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March 5, 2016

By: Steve DeGenaro

So, here’s a confession from a guy that loves cooking, loves eating, and loves The Cooking Channel:  I’m not much of a fan of the vast majority of the so-called “celebrity chefs” on television.  I watch Anthony Bourdain religiously, but personally find him kind of pretentious.  He goes places and tastes foods I’d love to visit and taste, so I watch him anyway.  Guy Fieri has one of the most entertaining and interesting shows in the history of television and I’ve been to many of the drive ins, diners, and dives featured in his shows; but I found his restaurants to be comparable to Chili’s and TJ Friday’s, only more expensive.  And forget about most of the others, who cook recipes with ingredients impossible to find, using techniques and kitchen tools impossible to master for most of us lowly weekend chefs.  

 

Lidia Bastianich is the great exception to that rule of thumb and I’ve always been a fan of hers.  I have almost all her books, I watch her frequently, and I’ve visited several of her restaurants in New York City and Pittsburgh.  I’ve made several of her recipes and absolutely treasure her Bolognese sauce and Baba Au Rhum (and Au Limoncello, too!) recipes.  In the world of cooking, at least MY world of cooking, she’s as close to a rock star as a chef can get.  

 

So, when I heard she was going to be doing a book signing and tasting menu dinner in Pittsburgh, I was one of the first to sign up.  

 

The dinner was billed as “DINNER WITH LIDIA: FEATURING RECIPES FROM “MASTERING THE ART OF ITALIAN CUISINE”.  At just $55/person –with wine pairings at $30 extra—it struck me as a good deal, considering I’d meet a hero and have a great meal.  I assembled some like-minded friends, primarily some “cooking buddies” including parts of the teams I make wine and sausage with, and we secured reservations.  

 

Set in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, Lidia’s Restaurant is located in a rather modern looking building with a nice bar area.  The actual restaurant has a Soho Loft feel to it-not exactly the ambiance I prefer for Italian cuisine.  Some of the best Italian meals I’ve had (and I’ve had a lot of ‘em) are in places that look like the place where Michael Corleone executed Virgil Sollozo and the police captain in The Godfather.  I like warm places that smell like garlic where the waiters chatter in Italian and the tables are covered with red checked tablecloths and candles in old Chianti bottles.

 

The bar area is quite nice, though, and features a beautiful stone and granite fireplace.  The drinks are imaginative and interesting with nods toward Italian classics like Negronis and Bellinis.  Our party of seven settled in for a variety of pre dinner drinks.  We all know each other pretty well, and shared sips of prosecco, chocolate vodka martini, and a fantastic limoncello & vodka concoction that tasted like hard lemonade.  

 

While we were waiting for our table, Lidia showed up, working the bar and chatting with guests.  She was warm, funny, friendly, and a perfect Italian hostess.  She didn’t have a huge entourage, but was traveling with an assistant who talked to us at length.  Turns out he manages the Pittsburgh AND Kansas City restaurants for her.  He arranged for us to get copies of her latest book, and even made change for us, so we didn’t have to wait in line to buy the books.  While talking to Lidia, he patiently snapped pictures with all our cell phones, chiding us all to smile and promising that the meal would be memorable.  

 

Lidia could not have been friendlier.  She repeated our names, as if committing them to memory forever.  She asked where we were from. I got to chat with her about fennel—one of my favorite ingredients and she suggested I make salads with fennel and grapefruit instead of the more traditional fennel and oranges.  

She was interested in hearing about our upcoming trip to Naples and suggested a couple must-try dishes to sample in Sorrento.  Lidia is from a party of Italy that is now Croatia—Istria.  She spoke Croatian with a couple we were with, and mentioned several dishes that had a Croatian influence that we’d be trying that night.  

 

The meal was lovely.  It started out with family style antipasti: Celery sticks with gorgonzola, arancini (friend rice balls), chicken liver crostini, zucchini pie, and the most memorable food of the night:  baccala mantecato.  Baccala is dried salted cod, traditionally served on Christmas Eve.  This preparation was like a cheese ball: baccala was flaked into a pesto/cheese mixture and served spread on crusty little pieces of bread.  Salty, savory, slightly fishy, it was seafood perfection.

 

Primi course was also served family style and included escarole and white bean soup, Caesar salad, and a celery root & arugula salad.  The salads were great; the soup was not particularly exciting.  

 

Pasta course was served as two samples on a plate for each person: ricotta manicotti in light tomato sauce (nothing particularly exciting, but good solid comfort food) and shrimp & calamari in spaghetti (this one was exceptional with very green olive oil and crisp pieces of shrimp and calamari).  

 

If it ended there, we’d have walked away satisfied, but family style secondi course showed up.  Cabbage rolls (a nod to Croatia), chicken with new potatoes, and beef short ribs braised in beer, along with greens, winter squash, and grilled pieces of polenta were served on big platters.  This course had its ups and downs. Most of us at my table, including our Croatian friends who know cabbage rolls pretty well, found the cabbage rolls and chicken pretty run of the mill. The highlight here was the beef ribs braised in beer.  It had a sweet, cidery, tangy taste that had us all fighting for the last pieces of it.  

 

Desert was a simple and delicious Zabaglione with roasted pears.  The presentation was gorgeous and the taste was just sweet enough.  We ended the meal on a high note.  

 

Wine pairings were spot on and generous.  In fact, as “designated driver”, I didn’t get the pairing myself, but managed to have plenty from my dinner partner’s glasses.  I especially liked the limoncello served with dessert.  

 

So, the meal wasn’t perfect.  But it was a wonderful evening.  The bright spots in the meal (I’d pick the baccala appetizer, the seafood pasta, the beef ribs braised in beer, and the dessert) were amazing and dishes that weren’t “bright spots” were pretty good themselves.  The service was very good as well, quite attentive and fairly knowledgeable about the dishes.  The wine pairings were well done and the overall value of the meal itself and the wine pairings could not be beat.  

 

And meeting Lidia Bastianich was priceless! She’s every bit as nice as she seems on television and her passion for cooking, food, and wine is evident to anyone who meets her.  In my short time talking to her, she asked me if my Grandmother’s recipe for baccala was written down anywhere.  When I admitted it wasn’t, she chastised me to write it down for my sons and their wives, so that it could be handed down.  The greatest thing about what she does, she said, was the “privilege” to share recipes and stories about cooking with so many people.  Cooking for yourself, she reminded me, is not nearly as rewarding as cooking for others and sharing your passion, your recipes, and your bounty.  Thank you, Lidia, for a wonderful evening and wonderful meal!

 

 

 

 

 

DINNER WITH LIDIA BASTIANICH