- - Wednesday, May 2, 2018



By Lidia Bastianich

Knopf, $28.95, 352 pages

“My American Dream” is not exactly the stereotyped rags-to-riches story of an American immigrant because its author, restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, was born into a fairly comfortable family in Pula, now in Croatia, but formerly part of the Italian province of Istria.

Shortly after her birth in 1947, Pula became part of Yugoslavia. Italians could leave before the border was shut, but Lidia’s father did not like the housing offered in Brescia, so they stayed in the large apartment in the house he owned. He also had a couple of trucks. At a time when few people possessed a car, that put the family among the comfortably off.

Little Lidia spent lots time with her much less affluent maternal grandmother Nonna Rosa in a homestead two miles outside the city. Life there was dawn-to-dusk work, growing vegetables and fruit, raising animals, foraging for wild greens and mushrooms, and preparing all these for meals and for winter storage. It sounds like paradise, and the little girl certainly loved helping with everything, but looking back as an older woman she highlights the constant hard work.

As a chef whose culinary roots reach back to those idyllic days — which included unidyllic activities like butchering pigs — she writes, “We hear every day about hunger in the world, about food drives, about children who don’t have enough to eat. Yet so many of us eat only selected parts of the animal — chops filets, hams, butts. The remains, those parts I so vividly remember being appreciated in the courtyard, aren’t used for food these days. Instead they are turned into soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, hair dyes, nail polish, crayons. … For me there is value in using as much of the animal as I can for nourishment and sustenance.”

The clarity and force of this statement typifies Lidia Bastianich. Her autobiography is a chronicle of moving from project to project, always sharply focused on a goal. Life was not always easy. When the family left Croatia for the Italian city of Trieste they did so as refugees, and spent more than two years in a refugee hostel, sharing a single room, eating meagerly, as they waited for visas for America.

When they arrived in New York, they lived in small noisy apartments — no match for the parquet-floored Pula residence. Her father, once a business owner, now took jobs as a mechanic or driver; her mother, formerly a teacher, worked in factories and a bakery.

Lidia married at 19 and soon opened a restaurant with her husband Felice. Then they opened another. By the time she was 32 they were owners of their flagship Manhattan restaurant Felidia. As chef she broke with the heavy foods that were staples of Italian-American cookery, and showcased northern Italian fare from her Istrian homeland. With this food plus her keen eye for what made a restaurant appealing she quickly became a star of New York culinary life.

Though the Bastianiches had anxious days funding and getting Felidia off the ground, it initiated a success story that is still unfolding. Now Lidia Bastianich owns several restaurants and stars in her own TV cooking show. She has written numerous cookbooks, and recently became a founding partner in Eataly — a fast-expanding emporium of all things Italian.

She records the acquisition of all these good things at a helter-skelter pace in the final third of her book. It also chronicles the successes of her two children, her love of her grandchildren, and of her mother, whose help with child care and in the restaurants helped power her onward.

Yet this record of achievement and affluence is less compelling than the account of Pula in the years after World War II, her life in Trieste and her teenage years in 1960s New York. One reason for this is that her catalogue of achievement after achievement cannot compete with her riveting memoir of life in another country at another time.

More importantly, one senses something missing. These late chapters are lists of one thing after another with little back story or explanation of how they happened. She notes, for example, that women chefs were rare when she took the helm at Felidia, but not how that affected her. She says her father never really settled and always hoped to return to Pula, but not how this shaped the family’s life. She acknowledges the sacrifice her parents made in coming to America, but never explains what prompted their risky departure from Pula. She so often reiterates how much she values family that a reader could be forgiven for thinking she protests too much.

In general, though, her book is rich in interest, highlighted with appealing family snapshots, and spritzed with compelling observations. The cover picture of the smiling author with a huge platter of vivid tomatoes aptly suggests the vigor of the tale she tells.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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