What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"In 1981, we opened Felidia, and the newspapers, the city papers, the big timers came, and I got invited on the Today Show and so on. A lot of food luminaries would come to Felidia—Julia Child, James Beard, they all came. What really affected me was when Julia Child asked me to do two episodes of her Lessons with Master Chefs series. So I did two episodes with her, and it was just a wonderful experience. There was a very tremendous response from the viewers. One of the shows was nominated for an Emmy, which had to do mostly with Julia, but I remember specifically that we made mushroom risotto, and the technique and everything—it just fit, I think. There was a harmony to what we were doing. Then, after a while, her producer said, ’Lidia, you’re really good. There’s a good response. How about a TV show? Have you ever thought about it?’ And I said, ’You know, I haven’t, but I love it.’"
How many shows have you done?
"We did 39 episodes of Lidia’s Italian Table, 52 episodes of Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen, and 52 episodes of Lidia’s Family Table, and now forthcoming in April is Lidia’s Italy. I’m collaborating with my daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali. She is a renaissance-art historian with a Ph.D. from Oxford. I’m very proud of her. I’m going take viewers to meet my friends and family in Italy and to meet the producers in special places off the beaten path. I go to Friuli, all the way up in the Carnic Alps. And de Malgue, where it’s very pastoral and they make the most wonderful cheese. Then we go into Maremma-the other Tuscany-where we find mushrooms and chestnuts and it’s just so rugged, so wonderful. Along with this we go and see art and music, because that’s what nourishes—that’s what art does. I don’t just go to markets; I also go to visit beautiful places."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air?
"The best things—when I really feel that I’m communicating, and when I really feel that people are getting it—are simple, straightforward recipes. I think simple is the hardest to achieve, because you don’t have all those elements to hide behind. Therefore, I present simple pasta, chicken or fish dishes and demystify them. The comments that I get from people are, ’Lidia, you empower me,’ ’Lidia, you made me feel comfortable getting in the kitchen,’ ’Lidia, you gave me strength.’ And I just love that. Because that’s what it’s all about."
Is there a specific pasta dish you’ve done that’s been especially well received?
"The spaghetti al’olio—garlic and oil, which is hard to do because you can burn the garlic."
What’s the secret to not burning garlic? How do you keep it from going from golden to charred in a matter of seconds?
"You have to stay there. You need to pay attention. In anything that you do, there are crucial moments. And in cooking there are crucial moments that you need to understand and realize. You don’t just leave it there and go do something else, because it’s a quick process."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I have some wonderful peers. We all know each other, and there’s really a camaraderie. We each have our own specialty, whether it’s French or Italian or American or grilling, and that sets us apart immediately. The method of teaching sets us apart: Am I a professional chef, and do I present myself as one of those chefs at restaurants? I went back to my roots of cooking in the home. The filming happens in my home, and I cook like I do at home, on my home stove with my house pots and so on. That’s who I am. I am very true to my real profile. I’m very much into culture and into understanding the products, because when you understand the products you are in command of cooking."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"I’ve had lights falling, fires starting, food burning, salt instead of sugar in desserts."
Lights fell on you?
"You know, it’s filmed in my house, so they have to set up all these lights—there are a lot of lights for production. A whole setup just fell on my arm while I was cooking. The whole thing was unexpected!"
Do you leave those scenes in the show or do you reshoot?
"They’re all behind the scenes. Hopefully I will do a special—maybe to benefit PBS—called Lidia’s Behind the Scenes. This is even a little bit off-color, but I was doing a show with my granddaughter, Julia, and we’re baking away and I don’t know, I guess she heard a noise, and she turned around and said to me, ’Nonni, did you fart?’ [laughing]. Things like that—children are just wonderful and they come up with all kinds of stuff. One of my grandsons was on and we were making gnocchi, and out of the blue he just took the dough and slapped it on his head, and all the flour was running all over. Beautiful things happen. They need to be captured someplace. My mother—she’s quite blunt and they love her, and we are not scripted. So let’s say I have a show with my mother, and I say, ’We’re cooking your favorite, and you’ll help me do this and this.’ She’ll taste it and say, ’I don’t like it too much. Maybe you put too much of that in.’ And we’ll have to leave her comment in. I think that’s the beauty of it."