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Spaghetti + Meatballs and the American Dream #FoodieReads

I have long been a fan of Lidia Bastianich since I stumbled across her cooking show on PBS when we lived in Oklahoma in the early 2000s. So, when a friend lent me a copy of My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich*, I was thrilled to dig in.

On the Page
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, reading it late into the evenings after the boys went to sleep and early in the morning before I had to get up and make breakfasts and lunches for the family. I had not idea that she was one of the ethnic Italians who was stuck behind the iron curtain in Yugoslavia. Or that she and her family escaped and lived in a refugee camp for two years before the United States began accepting refugee applications.

Eventually, they immigrated to New York before settling in New Jersey. Hers is truly the American dream; from coming to America not speaking the language to helming a veritable restaurant empire, Lidia illustrates the values of family, hard work, and faith.

And her love of food and cooking are evident from early on. She loved being in the kitchen with her family. "Spending time with Zia Nina in the kitchen was great fun. She was still working as a personal chef, and I got to assist her with some of her food purchases and preparations. I'd accompany her in the mornings to the market as she picked out the fruits, vegetables, meats she would carefully prepare for her employer.... When pheasants were on the menu for the evening, I'd help her pluck them. ...Zia Nina added a thoughtfully selected combination of herbs and spices,wines, and sometimes even Cognac to her dishes" (pg 83).

She earned her way at Scuola Canossiana by lending a hand in the kitchen. "The nuns would give me a stool to sit on and have me peel potatoes and apples, shell beans - whatever food prep needed to get done that day. ...We always started each meal with a light primo dish and followed up with a hearty main course and dessert. The meals were very balances, and included soups and pastas, cheese, and lots of vegetables. We had an abundance of apples and would often do strudels and apple cakes. There were crostatas and baked sweets with some fruits in there, too" (pp. 115-116).

At fifteen, she started working at Christopher Walken's family bakery, taking on more responsibility over time and eventually getting her mother a job there as well. "On Sundays the bakers would come before 3:00 a.m. and leave early to get home to their families. They would quietly exit through the back door, leaving plain cakes - with no icing or decoration on them - for others to dress if needed. I gradually took on that task, adding icing, flowers, and other designs, and carefully adding names.... I honed my cake-decorating skills with the instant Duncan Hines cakes I made from the box for our family desserts. Now I was in a professional baker's kitchen with access to all the professional decorating tools" (pp. 182-183).

Fast forward to when she and her husband Felice opened their second restaurant, she writes, "I had spent a big part of my life in the kitchen, assisting important chefs, but now here I was, the captain of the ship. I was the conductor of this orchestra, and I had to make beautiful music, beautiful food. In a busy restaurant, it is not enough that you can make a delicious and beautiful plate of pasta or chicken scarpariello; you have to make twenty to thirty portions of each of them every evening, plus all the other dishes and come on order. And you have to synchronize their cooking, so the food for all the diners is ready and reaches the table all at once. The pasta has to be al dente, the risotto creamy, and the meat at the customer's requested temperature. ...No matter what the challenge is, the chef has to fit the deviation into the rhythm and continue. The dining room has to flow smoothly, like oil, but it is not always so in the kitchen: sometimes chefs lose their cool and pans fly" (pg. 260).

Though this is a tale about her journey as a food maven, it is also a family history. She shares, "I have loved being a guide, a crutch, from their first crawl to their first step.... I want them to have complete trust in Nonna Lidia and confide all their pains and joys in me. ...What is important is that they learn how to love, that they have respect always for themselves and for the people around them, and that they strive, to their full potential, to embrace the gifts God bestowed on them. ...Dear Olivia, Lorenzo, Miles, Ethan, and Julia. this book is for you. I am writing it so that each of my beloved grandchildren will know the courage their great-grandparents Erminia and Vittorio had in leaving their homeland to search for freedom and a safer place to raise their children. And so that they may know the struggles of their grandparents Lidia and Felice as they sought to find a place in this great new land. It is my hope that they, and all who read this story, better understand the hardships and successes of America's immigrants" (pg. 296).

Mille grazie, Lidia for a truly inspiring account of your life, a real American dream.

On the Plate

Though Lidia forged her name and reputation with authentic regional dishes as her career blossomed, early on she and Felice "both enjoyed sampling and critiquing the Italian American fare in pizzerias, cafes, and restaurants around Queens and Manhattan. This was a cuisine I was unfamiliar with when I first arrived in the United States. Such peculiar offerings as meatballs and spaghetti.... I was fascinated - and even a bit puzzled - by them" (pg. 208).

Yes, you read that correctly: 'spaghetti and meatballs' is not an authentic Italian dish. Spaghetti would be served as a primi piatti while polpetttine would be served as a secondi piatti. So, yes to spaghetti and meatballs being Italian...just not served together. That said, it's a favorite dish on our table and one of the recipes R makes without complaint. And he's been making it for years. I am pretty sure these photos of my favorite meatball maker are from nearly a decade ago.


  • 1 pound ground pork (or ground meat of your choice)
  • 2 T minced shallots
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil
  • 1 t dried oregano
  • freshly ground salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 C panko breadcrumbs (or, if you need gluten-free, I use ground almonds)

  • 2 C fresh tomato sauce
  • 1/2 C liquid (you can use stock, water, or wine)
  • 2 T minced shallots
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil
  • 1 t fresh oregano
  • freshly ground salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • olive oil

To Serve
  • pasta cooked according to package directions
  • shredded paremesan cheese, as needed


Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl. Form whatever size meatballs you like. Set aside.

R used to tell me that my meatballs were way too big. As he's gotten older, his meatball sizes have also grown. But this batch was mini!

In a large, flat-bottom pan, heat a splash of olive oil and cook the shallots until they begin to turn transparent. Add the tomato sauce, liquid, and herbs.

Gently drop the meatballs into the sauce and simmer until cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To Serve
Toss the sauce and meatballs into cooked pasta and add another splash of olive oil to make it glossy. Serve immediately. Offer shredded parmesan cheese to diners, if desired.

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Click to see what everyone else read in August 2019: here.


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