Summer Food: Mother Cooks Best

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.

Cavatelli With Oven-Roasted Eggplant, Tomatoes,
Basil, and Ricotta Salata

1 cup freshly made bread crumbs (preferably two-day-old country bread, ground in a food processor)

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

Pinch of crushed red pepper

1 cup grated Pecorino Romano

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups red and yellow cherry tomatoes


2 medium eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

6 garlic cloves, sliced

1 cup chicken stock

1 and 1/2 pounds dried cavatelli or cavatappi

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

2 ounces ricotta salata

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss bread crumbs, thyme, crushed red pepper, 2 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano, and 2 tablespoons of oil in a bowl. Place the cherry tomatoes in a single layer on a baking pan, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil, and season to taste with salt. Toss until the tomatoes are covered with oil. Sprinkle the seasoned bread crumbs over the tomatoes, and bake in the oven for about 7 minutes or until the tomatoes start to crack and the bread crumbs are crisp and toasted.

Lay the eggplant slices on an oiled baking sheet, and brush with 2 tablespoons of oil and salt to taste. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, turning them once when they’re golden on one side. Remove and set aside. When they’re cool, cut into 1-inch cubes.

In the meantime, bring 8 quarts of salted water to a boil. Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet, add the garlic, and sauté until golden. Add the chicken stock (be careful: it may splatter), and bring to a vigorous boil; add salt to taste and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

Cook the pasta for 5 to 7 minutes, until al dente. Drain the pasta, add to the skillet, and sauté with the garlic. Add the tomatoes, bread crumbs (do not add the crumbs sticking to the pan if they are burnt or mushy), and eggplant, toss together gently, then quickly stir in the remaining Pecorino Romano and basil. Serve with freshly grated salted ricotta on top.

Grilled Florentine Steak
With Salt, Anchovy, and Olive-Oil Rub

6 anchovy fillets

4 tablespoons fine sea salt

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3-to-4 pound bistecca alla Fiorentina (see note below)

Work the anchovies with the salt and rosemary in a mortar and pestle, adding oil slowly, until they form a coarse paste.

Heat a grill (wood-burning preferred), and when it’s very hot, lay the steaks over it. Grill the steaks on one side for 8 minutes, then turn and cook for an additional 6 minutes. Remove the steak and brush the anchovy paste on both sides generously. Allow the meat to stand for about 2 minutes, until the anchovy paste has melted into the meat. Then debone the fillet and sirloin and cut into 1/2-inch slices against the grain, keeping the meat in position. Return the fillet and sirloin slices to the bone and serve family-style.

Note: Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a specific cut of baby beef (vitellone) – the T-bone with the chop and loin meat attached. To cook properly, it must be at least 2 and 1/2 inches thick, about 3 to 4 pounds; therefore, a substantial portion usually serves 6 or more.

Cannellini Beans With Rosemary
1 and 1/2 pounds dried cannellini beans

2 fresh or dried bay leaves

6 whole rosemary sprigs

2 teaspoons coarse sea salt

1/4 cup Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil

Place the beans in a medium-size bowl and pour in enough cool water to cover by 4 inches. Soak the beans in a cool place for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Drain the beans and place them into a medium-size saucepan. Cover generously with cold water and add the bay leaves. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until the beans are tender, about 40 minutes. Remove from heat. (The water should have reduced and now be level with the beans; if there is too much, drain off excess.) Stir in the rosemary, salt, and olive oil and allow to steep for 30 minutes.

Remove the rosemary stems and bay leaves. Add additional salt and olive oil to taste, then serve.

String Beans and Potatoes

6 medium Yukon Gold
potatoes (about 1 and 1/4
pounds), peeled and cut
crosswise into 4 pieces

1 and 1/2 pounds tender string
beans, cleaned

6 tablespoons extra-virgin
olive oil

4 garlic cloves, peeled
and crushed

Salt and freshly ground
black pepper

Bring 4 quarts salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the potatoes, and cook for 15 minutes. Add the string beans, and cook until tender, an additional 10 minutes. Drain the beans and potatoes in a colander.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until it begins to brown, about 1 minute. Add the string beans and potatoes, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and mashing the potatoes roughly. Add the remaining olive oil, and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.


1 cup Prosecco di Conigliano

2 ounces grappa or vodka

1 pint lemon sorbet

6 sprigs mint

Currants or champagne grapes

Put the prosecco, grappa, and lemon sorbet in a blender and blend until it looks like a smoothie. Pour into champagne flutes and top each with a sprig of mint and currants or a cluster of champagne grapes.

Ripe Peach, Blueberry, and Prosecco Soup

10 ripe peaches (preferably white), peeled and sliced

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Juice of 2 oranges

Juice of 2 lemons

2 cups prosecco

30 mint leaves, torn into pieces

1 pint blueberries

Mix the sliced peaches with sugar in a large bowl. Mix orange and lemon juices with the prosecco, and pour over the peaches. Add half the mint leaves and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Stir in the blueberries, and garnish with the remaining mint.

Summer Food: Mother Cooks Best