TO Lidia Bastianich, food is a grand celebration of life. As co-owner and executive chef of Felidia Ristorante in New York, she reveres food as an integral part of sharing and caring, learning and earning. ``It's a sense of being human,'' says the chef in an interview in the Italian restaurant she owns with her husband, Felix. A combination of their first names makes for the restaurant's name, Felidia.
``Food, family - family at the table, affection, love, the freedom to express these things are part of Italian culture,'' says Bastianich, a round-faced woman with a welcoming smile: ``Food is used to send a lot of messages. The major ones are loving and caring.''
Food is also a medium to understand a culture, says the chef. To know the ingredients, taste them - have the experience of eating and preparing - is all part of culture. ``You can tell a lot about people just by their markets,'' she adds.
Felidia has been a beloved eatery of Manhattan's Upper East Side since it opened in 1980 and is often cited as one of the top restaurants in North America. Critics cite Lidia's instinct, passion, and deep knowledge of food as ingredients in its success.
Felidia's fare is of the Bastianiches' homeland - Istria, an Adriatic peninsula once part of Italy, now in Yugoslavia. Its cuisine is considered Italian, with Yugoslav and German influences. Browse through the menu and see: Home-cured proscuitto; grilled polenta with fonduta cheese and wild mushrooms; vegetable fennel soup; potato gnocchi in a basil sauce; seafood risotto; pasta with ricotta, sausage, mushrooms, and tomato; roasted veal shank with rosemary; fried squid; grilled steak; breast of chicken in a tomato and basil sauce.
Lidia's family moved from Istria to America in 1958 and settled in Queens - a borough of New York City - where she eventually met and married Felix, also an Istrian immigrant, in 1966. With a mutual interest in food, they opened and sold two restaurants in Queens before taking the Manhattan plunge with Felida.
Bastianich's nurturing and caring nature are apparent: A mother of two, she is famous for giving hugs to her customers. But not so evident is her knowledge of food. She has studied it in terms of anthropology, psychology, science, history, and physiology. She speaks five languages.
At the core of her culinary creations and enormous reference library is a moral code: ``I like food as natural as you can get - really respecting it in so far as preparation,'' she says. ``Ultimately, you want harmony with flavors and textures.''
Reverence for food means not serving pverlarge portions; looking for food's natural quality and not adulterating, masking, or covering that, she says.
``There's not one recipe that I've invented,'' says Bastianich. ``The greatness of a chef is in interpreting culture through the food of that culture and evolving it,'' she says. ``You want the beauties preserved: an An orchid is an orchid.''
Some chefs experiment with cross-cultural cuisine and that's not always good: ``I see my culture splattered all over the table,'' she says. Yet food does have to change according to the needs of people, she admits. ``It's an evolutionary process,'' she says. The Latin language died off because it did not change as people's needs changed, she notes.
Why are Americans gaga over Italian food? It's the attitude, says Bastianich. Americans ``want to experience Italy, experience the taste of Italy, capture what makes Italy Italy,'' she says.
The Italian attitude toward life is simple - land, family, table, emotions, love. ``Those are primary; those are givens. You don't deviate. That's part of existence, life,'' she says.
Bastianich recalls her childhood in Istria where life revolved around food. She was always around her grandmother in the kitchen. Unlike many chefs, she was naturally exposed to the many facets and development of food: gathering eggs, feeding chickens, crushing grapes, making sausages, gathering asparagus in the spring. ``I was very much in touch with nature,'' she states.
TAKING that exposure and integrating it into American life was no small feat. ``I feel very unique that I'm able to marry these two cultures,'' she says.
In her 20 years in the restaurant business in America, Bastianich has seen authenticity in Italian food come a long way. ``Half the battle is won when you have authentic ingredients,'' she says. But in the restaurant business, some adaptations are necessary. Americans are big meat eaters, for example. Bastianich says she ``had to give in'' to designing dishes with a bigger ratio of meat to vegetables and pasta.
Also, Americans may not find certain things acceptable. In Italy, for example, pesto sauce includes boiled potatoes and string beans. Over pasta, that's a double dose of starch, so you don't see that here, she says.
Felidia ``reflects who I am,'' says Bastianich, looking about the warm duplex restaurant with its white walls accented with wood and brick. Flowers are on the tables. Lunch-time customers are white-collar professionals. Many businessmen from Italy come to Felidia when they're in town. When Woody Allen dines here, he faces the wall.
Competition in New York is ``fierce,'' she states. Climbing to the top is one thing; maintaining it is much harder. You must consider the customer and things other than the food: the service, the presentation, the ambiance. About owning a restaurant, she says ``A lot of people do it strictly as a business.'' Others see it as art, an emotional outlet, or a vocation where success is measured in numbers at the end of the year.
But for Bastianich, it goes back to sharing and celebrating. In addition to teaching cooking, nutrition, and food history at various schools, she makes guest appearances on TV programs, participates in various social events, and aids in many charity functions.
``I love people,'' she says. ``I can take this industry and transform it into an element of giving. I can take the same principles that made me a financial success and make it altruistic and it feels good.''