PW: How does Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen differ from your two previous books, La Cucina di Lidia and Lidia's Italian Table?
LMB: The first two were based on authentic products and specific regional recipes and were trying to capture Italian food as it is today. Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen captures the flavors that a lot of Americans were first brought up to think of as really Italian.
PW: What do you mean by "Italian-American"?
LMB: Italian-American cuisine is based in Italian roots, but it is a cuisine of adaptation. The first Italian immigrants came in big numbers around the turn of the century, and they were mainly from Campania and Sicily. They came with memories of a lot of good foods, but they didn't have the products to make them, so they adjusted their memories to what they found. It is a cuisine of its own, however, not an impostor. It's a venerable cuisine that needs to stay intact for what it is.
PW: How did you research the book?
LMB: I went back to Campania and Sicily and tried to trace recipes and how they got transformed. For example, meatballs are eaten throughout Italy as polpette. In Campania, however, they're small, and they're not cooked in sauce—they're either fried or boiled, and then inserted in lasagne in layers. But we don't eat spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. Italian-American Sunday sauce is another dish that does not exist as such in Italy. An Italian woman did make me Sunday sauce, but she made it with braised pork shoulder, onions and tomatoes and that was it, without all the extra meats. In the States, meat was readily available and there was a sense of well-being if you ate meat. The use of peppers is also much more prevalent in Italian-American cuisine. In Italy we don't use them as extensively, but when immigrants came that was one of the vegetables that was readily available.
PW: You opened your first restaurant in 1971. What changes have you seen in Italian food in this country since then?
LMB: The products! Thirty years ago I couldn't get arborio rice, polenta, truffles, good cheeses, a lot of stuff. In some ways I did what the first immigrants did—I adapted. For polenta we used to use Quaker cornmeal. I used to make risotto with long-grain rice. It was painstaking: you used extra onions, butter, whatever, to improve the flavor.
PW: What one bad habit do Americans have when they cook Italian food?
LMB: My biggest peeve is when people add oil to pasta cooking water. It is the antithesis of what is supposed to happen. You want the pasta to be sticky with starch so the sauce can adhere. People say they add oil because they're afraid of the pasta sticking together, but if you drain it right away and treat it the right way it won't stick.
PW: Finally, since you have been such a key person in popularizing Italian cuisine in this country, what do you think it is about Italian food that is so appealing?
LMB: It's a real cuisine of the people. It exalts products rather than techniques, so people feel that it's accessible. It tastes good. It looks good. It feels good. It's not presented by a big chef with a toque. And it's a warm food, even in the manner in which it is served—you don't get an individual plate in front of you. It's like a magnet—when the pasta is cooked, everybody has to be at the table.