Playing for Team Lidia
Late one rainy weekday evening, Lidia’s guys–that is, the chefs from the restaurants Lidia Bastianich has full or part ownership of–did something they rarely ever do: they made some food, wrangled up some beer and a few good bottles of wine, and hung out together under the auspices of some good, clean competition over a game of foosball. The location, the upstairs dining room at Felidia, is not usually home to a foosball table, but a portable one was installed just for the evening and somehow seemed a perfect fit, along with the meatball wedges and the big wheel of Grana Padano, in the elegant wood-walled space.
Being a player for Team Lidia is not unlike playing for an Italian National Soccer Team whose players also participate on a variety of other professional teams, both in Italy and around the world. While they go out and accomplish their own goals, when it comes time to play for Italia, they all return with a common objective in mind. Lidia’s guys play the same way.
The chefs straggled in, one by one, after working the dinner service in their respective kitchens. Host Chef Fortunato Nicotra busily put together several stacks of panini, some stuffed with smoked-salmon pastrami and egg-white frittata and others speck and fontina. This dish is featured on his new bar menu at Felidia. Sometime between service and heading upstairs, Dodo–as Fortunato is adoringly called by almost everyone he meets–had donned a jersey from his favorite Torino soccer team, Juventus, which a friend had made especially for him, with his name on the back.
The first to arrive is Mark Ladner, Executive Chef at Del Posto, the hip, upscale ristorante on the Hudson River. Ladner came armed with a bag of “pecorino cheese poofs” that he whipped up with a little help from his friend and molecular gastronomy chef, Wylie Dufresne, of restaurant wd-50. These “poofs,” made with something called methylcellulose, are served in Del Posto’s bar and are dangerously addictive–Dodo may have even slipped a few in his pocket. Perhaps inspired by being in Lidia’s eponymous restaurant, Ladner muses: “I don’t know if you know this, but Lidia knows more about regional Italian cuisine than anyone else out there. She is single-handedly responsible for preserving Italian cuisine in this country.” And Ladner is happy to help carry out this mission by serving incredibly polished, delicious, and timely authentic food in Del Posto. Ladner is also fortunate to be able to travel to Italy several times a year for what he calls a “self-corrective exercise,” in order to honorably represent Italy’s cuisine in his restaurant. Much of what he learns is centered on simplicity and regionalism. “Local might not always be the most fashionable,” he declares, “but it is the most relevant.”
Next to arrive is Chef William Gallagher, from Becco restaurant, a staple in the theater district for the past 15 years, serving an average 1,200 diners a night. Whereas Del Posto affords more experimentation, Becco is responsible for making exquisite northern Italian cuisine that plucks at the chords most American diners expect when eating at an Italian restaurant. Anything but cliché, Gallagher’s food is comforting and homey. He came armed with his famous meatballs, renowned among theatergoers and regulars. If asked what is in them, Gallagher simply replies “love,” with a hearty laugh.
The last to arrive is Chef David Pasternack, from Esca, who had just heard about the gettogether that afternoon, on returning from a trip, and so came empty-handed. But he made up for it with his conviviality, settling right in and joking with Gallagher, whom he has known since he was ten as they grew up together in Rockville Centre, Long Island. In fact, it was Pasternack who introduced Gallagher to Lidia’s son, Joe Bastianich. Pasternack’s menu at Esca primarily comprises seafood, and the restaurant can be credited as the first to introduce the Italian notion of crudo to New Yorkers. Pasternack stays within the bounds of Italian-inspired dishes by creating a menu that is both simple and beautiful. He is also an avid fisherman, and it is not rare for him to serve his catch at Esca, bringing fresh, local fish directly from the water to the table. This spring, Pasternack will have a fish shack in the new Mets stadium.
At the heart of it all, Lidia serves as the mentor and inspiration. She’s the common thread between all these restaurants: from the elegant Felidia and the stylish Del Posto to the family-style Becco and the sea-inspired Esca. And while these chefs and their food can be as different, or not, from one another as they choose, they are ultimately all responsible for respectfully presenting Italian cuisine in Lidia’s name–something they all take very seriously.