Lidia’s: From Italy with Love

By Gia Kosec

On a Thursday afternoon towards the end of the lunch hour, Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District is bustling. An older woman scans shelves stocked with cookbooks and jars of pasta sauce created by celebrated Italian chef Lidia Bastianich.

Businesspeople and families are lingering, sipping wine and filling up on decadent pasta dishes. The hostess helping the woman decide which cookbook to purchase looks around and says, “You should see how busy we are on a Saturday night.”

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Photo by Aaron Warnick

Weekday or weekend, Lidia’s Pittsburgh is crowded with diners looking for authentic Italian food and also for a classy dining experience amid Lidia’s warm and tasteful décor.

Lidia’s Pittsburgh opened its doors in the Strip District in 2001. Christina Valasek credits the location for Lidia’s popularity in Pittsburgh.

“They decided to put the restaurant in the Strip District because of the viewership of Lidia’s PBS show in Pittsburgh, as well as the large Italian immigrant population here – and the Strip District has very high foot traffic,” Valasek says. “Our restaurant’s demographic includes a lot of Lidia’s loyal supporters and regular customers, as well as a lot of guests to the city from the nearby Convention Center.”

The homey restaurant located at 14th and Smallman is in a large old warehouse filled with beautiful fixtures and Italian accents. Two extravagant chandeliers made of colorful blownglass resembling hot air balloons illuminate the dining room. Rows of tinted bottles of olive oil line the back wall, catching shafts of light from the chandeliers.

Lidia’s brings a touch of upscale class to the industrial strip, but also remains connected to the working-class roots of the neighborhood, which was built by wholesalers who trafficked in fresh produce and other organic foods, long before “organic” became a synonym for “trendy.” “We work with Neighbors in the Strip as well as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and other strategic partnerships within the city,” Valasek says.  Lidia Bastianich, in that sense, is a natural for a city built by immigrants.

Lidia was born in Pula, Istria, on the Adriatic coast, about 90 miles northeast of Venice. This area belonged to Italy at the time of Lidia’s birth in 1947, but was later ceded to Yugoslavia. Since the dismantling of that artificial nation, the region is split between Croatia and Slovenia. Lidia came to the U.S. at the age of 12 and was put in charge of household meals while her mother went to work in a bakery.

At the age of 24, Lidia opened her first restaurant in Forest Hills, Queens and in 1981, she opened Felidia in mid-town Manhattan. Lidia Matticchio Bastianich had arrived. And soon she would take her distinctive cuisine to other cities, as well as to television as the star of Lidia’s Italian Table on public television (it’s also syndicated abroad).

So Lidia knows what it is to work hard, to adapt to and embrace the opportunities of a new land while staying true to one’s roots.

It is no surprise that Lidia’s has drawn so much attention in Pittsburgh, but without the famous name behind it, the food would still to stand on its own. The menu consists of traditional Italian pastas, seafood and chicken dishes, all infused with Italian herbs, and the desserts look as though they’ve come out of a pastry shop in Rome. All served, of course, with a delectable selection of wines. Whether at lunch or dinnertime, almost every table has at least a glass if not a bottle of wine from the extensive list. A true oneophile’s haven, the list, all in Italian, includes Lidia’s own wines, which she produces at her family-owned vineyard.

At Lidia’s, food and wine is something to celebrate all the time. Events are frequently held in conjunction with Lidia’s latest book venture. In November, the restaurant held a “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes Dinner,” where patrons enjoyed Lidia’s favorite dishes and received a copy of her new book, Valasek says. Along with events such as these, every Monday evening Lidia’s hosts a “Tuscan Grill Menu” which differs from the normal seasonal menu and encourages customers to come in and try new dishes.

The ultimate gift for Lidia’s loyal followers is to meet the chef in person. According to Valasek, Lidia visits two to three times a year as do as her business partners, her son Joseph and daughter Tayna. Her matronly persona on television belies her inner ambition and drive.

“It’s crazy to me, when [Lidia’s] in town she gets up at 5 a.m.., goes to the radio station, goes on the local news and cooks all day, then comes into the restaurant and meets with people and just keeps going,” Valasek says. “She is a driving force, it is something to respect.”

Just as Lidia’s business ventures grew from her family, her Pittsburgh restaurant location has the feel of a family run place, too. The staff works in sync with one another to deliver fine service to the customers. “Our staff all has a mutual respect for one another and a lot of people are friends outside the restaurant which creates a family atmosphere among the staff,” Valasek says.  Valasek credits some of the success to the restaurant not only to the serving staff, but to the chef.

“What we offer is a different take on Italian cuisine and having a celebrity chef run the restaurant makes everyone work a little harder,” Valasek says.  And when Lidia is not in town, diners are in the superb hands of award-winning chef Jeremy Voytish, who has quite a following of his own.  The experience at Lidia’s is nothing short of impressive, which Valasek believes is partially due to the “love for food and cuisine from the entire staff.” As Lidia would say at the end of her PBS cooking show, “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” –

“Everybody to the table to eat!”