The Italian way: good food, good conversation

At Lidia Bastianich's home on Long Island, "pasta" and "calories" have never been dirty words. Culinary fads are completely ignored. Here, it's natural for four generations to share a platter of homemade gnocchi or a skillet of ziti with sausage, onions, and fennel for lunch. What's really on the menu, though, is sharing conversation and enjoying good food.

"Food gives us nourishment and also pleasure," says Ms. Bastianich in a phone interview. "When we share food and we partake, it's very meaningful."

That's a message viewers of her PBS shows hear over and over. It's something they see as well, when Bastianich's son or daughter, both of whom live nearby, drops by her set to help with the cooking. Her 80-something mother, who has an in-law apartment in Bastianich's home, also helps stir the pot at times.

Not everyone has such a tightknit family, admits Bastianich, who films the show in her home kitchen, but she'd like people to enjoy mealtime. So much of the talk about food today is negative. "We need to learn to love food, to eat it, and to prepare it right. Everything is good for you if prepared right, in the right amount."

That's a message she often promotes, and one that has become popular because of the book "French Women Don't Get Fat." But for Bastianich, who just published her fourth cookbook, "Lidia's Family Table," changing how people view food means first teaching them how to cook nutritious, delicious meals: "People need to connect with food, need to touch it, need to sense everything about it. Then your mind gets satiated, and you don't need so much to fill up your stomach."

When people don't eat wisely, they run into problems, she says, pointing to the number of Americans who are overweight. "Instead of having people contact, we use food to fill our emotions. We don't realize what we eat, or don't care, so we grab the chips."

Children especially benefit from eating with the family, she adds. "The table is a very important forum for a family. Imagine having a solitary tray in front of you. You grow up to be such an isolated individual, and that's a dangerous zone for kids to be in."

Many sociologists say the same thing.

But how much impact can home-cooked meals really have?

A great deal, she says, recalling how isolated she and her family felt when they emigrated from Italy. They didn't speak English and knew few people, but "we felt a sense of security at the table. That's where all the wisdom of a family is passed on and talked about."

Bastianich describes her teen years, when she would go out to dances with friends and then sleep late on Sunday morning. "The smell [of dinner cooking] coming under the door would wake me up," she says. "It was the best feeling in life."

For many of her viewers, however, cozy family dinners were not part of their childhoods. And they never really learned to cook.

So each week she shows them, step by step, how to make her recipes. Use enough water so that the pasta can "dance" (move around freely), she says. Make sure the pasta is al dente, or cooked only until firm. (It tastes better and releases less starch that way.) Don't panic if you're missing an ingredient. Use this or that instead.

She even has a solution for those who have no time to cook: Make a pound of pasta and then drizzle about a half cup of extra-virgin olive oil over it. Toss to coat and then add a cup of freshly grated cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano work best). Toss again, and serve.

Bastianich moves on to more complicated and more unusual dishes (monkfish, for example, or skate) over time. Her goal is always to expand the viewers' repertoire and challenge ideas about "good" and "bad" foods.

"Everything is good for you if it's prepared right, in the right amount," she says. "What happens in America is we pile our plates with one or two foods, and that's it. In the Mediterranean diet, you can grab an olive or two to start, have a little salad, some fish, and throw broccoli in the pasta water. There is diversity in the meal."

But perhaps her most important message, she says, is that cooking needn't be complicated. "Italian food is not about big elaborations. Italian food is family food."

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