The Flavor of Memory

By Margo True

Published on July 11, 2001

''See that nice asparagus looking at you?'' asks Lidia Bastianich, pointing to a skinny spear poking up through feathery greens in the quiet gloom of the forest. Then she plunges off into the underbrush. ''Ah, bruscandoli!'' she almost whispers. There, nearly hidden within the stems of a miserably prickly hollylike shrub, are the edible shoots, curved, smooth, and a curiously metallic purple, with brushy tips that remind me of dental tools. We start snapping them off to cook later for lunch. Lidia glows, energized by the generosity of the forest and the fun of the hunt—especially here, in these woods behind the coastal Croatian town where she grew up. ''You come here,'' she says, ''and you get your whole meal.''

Tramping through the forest with this celebrated restaurateur and chef (the James Beard Foundation just named her New York City's chef of the year), I think of the world she usually inhabits. At Felidia in Manhattan, the most elegant of her restaurants, expensively dressed customers sip wine from Spie-gelau goblets and consume lavish plates of food, while Lidia—a generously built woman with luminous, rosy skin, a truly mirthful smile, and a penchant for large gold jewelry—strides through the place, orchestrating the details of the service like an opera conductor. She also finds time to tape a cooking show for PBS, Lidia's Italian Table; supervise her other restaurants, Frico Bar and Becco in Manhattan and Lidia's in Kansas City; write cookbooks (La Cucina di Lidia, cowritten with Jay Jacobs, Doubleday, 1990; and Lidia's Italian Table, William Morrow and Company, 1998); and lead food-and-art trips to Italy. And yet, at least four times a year, she travels thousands of miles to Busoler, a nondescript town at the tip of the Istrian Peninsula, about 90 miles east of Venice, to reconnect with the place that made her who she is. Busoler was where her paternal grandfather and maternal grandparents lived. Her own house was a mile or so away, in the old Roman town of Pula, but she spent nearly all her free time here, in a cluster of rough stone cottages around a meandering courtyard.

''For me, coming to this place is like entering a time capsule,'' Bastianich says happily, as she points out her grandparents' house, the cantina (where the wine was made and stored), and the smoke-darkened casetta nera, or ''little black house'', where her grandmother cooked over an open hearth. Today, just one cousin and a couple of tenants live here, but 50 years ago it sheltered, along with her grandparents, a couple of aunts and uncles and assorted cousins.

Money was scarce, but life was in many ways rich and flavorful, partly because it was so self-reliant. The family raised almost everything they ate. ''My grandparents made prosciutto from their own pigs,'' recalls Bastianich, ''and the wheat they grew was made into flour at the communal mill. I was around when the olives were made into oil—I can still see it flowing a deep emerald green—and when the figs were harvested.'' The family fermented wine and grappa from their own grapes. Chickens scratched beneath the mulberry tree, and there were pigs, rabbits, goats, sheep, pigeons, geese, even donkeys in the courtyard. One of Bastianich's uncles would take his small boat out into the Adriatic Sea and catch octopus, squid, and fish.

Bastianich's childhood unfurled happily in Busoler, and food was at its center. Lidia and her brother, Franco, played hide-and-seek in the huge rosemary hedges in the front yard and would smell of rosemary all day. They'd have fig fights and end up with sticky, fig-filled hair. Down on the white-pebbled beaches of the Adriatic, they'd hunt for shellfish, picking sea urchins, mussels, and periwinkles from the rocks. The sea itself was so rich with life that schile, tiny Adriatic shrimp, would nibble Lidia's legs as she swam. As far back as she can remember, she helped in the kitchen—shaping gnocchi, drying herbs with her great-aunt Santola Maria, splitting and cleaning chicken intestines (no animal part was ever wasted) to be made into a frittata. And in the courtyard, under a fig tree, the family would have Sunday lunch, eating what they had produced: fresh pasta, roasted meat, vegetables from the garden. In this way, Lidia was formed: ''Those flavors, those aromas, are my reference points,'' she says.

Her cooking today not only reflects an intimate knowledge of ingredients, but also of the gastronomy of the cultures that have swirled through the Istrian Peninsula. For nearly four hundred years, Istria was ruled by the Venetian Empire; in our own century, it has belonged to Hapsburg, Austria; to Italy; and, after World War II, to Yugoslavia—of which it was a part until 1991, when Croatia declared its independence. The resulting cuisine is a fascinating amalgam of Austro-Hungarian, Italian, and Slavic traditions: hearty game dishes, rich organ meats, fresh seafood, dense vegetable soups, unusual Istrian-Italian pastas (such as fuzi, shaped like little open envelopes), and desserts, from strudel and palacinke (Slavic sweet crepes) to tiramisu.

By the early 1950s, the Communist government of Yugoslavia—though enlightened in comparison with those of other eastern European countries—had begun to close the Italian border and curtail religious freedom. ''If my parents had gone to church,'' Bastianich says soberly, ''they would have lost their jobs.'' At about the same time, Italian was banned in the schools, and Italian names were Slavicized: Lidia's family name, Matticchio, became Motika. (Bastianich is her ex-husband Felice's name.) In 1956, when Bastianich was 9, the family fled to Italy. Lidia and her brother were told only that they were going on vacation, so she never had a chance to say goodbye to her grandparents, or to her friends, or to Busoler.

The family lived in Trieste for two years, and Bastianich spent many hours cooking with her great-aunt Nina, once a private chef for a wealthy family. Nina taught her culinary refinements she'd never imagined: ''She gave me the second defining layer of my style,'' says Bastianich. But for years, in Trieste and then in America, where her parents emigrated in search of a better life, she thought with anguish of Busoler. ''I remember having a dark side as a youngster that I couldn't explain,'' she recalls. ''I longed for that place, for the relationships, the warmth. I remember it so well because when I was told I couldn't go back, I kept rerunning the film of it in my mind.'' It wasn't until 1966, on her honeymoon, that Bastianich could afford to return to Istria—and it took another ten years of visiting before she finally began to feel reconnected to her past. Over the years she's strengthened the bond, not only to family but to the community, too. During the Croatian-Serbian war in the early 1990s, she arranged for Istrian doctors to come to a Long Island hospital to learn new medical techniques, and she convinced Adidas and Milton Bradley to donate thousands of toys and shoes to Istrian children.

Today, Pula is a city of about 82,000, a mix of splendid Roman ruins, solidly elegant turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian buildings, and grim Communist-era concrete monoliths. The recent war with Serbia, and the transition to a privatized economy, has left Crotia in severe financial straits—the average monthly income is $400. Fortunately, Istria was not physically damaged during the war, and its beaches are as beautiful as ever, with pale green water shaded by fragrant pines. That coastline was a major tourist draw before the war, and gradually visitors are returning, reassured by the fact that Istria is untouched by the conflict in Kosovo some 600 miles south.

In the crowded center of town, Bastianich nimbly parks her little gray Lancia halfway up a curb—''It's like a goat!'' she chuckles—and takes me with her into the produce market to pick up a few things for lunch. The market hasn't changed much since the days she used to sell homegrown vegetables here with her grandmother, trundling them all the way from Busoler in a handcart. The vendors still stand behind produce heaped on long, waist-high stone tables, shaded by the same chestnut trees, whose tender new leaves droop like handkerchiefs. A woman who generally moves through life at a purposeful clip, Bastianich charges off down the aisles, past the bounty of spring: wild asparagus, each stalk no thicker than a strand of linguine; shelled walnuts; tiny radishes red and round as Christmas ornaments. For our salad, she buys slender young arugula and small roselike clusters of sweet radicchio zuccherino, a specialty found only in Istria and northeastern Italy.

We're having lunch with Lidia's cousin Renato Pavichievaz, whose house adjoins her grandparents' courtyard. A retired welder, he and his wife, Mariuccia, live pretty much off the land, in keeping with the old ways. His gardens stretch out beside his long, low stucco house, and cherry, plum, apricot, and quince trees bloom along the walkway in masses of pink and white. We admire their animals—a few dozen pigeons; a mother goat and her kids, all nerves and big eyes, skittering through the mud; and some rabbits. Bastianich pats a soft, tubby white one. ''Is he cute or what?'' she asks. ''He'll end up in some pot or something, though.''

An enormous hearth warms the room where we eat. Deep in the embers, kid (from the nearby pen) and potatoes are steam-roasting in a crepnia—a heavy steel pan with a flat-topped, clochelike lid. Renato piles a couple of pine branches, cones and all, onto the lid, and the sweet, heavy, resinous smell wafts through the room. The table fills up with relatives: Bastianich's aunt, Lidia Fonio; Fonio's daughter, Sonia; Renato and Mariuccia and their son, Corrado; and another of Bastianich's cousins, Milena Pavichievaz. We feast on chard from Aunt Lidia's garden, mixed with mashed potatoes; raw scallions dipped in coarse sea salt; the radicchio and arugula from the market, with the family's own olive oil and red wine vinegar; the bruscandoli we pulled from the woods, which taste a bit like broccoli rabe; and the caramelized, slightly smoky, juicy contents of the crepnia. Mariuccia mashes the potatoes into the meat juices and spoons them out. We're drinking Renato's fruity malvasia, lots of it, and tossing bones out the door to Renato's little dog. Sunshine streams in through the open door, and we can hear roosters crowing and see the fruit trees billowing in the yard. Renato leans back in his chair and starts to croon a folk song in Italian, and the entire table joins in. Lidia's warm brown eyes turn golden; on her face is an expression of complete contentment. ''You know,'' she says thoughtfully, ''some people are ashamed of their roots. But not me. This is my richness.''

The first things you notice when you pull up to the Bastianich house in Douglaston, Queens, are the vegetable gardens around it, the rosemary bush in the driveway, and the grapevines trellised at one end of a lawn sloping down to the bay. It's like a piece of Busoler, imported. Two brick ovens dominate the terrace, the larger one equipped with spits for roasting whole animals. The workshop attached to the house contains big dark demijohns of Bastianich's own mild, sweet red-wine vinegar. Her mother, Erminia Motika, lives with her, along with Gianni Bencina, an Istrian-Italian who has been Erminia's companion since her husband died ten years ago. Bastianich's children—Tanya, an art historian, and Joseph, co-owner of her restaurants and, with chef Mario Batali, of the Babbo, also in Manhattan—live just a few blocks away.

It's midmorning, and Bastianich is already in the kitchen, cooking a menu of dishes that come straight from Istria. She works swiftly and surely, whacking the head off a baby goat carcass and slicing up its dark, glistening organs with plump hands that look as if they belong in a Botticelli painting. A crepnia crammed with chunks of rabbit, onions, potatoes, and white wine cooks slowly in one of the hearths outside, piled round with embers. Polenta suffused with fresh bay leaves bubbles on the stove. A muscular gray eel lies coiled in the sink, destined for brodetto—a silky reduction of tomato paste, onions, olive oil, and vinegar. She strokes the beast and grins, ''My uncle used to fish for these, and we kids would tease them. They'd give us shocks—just little ones.'' Erminia comes in from the garden with a big bowlful of radicchio zuccherino, just like the kind from Pula, for our salad. As she stuffs the kid with rosemary, Lidia remembers how the men in Busoler used to take turns rotating the spit, drinking and telling stories. This spit is motor driven, but we baste the roast the old-fashioned way: with fresh rosemary dunked in olive oil and sea salt. There is griddled squid, too, marinated first in lots of olive oil, garlic, hot red pepper flakes, and thyme.

Commotion outside: The rest of the family has arrived, along with a few employees from Felidia, and they're hungry. Lidia drops everything to play with her 16-month-old granddaughter, Olivia, Joseph's daughter—a sweet, blue-eyed little thing who's come with her own toy plastic food and shopping cart. Soon everyone's at the table, diving into the food, talking back and forth in rapid Italian, laughing. For dessert there's hot plum gnocchi—big potato dumplings filled with fresh plum and rolled in toasted bread crumbs, cinnamon, and sugar. Biting into one releases a cloud of steam and a burst of hot, jammy fruit.

Sitting here drowsily over an espresso, watching Lidia plant kisses on Olivia's pink cheeks, I'm reminded of something she told me—about how much her own grandmother had taught her and how now, as a grandmother herself, she wants to complete the cycle. ''It's unconditional love,'' she'd said. ''I sing, I dance for Olivia. And I crush herbs and hold them up to her nose, bits of basil and rosemary. I want this child to know the smells and the flavors of who she is.''

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