In honor of Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of influential immigrant and refugee women who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America. Today we salute Emmy award-winning, Italian American celebrity chef, Lidia Bastianich.
Lidia Bastianich is an Emmy award-winning Italian American celebrity chef, television host, author, and restaurateur. She’s regularly been on public television cooking shows for a quarter century. Bastianich has advocated for refugees and extensively spoken of her family’s struggles as refugees before arriving and thriving in America.
Born on February 21, 1947, in Pola, Istria, Lidia Giuliana Matticchio Bastianich’s childhood was marked by hardships and turmoil. Just seven months after her birth, her hometown was assigned to Yugoslavia’s communist regime (now part of Istria County, Croatia) following World War II. Although Bastianich described a picturesque childhood frolicking in her grandmother’s backyard and neighboring orchards and vineyards, she also admitted she did not understand the full scope of sacrifices her family made while living behind the Iron Curtain. Her family eventually became a target and was forced to change their last name and forbidden to speak their native Italian language. Eventually, they were forced to flee after her father’s business was threatened.
In 1956, along with many native Istrian Italians, Lidia and her family escaped to Trieste, Italy, during the Istrian-Dalmatian exodus, where they would spend the next two years living in the Risiera di San Sabba refugee camp located in a former Nazi compound. During this time, she developed early cooking skills and her first experience working in a large commercial kitchen while assisting the nuns at her school. In 1958, Bastianich and her family boarded a plane to New York after their displaced persons application was granted to emigrate to the U.S.
Bastianich and her family settled in Queens, New York, where she worked at a bakery and a pizzeria after high school. At 18 years old, Bastianich was the first among her family to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. She would open her very first restaurant, Buonavia, in Queens with her husband Felix in 1971. A second restaurant, Villa Seconda, gained the attention of food critics and opened opportunities for Lidia to present cooking demonstrations. The couple sold both restaurants and opened Felidia, which drew high praise from food critics, including a 3-star review from the prestigious New York Times. In 1993, Lidia partnered with her son, Joe, to open Becco in New York’s famed “Restaurant Row” in the city’s theatre district. Today she owns multiple Italian restaurants across the U.S.
In 1993, iconic television cook and presenter Julia Child invited Lidia to appear on an episode of her program, Julia Child: Cooking with Master Chefs, which inspired her television cooking career. By 1998, Lidia established her own program on PBS, expanding to shows including Lidia’s Family Table, Lidia’s Italy in America, and Lidia’s Kitchen. She has published nearly 20 cookbooks accompanying her multiple television programs.
Bastianich is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier and a founding member of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, two non-profit organizations that advocate for women leaders in the food and hospitality industries. She also champions the United Nations Association of the USA’s Adopt-A-Future program supporting refugee education.