Or another reason why I would like to live in Queens...
Written by Marissa Coren from Edible Queens
ASTORIA - Lidia Bastianich has been teaching Americans how to cook authentic Italian food with her Emmy-nominated cooking show, Lidia’s Italy, and cookbooks such as Lidia’s Italian Table, for decades. Her Manhattan restaurants Del Posto and Felidia are counted among the best in the world. She has traveled to nearly every corner of Italy. And yet, with all her jet-setting, this Queens resident can often be seen shopping for seafood, bread and salumi right here in Astoria. Chefs—they’re just like us!
“Daily shopping brings more quality to your table,” says Bastianich, who’s lived in the borough for more than 50 years. “Aside from ensuring you always get the freshest ingredients, you get to know the baker, the butcher, the fishmonger. When you need a special order, they’ll make an extra effort to serve you if they know you.” This particular morning, shopping bag in hand, she’s inspecting the semolina loaves at Frank’s Bakery on 30th Avenue for a good specimen to take home, while owner Frank Roscigno looks on. She asks Frank which loaf is freshest and he says, “They’re all baked today, fresh, fresh!” She peers at him over the rims of her eyeglasses and inspects a few more loaves before finally settling on one. Next, she turns her attention to the biscotti she always keeps on hand for unexpected guests.
Neighborhood regulars, some of them friends of Bastianich’s from when she lived in the neighborhood for more than 2 decades, stream in and greet her with a smile and a few words in her native Italian. She exchanges pleasantries, shakes hands and picks up tidbits of neighborhood gossip. And then she breathes in deeply. The bakery’s aromas remind Bastianich of her grandmother’s pignoli (pine nut) cookies, a Frank’s specialty. When she was a child, back in Istria, baking was a communal affair with one oven servicing a whole village. While the village oven is a far cry from Frank’s noisy metal contraption, the borough does boast some of the most authentic Italian bakeries in New York, her favorites being Frank’s, St. Honoré Patisserie and D’Aquila Pastry Shop in Whitestone (see Where to Go, page 31 for locations).
Bread in hand, we walk into Marino & Sons Grand Fish Market, a few doors down. She’s greeted with warm smiles and a gentle admonishment. “You’re a little early, Lidia,” says Charlie, one of the Marino sons. “We weren’t expecting you until after lunchtime.” She laughs, and says she couldn’t help herself. “I had to come and see you, couldn’t wait any more!”
A shimmering red snapper is placed on a scale for her inspection and she turns to me, advising, “You must always inspect a fish before you buy. Always.” Again that look over the eyeglasses. She points to the fish’s clear, bulging eyes as the first indicator that the animal is worthy of a trip to her kitchen. Next, its bright red gills and tightly packed scales pass muster. After ensuring the snapper’s innards are still intact, she asks Benny behind the counter to wrap it up; tonight’s dinner will be grilled with olive oil and lemon, simple ingredients that let the fish’s flavor shine through. While her package is prepared, Bastianich orders a few additional items for Felidia restaurant: Succulent octopus, branzini, shrimp and scallops. “Fortunato is always happy when I bring him special items from Queens,” she says, referring to Felidia’s executive chef, Fortunato Nicotra. “We’ll see what he does with this.”
It was here in Astoria that Bastianich became fluent in the language of food. She started out in a local bakery, cooking up some well-intentioned deception to land the position. “I had to lie about my age to get the job,” she says. The position started her on the path to culinary success, and she eventually opened not one, but two borough restaurants, Buona Via in Forest Hills and Villa Secondo in Fresh Meadows, which won rave reviews from locals and critics alike. Back then, like today, she relied on a backyard garden to fuel her culinary experimentation, and never tired of hunting for unique, authentic ingredients throughout the ethnic corridors of her beloved Queens.The last stop on our edible adventure is another neighborhood staple: Dave & Tony’s Salumeria, where stacks of imported Italian foods reach towards the ceiling. Perusing the shelves, Bastianich comes alive discussing her passion for pasta: “I want people to play with different types of pasta,” she says. “Not just spaghetti or linguine but other shapes like the long fusilli. Its texture and shape hold sauces differently and freshen up a recipe. It’s also great for kids because it rolls on the fork so well.” She hands over the semolina loaf from Frank’s and asks Joe Cicarelli, the owner, for a little of this and that. “Whatever’s good. A little prosciutto, mortadella maybe. You got speck? What brand? OK, that’s good,” she says, and Joe gets to work, splitting the loaf and layering in the succulent meats. He throws in a few slices of fresh mozzarella for good measure. That’s what friends are for.
Dave & Tony’s Salumeria, 35-18 30th Ave., Astoria, 718-728-4850
D’Aquila Pastry Shop, 33-31 Francis Lewis Blvd., Whitestone, 718-886-4800
Frank’s Bakery, 36-02 30th Ave., Astoria, 718-726-7813
Marino & Sons Grand Fish Market, 36-10 30th Ave., Astoria, 718-728-6160
Mediterranean Foods, 30-12 34th St., Astoria, 718-721-0221
S. Ottomanelli & Son’s Prime Meat Shop, 61-05 Woodside Ave., Woodside, 718-651-5544
St. Honoré Patisserie, 33-18 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria, 718-278-3558