Lidia Bastianich, 76, was born in Istria, an Italian territory that became part of communist Yugoslavia after World War II. As a child, she fled to Italy with her family and then to the United States, arriving here as a 12-year-old. As a teenager, she worked at a bakery in Astoria, Queens, decorating birthday cakes when the staff went home. This particular bakery was owned by the Walken family. Actor Christopher Walken is still a friend.
Bastianich also rose to fame, becoming an authority on Italian cooking. In 1971, she opened her first restaurant, Buonavia, in Queens. Midtown Manhattan’s Felidia put her on the map in 1981. It was here that she met Julia Child, who invited her to appear as a TV guest.
The Bastianich family empire flourished with cookbooks, TV shows such as “Lidia Celebrates America,” and more acclaimed restaurants. There were highs, such as James Beard awards, Emmys, and Michelin stars for Manhattan’s Del Posto, which she ran with her son, Joe, and chef Mario Batali. There were also lows, such as Batali’s fall from grace.
Still, Bastianich’s star hasn’t dimmed. This December, PBS celebrates her culinary career with an hourlong prime-time documentary produced by GBH, “25 Years with Lidia: A Culinary Jubilee,” honoring her 25th year as a TV personality. The biographical portrait includes appearances from chef friends such as Jacques Pépin and Mary Sue Milliken, as well as childhood pals like Walken. It airs starting Monday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m.
I want to talk to you about this anniversary special, but first I have to ask you about Boston, because this is The Boston Globe, after all. What do you make of the Boston dining scene? Do you have any favorite places when you’re visiting?
I think Boston is really exploding in a very ethnic way. Ethnicity is very present, I think, in all of the openings, which is very nice. I think Sarma is interesting. Where I come from, we made sarma; it means “stuffed cabbage.” It’s a Turkish word. I like to get that Middle Eastern flavor there.
I have dear friends in the industry. Carla and Christine Pallotta. Barbara Lynch — I’ve been friends with her forever. And, of course, Lydia Shire at Scampo. And Jody Adams. When I go [to Boston] I love, of course, the seafood. I go down to the waterfront, and I do visit with friends.
And you have grandchildren here, so that makes it even better.
I do; I do. I have five grandkids. I go to visit all of their colleges; I go and cook. I was at BC a month ago, and we cooked. They had a little kitchen. We cooked, invited all the friends, and I took them out to dinner.
Where did you take them?
It was a rainy night, and [my grandson] had a friend from Amsterdam, because he did a semester in Europe. We went to Legal Sea Foods on the wharf.
My grandson says, “Let’s take him there, so he can see a little bit of that.” So we did, and it was nice. We shared a lobster, oysters, and things like that. That’s what I come to Boston for, mainly.
Tell me about the TV special. I know that this particular one is really personal, and there’s a lot of intimate details about growing up.
Well, you will see. It’s a biography, sort of, a “growing up with Lidia,” because I’ve been 25 years on television. A lot of the people who come to the restaurants are adults now. They come and visit me when I do my book-signings, and inevitably go, “When I was little, I watched you with my mother. I watched you with my grandmother.”
So I feel like part of America has grown up with Lidia and her family, getting to know her family and following some of the recipes and the flavors. And I feel very proud of that — that I was accepted in households across America. So this was sort of a “thank you,” really pulling it all together for my viewing audience.
People are so curious and interested: Where is Lidia really from? Where was she born? How did she grow up? And so this is a one-hour special that takes the viewer through getting to know Lidia as a child, her escape from communist Yugoslavia.
The part where I was born, Istria, became communist Yugoslavia. We were caught behind the Iron Curtain. We escaped back into Italy. We ended up in a refugee camp. And, from the refugee camp, two years in the camp, we went to America. So mine is a story, also, of the aftermath of war and a reality, maybe, as it really relates to today’s immigrants.
I remember as a child — I came here at 12, being in the camp and being without a home, in a sense. The Catholic Relief Services brought us here. And you know what? They put us in a hotel, just like what’s happening today. And we stayed in a hotel for two months. When we finally found a home, I remember that when we closed the door and there was just the four of us and we had our own house, I felt secure. I felt good. Finally. A child feels the security of the family and a place to stay. And what’s incorporated is all the people who were close to me that made my journey.
Christopher Walken, of course: We’re still friends. I met him in Astoria right across from where we lived. We had the fourth-floor flat, and right across was Walken’s Bakery. So when I was 14, as an immigrant, the family always could use some money. I asked if they had a part-time job for me. I told them I was 16. So Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday I worked there.
First, I started just bringing up the boxes. And then I got into a little bit of selling, so I could practice my English. Inevitably, I always got in the back, baking and cooking with the pastry chefs. I loved that. Sometimes on Sundays, I remember, the bakers would all leave. Of course, the baking was done, but somebody would come in and need a special birthday cake. The cakes were prepared, but I had to decorate them and write the name on them. We had lots of fun.
You were a female chef before there were a lot of female chefs. What’s the climate now for women in the industry?
When I speak to women in the industry now, I think back: What was it for me? Well, there’s one thing that really stands out. I tell them all the time: Do not look at yourself as a gender. Look at yourself as a professional. Are you ready? Are you the best that you can be? Do you nurture yourself? Do you do your research?
I think that women have better opportunities now, but there is still resistance out there, and difficulties. But you know what I think is the major one? You are really in control when you own something. You get investors. Try to go on your own, whether in a partnership or whatever. That’s a great experience for anybody, but I encourage women to do that, because that’s where you stand out.
Can you say anything about resilience? Because you’ve had ups and downs in your career, and you’ve lasted a long time. How have you endured?
I think that resiliency is being secure and being prepared. And you have to remember that this is not a solitary journey. No success story is a solitary journey. I had the support of my family and my husband, and I really leaned on them. Even the kids, when they were smaller, they got involved. So surround yourself with good support, people who are your peers who work as good or better than you, whom you can learn from. But also the emotional support: the stability of family, friends, and whatever. You need that to carry you for those moments when you come home and say, “Oh, I can’t take this anymore,” and things like that.
Would you encourage anyone to get into the food business today? Would you make that choice all over again?
I would. The food industry is the second-largest employer, actually, in the United States, meaning across the board of production of food and everything. The opportunities are there. I think that food and lifestyle and everything has changed. It evolved nutritionally and also culturally with the internet and immigrants; we get so many different infusions. In America, I was blessed. I wanted to share my native heritage with my adopted heritage, so I had a mission.
I think that it’s important to really educate and inform oneself. If you’re going into a business, of course, you have to have a good backing of finances to do now. You know, when I opened the first restaurant in 1971, it was $200,000 or $250,000, which was a lot then, but it was enough. Now it’s $3 or $4 million if you’re talking about a restaurant. It takes a lot more money.
To me, it just satisfies me completely, in a sense: who I am, in a sense of giving, connecting with people. I feel a purpose, and I think we all need to feel that we are wanted, needed, and appreciated, and that we give something whether it’s to our family, whether it’s our society, whether it’s our friends, and ultimately we profit from it to some extent, to live well.
OK. Some fun, quick, short questions. What would you eat if you had one meal left on Earth?
Pasta. Pasta, pasta.
Least favorite food?
Cilantro. I hate it.
My favorite snack! Oh my goodness. What do I like? I like nuts. I like dates. If I’m a little hungrier, but I don’t want a whole meal, you know what? An American special. I like peanut butter and jelly.
On what type of bread?
I do a whole wheat bread, and I toast it.
Who’s your most admired chef of all time?
Lidia [Alciati]. She was from Piedmont, and I would go up there to learn from her. Her husband would get the supplies, get the products, up in the mountains. He got this goat, this baby goat, and she roasted it with spring potatoes, fresh rosemary. She made agnolotti del plin. That memory, that film, is still rolling in my mind; the aromas and everything. I went back to her several times. I wanted to learn how to make that pasta, to make that stuffing. It was one of those moments that you can’t explain sometimes. Her philosophy of cooking was local, seasonal, and simple. That baby goat didn’t have anything but rosemary and olive oil, but yet I’m sure she did some magic.
How would you describe Boston food in one word?
Oh, the sea. The sea. I love the sea: the smells, the lobsters, the oysters, the shellfish. Bivalves of all sorts.
Interview was edited and condensed.