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Summer Food: Mother Cooks Best

Lidia Bastianich, the city's First Lady of Italian food, has created a corner of her Adriatic homeland on Little Neck Bay. Her Sunday lunch ritual suggests food is too important to be left in her restaurants.

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The fig tree growing in Lidia Bastianich's garden, overlooking Little Neck Bay in Douglaston, Queens, is the emblem of a burgeoning culinary empire. Bastianich is the legendary proprietor of Felidia, the 58th Street temple of Italian cooking. She also runs Becco (her son, Joe, handles the finances) and has recently launched an outpost in Kansas City. And now Joe, in partnership with Mario Batali, is spreading out his own archipelago of Italian restaurants: Babbo, Lupa, and the just-opened Esca, as well as a wine store, Italian Wine Merchants.

Sunday lunch, prepared by a legion of Bastianiches and assorted spouses and significant others, and served, in the summertime, alfresco, is the mainstay of this benevolent matriarchy. "The table is the magnet that really fortifies this unity that happens as a family," says Lidia. And her garden, in which she grows a Greenmarketful of vegetables, fortifies what happens at her table. She also makes enough pantry staples to supply a small village: vinegar and flavored grappas, prosciutto, salami, pancetta. Some of the olive oil used at her home and at Felidia comes from trees on what was once her grandparents' land in the Italian region of Istria, near the elbow of the Adriatic.

One reason she's worked so hard to put down Italian roots in Douglaston is that her real roots were torn away. Her family fled Istria after World War II, when it became part of Communist-controlled Yugoslavia. They finally ended up in New York -- though you wouldn't know it from their menu. "I try as much as I can to re-create Italy," she says. "The beauty of America is that you can be part of it, but still express yourself."

In the kitchen, Lidia marshals family members according to their talents. Her mother, Erminia, handles the gardening; the men do the grilling; Joe chooses the wine. Figs figure often in her summer cooking. "We used to eat a fig-and-bread sandwich when we were kids," she says. Here, black mission figs on bruschetta are draped with her own prosciutto and accented with honey and black pepper. For the first course, eggplant and tomatoes from the garden are quickly roasted and tossed with cavatelli, ricotta salata, Romano, and basil. Steak is done on the grill in classic Italian fashion, fortified with anchovies, rosemary, olive oil, and sea salt. Potatoes are infused with olive oil and garlic and mashed with string beans. At meal's end, Lidia serves sgropin, a sublime concoction suggesting that the daiquiri may in fact have been invented on the Adriatic. She finishes with a fresh, minty peach-and-blueberry soup spiked with prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine. It's a menu suggesting that really memorable home cooking is itself based on memory.

The Recipes
All recipes serve eight.

Prosciutto-and-Fig Bruschetta Drizzled With Honey
and Crushed Black Pepper

8 1/2-inch thick slices of firm country-style bread

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

15 to 16 ripe fresh black or green figs

8 thin slices of prosciutto di San Daniele (each about 6 inches long)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 and 1/2 tablespoons of sage honey or wild-herb honey

Prepare a charcoal fire or heat a grill pan over medium heat for 5 minutes. Grill as many of the bread slices as will fit in a single layer, turning them only once, until they are golden brown and crispy, even slightly charred around the edges, about 3 to 5 minutes total. Remove the bruschette from the grill and brush lightly with olive oil.

Alternatively, the bruschette can be prepared in the oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Arrange the bread slices in a single layer on a baking sheet, and bake, turning once, until golden brown and crispy around the edges, 6 to 8 minutes. Brush with olive oil.

Wipe the figs clean with a damp cloth or paper towel and slice them crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rounds.

Cover the bruschette with overlapping fig slices. Drape the prosciutto to cover the figs. Grind some black pepper over the prosciutto, drizzle with honey, and serve immediately.

Radicchio Zuccherino
With Boiled Eggs

3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound radicchio zuccherino, cleaned and washed (mâche or arugula can be substituted)

1/2 cup sliced red onion

Freshly ground black pepper

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, cooled, and quartered

Whisk the vinegar, salt, and oil together in a large bowl until they form an emulsion. Add the radicchio and onion, and toss together. Add the freshly ground black pepper and the boiled eggs. Toss together well once more and serve.


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