Mama Mia? Mama Lidia!

Lidia Bastianich reflects on 20 years in Kansas City.



 

   She's not a Kansas City native, but she's as much a part of the local culinary scene as barbecue and biscuits and gravy. Lidia Bastianich, who was born in Italy and raised in Queens after immigrating to the U.S. with her family at 12 years old, opened Lidia's Kansas City in the Crossroads two decades ago. Today, her empire includes Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto in New York City, a Lidia's in Pittsburgh and several Eataly outposts. She's been a popular PBS chef and television host since 1998, and has authored nearly a dozen cookbooks.

   Bastianich is a veritable star of the national culinary stage, but despite her celebrity, she still has a special place in her heart for Kansas City. Her Crossroads restaurant touts tried-and-true Italian recipes and holds fast to treasured Italian traditions like Carnevale di Venezia, a celebration that takes over Venice just before Lent begins and one which Bastianich reimagines for some of her restaurants.

   In early February, Bastianich stopped in Kansas City to host Carnevale di Venezia at her restaurant here. While she was in town, we chatted with the quintessential Nonna of our hearts about her alliance with local nonprofit Boys Grow, how she's seen the Kansas City food scene evolve and what she loves best about her home country.

   Lidia’s Kansas City has been open since 1997, and the culinary scene was vastly different nearly 20 years ago. Can you tell me how you’ve seen the environment change and how Lidia’s has been influenced (or not influenced)?

   When we first came, that area was desolate. That whole building where we are was a beer warehouse, I think. We looked around for different spaces — certainly downtown and the Plaza looked intriguing, but it was very expensive in those areas, and there was limited space. So the area where we are was a little desolate, but it was a beautiful building. It reminded me of Italy: You could see the train passing by. It was a little romantic to me. It exemplified the Midwest, and it was the first entry of picking a restaurant that was really in a place that we felt was our entry into America.

   Somehow it never really worried me that there were no other tenants there. Thank God it worked out well. We got the keys to the city from the mayor five years ago. We were credited with energizing that part of the city. Now it’s a chic, upcoming center, and we’re very proud to have this foresight maybe of going there first.

   Do you still get some time to cook for yourself? If so, what’s your go-to dish, and how do you manage to still be inspired in the kitchen after all these years?

   I do cook for myself, but you’re right — being now so diversified, my role is more of really energizing and working and creating with the chefs and my managers rather than doing the cooking all myself. I love creating with my team, but I don’t get on the kitchen line very often unless I want to show them a dish.

   It's different at home. At home, I’m a grandmother of five, and my mother is 96, and she lives with me, and I cook for her because I want my mother to have a good meal. I do a lot of soups and pastas for her, and I put proteins in soups. That’s easier for her to eat and digest. We eat together, her and the kids and I. My sons love me to cook. We love pasta. I have my own line of Lidia’s dry pasta, and I have my whole selection at home. When I’m hungry, my favorite thing is still just spaghetti, garlic and olive oil or spaghetti and white clam sauce with a good Grana Padano cheese. A glass of white wine and I'm all set.

   You end up going to Italy several times a year. What do you look forward to most when you’re there?

   Well, you know, if we’re talking about food, I travel according to season, and the season affects what region we’re going to. So if you’re going in October or November, you want to go to Piedmont when the truffles are out. In August and September, you want to go to Tuscany and Parma, and in springtime, we go to my area, north of Venice. We have a place there and a winery and all that. But I also love the south of Italy in the summer months. Sicily is great in the summer — the tomatoes are amazing. The sun really packs them with flavor, and they’re so delicious, and the fish is great. The heal of Puglia is great in the spring and summer, too — the chickory and fava beans are perfect.

   I rarely go to the three Michelin-starred restaurants. I want to go to the small-town trattorias so I get the real authentic flavors of that region and so I can bring some ideas back. I know you probably think, "So many years, didn’t you get all the ideas?" [Laughs.] Surprisingly, the food evolves even in the little places that are very traditional, and those are the things that I look for.

   Let’s talk about your alliance with Boys Grow. How did you discover the nonprofit? Why it is significant to you?

   I really connected with [Boys Grow founder] John Gordon Jr. when we did an event with them a few years ago. I love it because it’s working with inner city kids and trying to educate them on food, and maybe education is a big part of the answer to a lot of the problems that we have today. This is specific because it brings young inner city kids out to the country and it teaches them about nourishing themselves, and it teaches them how to make it happen. They not only planted the harvest themselves, they learn how to make products with the food they grow, and they market them for sale to the public, and it’s a 360-degree experience from learning about food to becoming a businessperson. I think that’s just so valiant. It’s a great situation.

   So we have an annual fundraiser with Boys Grow now, and we meet these young boys and you hear how much the experience has changed their life. You know, I live in a city, and we have several restaurants in the United States, but I feel like you need to belong more to the community and feel more in the community, because your customers are the people in that city. So Boys Grow — working with them, that’s one of the ways I can help. I can be a part of the community and give back, and that’s so important.

   Lidia’s Kansas City, 101 W. 22nd St., Kansas City, Mo., lidias-kc.co.