Bastianich will be in Kansas City Thursday, November 15, to chat up her newest cookbook, Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen ($35, Knopf), at a reception cosponsored by Rainy Day Books at the restaurant. (Ticket availability is limited; call the bookstore at 913-384-3126 for information.) The cookbook is the literary companion to Bastianich's new PBS series of the same name, in which the red-haired chef prepares -- and explains -- dishes with closer ties to Italian-American immigrants than traditional Italian cuisine.
"At the turn of the last century," Bastianich says, "there was a huge influx of immigrants from Sicily and the Campagna region of Naples. Since they had to adapt their cooking style to the kind of foods they found here -- less intensely flavored tomatoes, more meat, no balsamic vinegar -- they created an entirely new cuisine."
It was a cuisine that Americans, especially non-Italians, found intoxicating. They were especially smitten by spaghetti and meatballs ("Meatballs, the American kind, are almost unknown in Italy," Bastianich says), as well as pizza, veal parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo (invented in Rome by Alfredo di Lelio but popularized in 1920s Hollywood by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who had discovered Alfredo's restaurant on their honeymoon).
Other "Italian" dishes have no connection to the Old Country. Bastianich claims the Caesar salad was invented in Las Vegas in the 1960s; other writers say Caesar Cardini invented it in Mexico in 1924.
Lidia's will serve both hors d'oeuvres and wine at its namesake's book signing. "If there's no food or wine, the signings just don't work," she notes.
What works -- but won't be served, alas -- is dessert. Some of the recipes in Bastianich's new cookbook would make great Thanksgiving sweets (Ricotta Cream Puffs, Pear and Chocolate Tart). But for home cooks too overwhelmed by roasting the damn bird to worry about cooking fancy desserts, eight restaurants are providing a nice alternative. The American Restaurant, Peppercorn Duck Club, Benton's, Fedora, Buca di Beppo, the Classic Cup, the Hereford House and the Mosiac Grill are baking pumpkin and apple pies and donating them to the Gillis Center for that nonprofit's first "Gillis Pies: A Gourmet Good Deed" event.
Fifteen bucks -- the proceeds go to educational and youth outreach programs -- buys a pie baked by one of the featured restaurants (sorry, there's no way to request a pie from a specific restaurant), which can be picked up prior to Thanksgiving at one of 21 locations across the metro. Pies call be ordered until Friday, November 16, by calling 816-508-3513. Each restaurant is doing a slight variation on the traditional apple or pumpkin theme, but you'll have to wait until you serve them to take a bite and give thanks. A good deed is always a sweet reward.