minutes.
Drain the pasta and return it to the pot; spoon in about 2 cups of the tomato sauce, tossing well until the pasta is coated with sauce. Remove from heat and toss with the 2/3 cup grated cheese. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve the pasta in warm bowls or piled high on a large warm platter. Spoon a little more of the sauce over the pasta and pass the remaining sauce separately. Pass the meatballs family style in a bowl or top the pasta with them.
Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Knopf.
Lou Jane Temple’s road to food has been a long and winding one. First as a rock n roll caterer back stage to the stars, then with her own Kansas City based catering company, Cafe Lulu, food writing, novelist, private chef. Lou Jane has written and had published nine culinary mysteries and one cookbook. She recently moved back to Kansas City and eagerly awaits the next chapter of her food career.