They put out the big cheese for the big cheese. Mazzaro's Italian Market didn't need the monster provolone out front last week to herald the arrival of Lidia Bastianich, one of the best-loved chefs on television. Hundreds of fans started pouring in two hours early, queuing up at noon from the fragrant cheese room to the front registers, then out the door.
They came to have Bastianich sign books and bottles of her Azienda Agricola Bastianich and La Mozza wines. But more important, they came to meet and talk to the woman they have come to know through six cookbooks, six restaurants and the Emmy-nominated and James Beard award-winning TV cooking series, Lidia's Italy.
Bastianich, to appease the crowds, started signing more than an hour early, leaning in to listen to the people in line.
"I have to ask you, how's your mother?"
"I've been to Del Posto and loved it."
"I've tried lots of recipes in your new book and they've all come out perfect."
"We're from the Daughters of Italy and we want you to know we're so proud of you."
It was this last sentiment that seemed to recur most often. Born in 1947 in what is now Croatia, displaced to Trieste, Italy, and then on to New York in 1958, Bastianich grew up working in Italian restaurants in Queens. From humble beginnings, she went on to open Felidia, Becco, Del Posto, Esca and then two Lidia's (one in Kansas City and one in Pittsburgh) with her family. But it is her long and fruitful relationship with PBS that has put her in Americans' kitchens and hearts.
Sitting at her elbow as she signed, I asked her about that. Why PBS and not the Food Network?
"PBS has a classical agenda about leaving something with viewers. It's instructional, not just aspirational. I feel that's where I want to be, where I want to connect with viewers. I want them to go home with the flavors of Italy."
Scrawling her signature across the title page of her newest book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, Bastianich talked about Italy's regional cooking and expanded on her collaborator Mario Batali's famous assertion that there's no such thing as Italian cuisine.
"Italy is small, but in its history so much has been affected by its different occupations. For instance, in Sardinia you have the influence of the Spanish. If you're going to appreciate Italian food, don't homogenize it. It's like a beautiful mosaic."
She paused to sign a series of wine bottles with a metallic silver pen, urging customers to sample the goods in Mazzaro's wine room. She and son Joe own three wineries in Friuli and Tuscany. By phone from his office in New York a couple of weeks prior, Joe described their wines:
"The whites from Friuli are broad-shouldered wines, complex, creamy with a lot of glycerin. Done in large oak, they are about expressing the potential of the terroir. With La Mozza, we are producing indigenous varietals like barbera and nebbiolo on a certified biological estate with no chemicals or pesticide intervention."
At Mazzaro's, his mother echoed his convictions about the essential connections between a cuisine and its wines.
"Wine is food for Italians. I could never understand eating food with a Coke," she said. Shifting gears to brag a moment about her son, she added, "Joe's real passion is wine. He started on Wall Street and when he decided to go into the restaurant and wine business, I was initially skeptical. But he said, 'I need a piece of land to express my roots.' "
With two successful children, five grandchildren and a mother who still appears alongside her on television, Lidia Bastianich has lots to be proud of. But for now, there are still hundreds of fans snaking out Mazzaro's front door, eager to meet the doyenne of Italian cuisine. Less talking, more signing.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.