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PBS chef and restaurateur shares cooking tips

Sunday, February 03, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

The kitchen in Queens where Lidia Matticchio Bastianich welcomes her WQED/WQEX viewers on Saturday mornings is the same one where her grandchildren pull up a stepstool so they can learn to cook, too.

At Fox Chapel Golf Club, Lidia Bastianich demonstrates dishes from her cookbook -- a companion to her PBS series -- with help from Craig Richards, the executive chef at Lidia's Pittsburgh. (Jasmine Gehris, Post-Gazette)

As their parents once did, the children of Lidia's children, Joseph and Tanya, hang around the kitchen with her. The grandchildren, Olivia, 4, Miles, 2, and Ethan, 2 months (his), and Lorenzo, 3 (hers), soon learn that home and hearth are to be savored.

"Their favorite is the gnocchi," says Bastianich over lunch at the Fox Chapel Golf Club, where she has just demonstrated two dishes, Rigatoni Woodsman-Style and Chicken Cacciatore, from her new cookbook, "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," the companion to her 52-part PBS series.

Last week she spoke to 321 (mostly) women at the ninth annual Women's Board of Pittsburgh benefit, aptly called "Lunch with Lidia." This year's proceeds go to Wings for Children, which provides free air transportation to children who need specialized treatment for chronic and life-threatening diseases.

"I don't watch much television," said benefit chair Susan Winters, "but Lidia's program at 11:30 Saturday morning has made me a TV addict."

Lidia -- excuse me if I feel as though we're on a first-name basis -- is no stranger to Pittsburgh. After she opened her Strip District restaurant, Lidia's Pittsburgh, in March, it soon became the champion inspiration for clueless callers in search of her phone number. Some confusion was caused by hasty Information operators who sent callers to a social service agency. Mostly, though, it seemed to be spelling. It's Lidia's. There's no "y" in Italian.

And Lidia is Italian through and through. Her family immigrated to America after World War II when the area where she grew up became part of communist Yugoslavia.

It was here that Lidia was introduced to Italian cooking, American-style, which is what she celebrates in this latest of three cookbooks. "When I came here, Italian food was different from the food I ate at home," she tells the crowd. "Italian-American cuisine is the cuisine of adaptation. Some people say it is not the 'real cuisine, an impostor.' But it is still alive, still vibrant, a cuisine that developed at the turn of the century when the Italians -- most of them from Sicily and Campania -- couldn't get the foods they were used to here, so they developed a parallel cuisine."

Parallel or not, it certainly smelled good as Bastianich cooked, aided by Lidia's Pittsburgh executive chef, Craig Richards, and Lidia's Kansas City chef, Cody Hogan. A student of food chemistry, Lidia exudes warmth and wit as she cooks. "Is this the wine?" she asks aloud, dipping into a bowl a finger for a taste. "No."

For the benefit, she demonstrated part of the menu that Fox Chapel Golf Club chef David Collins selected to be reproduced for the guests.

A question about wine elicited Lidia's respect for raw materials. "Use the wine you drink. The quality of the ingredients you use determines the quality of the dish. Don't use that salty cooking wine!"

In one more step toward achieving top quality, Hogan had met last week with 48 farmers and 26 chefs to encourage the use of more local produce in restaurants here.

"Using local produce is how Lidia grew up -- it's nothing new to her," says Hogan, who once worked at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, the Alice Waters restaurant that was an American leader in that philosophy.

In Kansas City, Lidia's has an extensive herb garden on the property. And she says Pittsburgh patrons may see some shrubs giving way to a small garden.

At the benefit, a discussion of the chefs' backgrounds ensued. Richards has degrees in English but decided he didn't want to teach at the college level when the culinary arts called. Hogan has a master's degree in music.

Lidia, whose mother was a schoolteacher in Italy, recommends earning a college degree -- preferably in the arts -- then attending culinary school and finally, she says, "you go to a foreign country and work your butt off."

"You're poor for a long time," quips Richards.

Lidia relishes the idea of young chefs in her kitchens. "They should take from me until they have their fill," she says. "I told my own children to get their education and then decide. This is a tough life. But they both came back."

Joe had worked on Wall Street, and Tanya earned a doctorate in Renaissance Italian art from Oxford. The daughter's career has dovetailed nicely with her interests -- she leads food, wine and art tours of Europe. The son is in the restaurant business with his mother and inspired the expansions to Kansas City and Pittsburgh. There are three restaurants in New York City -- Felidia's, Becco and Esca.

What's next? It's wait and see what happens with the economy. After 9/11, business has bounced back, she says. "We're doing better in New York than the rest of the country."

Lidia's knowledge of ingredients was a big part of her luncheon patter, as she discussed the differences between dry pasta and fresh pasta -- "One isn't better than the other, they're just different" -- and how to get the most out of different grades of olive oil. She used a combination of vegetable oil and olive oil to saute the chicken for the cacciatore because olive oil has a lower smoke point and breaks down under high heat. The best olive oil is cold-pressed extra-virgin, virgin is next, and then there's olive oil. "Use the best at the end for flavoring a dish," she advises.

The chicken was served over polenta, one of the dishes from childhood that helped make a name for her in New York. "People would ask, 'Who is this woman who makes polenta, risotto, and cooks with sauerkraut?'

By the way, she says, "You can't overcook polenta."

Pasta is another story. "People often ask me if they should add oil to the water," she says. "No, nor should you rinse the pasta, because you want the sauce to stick."

Richards says one crucial step in cooking proper pasta is salting the water. "I always taste the boiling water. It should taste almost like sea water."

In the restaurant, where they wouldn't be able to cook each pasta to order, they blanch the pasta, then shock it in cold water to stop the cooking. When an order is up, they drop it into boiling water until it is al dente."

"What is al dente?" Lidia jokes. "Well, an Italian wouldn't eat it if it isn't. You need some resistance on the bite."

And that old rule from college days is true: "When you think pasta is done, throw it on the wall. It sticks."

As for the polenta, the cornmeal is to be added to the boiling water slowly. "Almost like raining on it," she says.

"I can almost see every grain that is added," Richards adds.

"If not, you have those, what is that word?" she asks, turning to him.

"Lumps," he says.

Lidia stresses the importance of caramelizing the onions for optimal flavor. "The next step is burning." She laughs. "You have to stand by it and lower the temperature."

Rigatoni Woodsman-Style was served as an entree to the main course, but it might be a fitting, filling main course on its own. Cooks have their choice of using either fresh tomatoes or canned Italian plum tomatoes.

Lidia, who had to hurry back to New York to attend the wake of a friend's mother, will return this month to participate in a WQED fund-raiser.

Also in February, she will speak -- and cook -- at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando. Too bad the million-dollar cooking contest is only for amateurs. Few things are as much fun as watching a pro at work.

"Today," she says, assessing the large crowd at the sold-out event, "you not only choose a recipe you like, but it will come in on the time frame."

It takes six hours to produce one of Lidia's 28-minute TV shows in the house in Queens, which includes an apartment for her mother, who is in her 80s, and her mother's boyfriend of 10 years. (Lidia's father died 20 years ago.)

Lidia relishes the interplay of the four generations, and that will be part of the story in an upcoming article in Ladies Home Journal.

Judging from her mail from TV viewers, "People want to be home with family. People want to cook," she says.

"How do you keep track of everything on the stove?" someone asks.

Lidia laughs. "It's like having two little babies -- you have to know which one you can leave for a minute."

Lidia's Pittsburgh phone number is 412-552-0150.

Related Recipes:

Rigatoni Woodsman-Style (Rigatoni alla Boscaiola)
Chicken Cacciatore (Pollo alla Cacciatore)

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