Famed TV chef Lidia Bastianich draws crowd at Bayside Historical Society author talk event

Author and TV chef Lidia Bastianich, seated, poses for a photo during her Bayside Historical Society book signing event on June 21 at the Castle at Fort Totten
Photo by Michael Rizzo

Famed TV chef Lidia Bastianich was the queen of the Castle at Fort Totten on June 21, the minute she walked into the historic building for an author talk event hosted by the Bayside Historical Society (BHS). 

Bastianich is an Italian-American celebrity chef, television host, author and restaurateur specializing in Italian and Italian-American cuisine. She has been a regular contributor to public television cooking shows since 1998. Currently, she owns several Italian restaurants across the U.S. and is also a partner in Eataly locations worldwide.

The event, which ran from 7-9 p.m., drew nearly 150 people, who were there to hear her speak about her life and work and to get signed copies of her latest cookbook. 

In an interview just before the event, Bastianich said she was happy to come.

“It is my neighborhood,” she said, referring to her home just across Little Neck Bay in Douglas Manor. “Queens is where I came as an immigrant, and I feel at home here, and I still do.” 

Her new book is titled- Lidia’s From Our Family Table to Yours.

“People wanted to know about my family and be part of the family. These are the favorites that we cook at home,” she explained. “Cooking is nurturing people. Cooking for people is inviting everybody at the table. When you feed somebody, you mean them well, you give them welcome.” 

Photo by Michael Rizzo

Brita Kube, interim director of BHS, said the response to Bastianich’s event was significant.

“Our normal author talks get 50 people attending. We’re just about sold out tonight,” she said. Ticket prices were $20-$25, but Kube noted that this was not an official fundraiser but “more about visibility and getting people to find out about us.”

Bayside resident Hank Feder came with his wife, Barbara Dodell, and both admitted to being fans of the author.

“It’s like, it’s Italian cooking, but it has a different spin that makes it more appealing,” Dodell said of the food Bastianich prepares. “It has a very home-cooked feel to it.” 

“One of the best parts of her show was her interaction with her mother, who I know passed away,” Feder added. “We enjoyed that interaction.”

The event began with Laura James, BHS’s Vice President of Education, in a question-and-answer session with Bastianich that lasted about an hour. Topics included Bastianich’s emigration to the United States from her native Istria in 1958 and settling in Astoria

“The American people accepted us and helped us and we felt like we belonged,” said Bastianich. The author spoke about cooking for Popes Benedict and Francis when they visited New York and her rise in popularity through her shows, books, and interviews.

Several audience members asked questions, including what were her first impressions of Italian-American cooking: “Italian-American cuisine is good cuisine,” and whether her grandchildren will follow in her profession: “They love to feed people, so there’s promise there.”

Photo by Michael Rizzo

A heartwarming moment that elicited great applause was when she said if she could cook for anyone, she mentioned her deceased grandmother, whose home in Istria she bought and still maintains.

“I remember her all in black and barefoot working the fields. So I would choose to be with her and cook for her.” 

But perhaps the audience member whose comment got the most rousing response was Maria Santalesa of Flushing, a longtime friend of Bastianich and BHS member.

“Lidia, I’ve been replaced in the kitchen by my husband because he watches all your shows.”

As the questions ended, the book signings began. Pen in hand and smile on her face, Bastianich sat for nearly 45 minutes, writing personal messages in each book, chatting with each fan and posing for photo after photo for the visual memory that everyone seemed to want of them with their culinary royalty.

“Hearing her and seeing her just touches the heart,” Cathy Franquinha of Whitestone, who emigrated from Calabria, Italy, said after having six books signed by Bastianich.

Bastianich just finished taping another season of her PBS show, so what’s next?

“You know, I’m asking that myself,” she said during her interview with QNS. 

“I feel good. I like what I do. Books are a way of communicating with the viewers. It’s still staying connected and sharing with my friends out there who have been my customers for 50 years and viewers for 25 years. It’s like a family.”