QUEENS, N.Y. — The icon behind Lidia’s in the Strip District, Lidia Bastianich is a grand dame of the culinary world. Her memoir released in April, “My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family and Food” (Knopf, $28.95), chronicles her long and winding ascent.
It starts with her childhood on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, which was then part of Italy but was given to Yugoslavia after the World War II, pushing her family behind the Iron Curtain. It continues with her family’s harrowing exodus from Europe to the U.S., to Astoria, Queens, to college in Manhattan, and eventually to her 30-year residence in Douglaston, Queens.
Queens isn’t known for its gardens, but Ms. Bastianich has maintained a glorious one across Little Neck Bay. What she’s grows is not served at her restaurants for volume and logistics sake, but it has inspired the menu at Felidia in Manhattan, open since 1981, as well as Lidia’s in the Strip.
Like most Italian gardens, this one does not grow run-of-the mill tomatoes, squash and herbs. Italian tomato varietals are planted “anywhere there’s room,” says Ms. Bastianich, who points to vines growing next to black-eyed Susans and tucked between rose bushes.
“I need to have my hands close to the ground,” she says.
It’s how she grew up, and it’s how she cooks, with her garden surrounding the entrance to her kitchen. Outfitted with an expansive Viking range, this is the original setting for her PBS show, “Lidia’s Italian Table.”
In addition to beans, beets, celery, fennel, eggplant, chicory, berries, garlic and all sorts of peppers, Ms. Bastianich grows herbs in pots close to the house, with rosemary, thyme, verbena and Italian oregano among them. Closer to the chimney by the side of her house, fig trees in giant pots stretch overhead, having survived multiple New York winters. She stops short of the efforts of some Italians, who opt to wrap or bury fig trees in the ground over the winter.
At Felidia on the Upper East Side, where head chef Fortunato Nicotra has been cooking since the ’90s, dishes are shaped by what Ms. Bastianich is growing, from the poached fruit served with chicken liver pate, to the capesante, scallops with a variety of tomatoes, corn and other vegetables. Herbs inform teas as well as more potent drinks like grappa infused with ruta, or rue, a lemon-y, bitter herb. After three months, springs in a bottle transform a bracing drink into a mellow digestivo.
Nearly 10 times a season, Ms. Bastianich harvests greens and chicory framed by marigolds and other flowers. And, like the rest of her garden, it continues to provide.
Melissa McCart: firstname.lastname@example.org