The Coming of Age of Italian American Female Cooking Icons

Although Italian men regularly became breadwinners and achieved notoriety by working as chefs or restaurant proprietors, their female counterparts received less attention. This is changing, however, as attested to by the emergence of expert female chefs, restaurant owners/operators, hosts of television cooking programs, and cookbook authors.

Born in 1924 in Emilia-Romagna, Italy where she earned a doctorate, Marcella Polini Hazan became an author who was credited with introducing the public in the United States and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking. She is widely considered to be one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisine. Interestingly she did not learn how to cook until she married and began to live in New York. She taught her first cooking class when she was in her forties and the first of her six award-winning cookbooks, “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” was published when she was nearly 50.

Lidia Matticchio Bastianich is the reigning queen of Italian cuisine in America. Born in 1947 in Istria, then part of the Yugoslav Federal Republic and now independent Croatia, the Bastianich family fled to Italy. After obtaining “displaced persons” status, the family, assisted by Catholic Charities, moved to the United States, settling among other Istrian immigrants in Astoria, Queens.

While attending school and working in several restaurants, she met her future husband Felice Bastianich. Drawing on menus from successful Italian restaurants and adding Istrian traditional dishes, the couple opened their first restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills, Queens in 1971. Their second restaurant in Queens, Villa Secondo, earned rare notice from food critics and cookbook authors. Lidia also began to give live cooking demonstrations.

In 1981, the family sold the two restaurants and moved to Manhattan to launch their flagship restaurant, Felidia, which opened to near-universal acclaim from food critics. Gaining an instant boost of recognition after being invited by Julia Child to appear on a PBS series featuring acclaimed chefs, the Bastianich family expanded its restaurant empire to include restaurants outside of New York. Both her son Joseph and daughter Tanya are involved in the business, which now includes Lidia’s nationwide television series, successful books, supermarket sauces and highly praised restaurants.

In 2006, Bastianich further extended her influence by launching LIDIA, a modestly-priced food magazine designed to reach mass audiences. Also in 2006, “Lidia’s Family Table” - a show produced by Tanola Productions, a company she founded - premiered on public television stations throughout the country. By the year’s end she was listed among the 100 women in New York City who make a difference.

Often called the “godmother” and “queen” of Italian cooking, Bastianich appropriately has received many honors including serving as Grand Marshal for the 2007 Columbus Day Parade in New York on behalf of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. She also cooked three meals for Pope Benedict the XVI during his visit to New York in 2008.

Other Italian American female cooking artists on television who have authored popular cookbooks include Giada De Laurentiis, Mary Ann Esposito and Rachael Domenica Ray.

(La Cucina Di Lidia: Recipes and Memories from Italy’s Adriatic Coast, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Jay Jacobs 2003; Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. 1984)

Photo credits: Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito, Harper Collins Publishing, Random House, Inc., Victoria Pearson

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