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My American Dream

A Life of Love, Family, and Food

by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

Hardcover, 339 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28.95 |

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My American Dream
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A Life of Love, Family, and Food
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Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

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Book Summary

The Emmy Award-winning host of Lidia's Kitchen and best-selling author of Lidia's Celebrate Like an Italian shares a heartwarming, revelatory memoir that traces her impoverished but loving upbringing under Tito's communist regime, her years as a refugee while trying to enter the United States and her early start as a restaurant worker. TV tie-in.

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Lidia Bastianich owns restaurants in New York, as well as in several other cities. Bobby Bank/WireImage hide caption

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How 'Peasant Food' Helped Chef Lidia Bastianich Achieve Her 'American Dream'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: My American Dream

Chapter 1

Giuliana

Few people outside of my immediate family know this, but for the first five years of my life, my name was not Lidia, it was Giuliana. My mother had chosen this name for me as a way to remember her homeland, which was then part of the Friuli–Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy. The Second World War had ended, and communism was coming to Pola, the small city on the southern tip of the Istrian Peninsula, overlooking the Adriatic Sea, where my family lived. The Yugoslav Partisans, who were communist-led, had fought as guerrillas against the Nazis and Fascists and had taken over the government of Yugoslavia when the Germans were defeated. As part of the 1947 Treaty of Paris, our city, and most of the Istrian Peninsula, which had become part of Italy after World War I, was given to communist Yugoslavia.

The redrawing of borders sparked a mass exodus from the area, with more than three hundred thousand people fleeing to Italy to reclaim their Italian citizenship. Many of them had deep Italian roots; they spoke Italian, and their families were Italian. Many of them migrated on to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. My parents planned to join the migration, but my mother was pregnant with me, and they knew that travel would be difficult. There was also the question of where to go once we crossed the border. Refugees were being placed in camps, and my father was not comfortable with theidea of my mother’s giving birth and caring for an infant in such a place. They also had my three-year-old brother, Franco, to consider. The war was still raging when my mother gave birth to him in July 1944. With the collapse of Fascist Italy in 1943, the Germans occupied the city and used it as a U-boat base, making it a target for Allied bombardments. The family had no money for clothing or food, much less furniture, so my mother fashioned a cassetta, a wooden cradle, for little Franco from a spaghetti box marked with the word “fragile” on two sides, and she fitted it with a mattress of corn leaves. When he was five months old, two bombs were dropped on Pola. The minute the siren sounded, alerting residents to the bombardment, my father left the house to assume his role as driver of the fire truck for the Pola town arsenal, Cantiere Navale di Scoglio Olivi. My mother awoke to see pieces of the ceiling falling onto her baby’s cradle, and she hurried to his side, grabbed the spaghetti boxwith Franco inside, and ran to the bomb shelter.

At the end of the war, Pola was under the Allied forces when my mother became pregnant with me. The exodus of the Italian Istrians was still open, and many of my mother’s friends and relatives were moving to Italy, because Istria was soon to be under the Yugoslavian rule. Food was scarce, and jobs were scarcer.

Still, my mother was an Italian school teacher and had the possibility of finding a good job somewhere in Italy. Her supervisor had requested a teaching position for her in Brescia, a city at the foot of the Alps, between Milan and Venice. The position supposedly included housing, so my father loaded all of the family’s furniture onto his truck and traveled there to set up what was going to be our new home. He was lucky he had a truck. Many of the optanti—opters, people who had opted to leave Istria—loaded their belongings, packed in crates and boxes, onto trains. Some would go toward Trieste, Italy, the Free Territory, their horse-drawn carts with piles of pots, pans, chairs, tables, and furniture as high as the carts could handle. I recall the stories that my grandmother Nonna Rosa would tell me about how some of those optanti had even dug up the bones of their deceased from the cemeteries and took them along in boxes. They could not bear to leave their loved ones behind.

When my father got to Brescia, he found that the promised “apartment” was nothing more than a single room, much too small to accommodate our growing family, and a search of the area for available housing turned up nothing suitable or affordable. My father could not bring his pregnant wife and small son there, so he returned home after one week; he still had all of our furniture loaded in the back of the truck. He told my mother the family would remain in Pola until after she gave birth.

That January, my parents went to the pier in Pola to bid farewell to friends boarding the Toscana, a ship full of optanti, for the short voyage to Italy across the Adriatic, headed for Venice and Ravenna; my mother, now eight months pregnant, was teary-eyed and shivering in a coat that barely covered her belly. One month later, on February 21, 1947, she gave birth to me at the hospital in Pola, and seven months after that, on the 15th of September, the day the provisions of the Treaty of Paris were put into place, the border between Italy and Yugoslavia was officially closed. My parents—and Franco and I—were now stuck in Yugoslavia.

Change came to Pola (“Pula” in Croatian) almost immediately under communism. The names of streets, towns, and monuments were changed to reflect the area’s new official language. Everybody’s last name was changed as the new documents and identification cards were issued. Ours was changed from the Italian “Matticchio” to the Slavic “Motika.” Churches across the peninsula were ordered closed. Suddenly, people weren’t allowed to go to church or even practice religion openly. It was a sharp blow to many—both Italian and Croatian—who lived in the city and had practiced Catholicism for generations. My mother wanted to have me baptized, but now even that seemed out of the question.

I was only a few days old when my mother’s younger sister, Lidia, and her husband, Emilio, walked quietly into my mother’s hospital room one evening. Lidia had secretly arranged to have me baptized, and the priest was waiting for her at the small stone church adjacent to the elementary school where my mother taught second grade. To prevent the authorities from discovering the baptism ceremony, my aunt intended to sneak me out of the hospital, meet with the priest who would perform the baptism, and then sneak me back into the hospital, all without arousing suspicion among any of the doctors, nurses, or other staff.

Of course, I was way too young to remember anything from that night. But, according to my mother, Aunt Lidia wrapped me in a blanket and then tucked me inside a small sack she’d brought with her to the hospital. No doubt, everyone prayed that I was quiet as she walked me out of my mother’s hospital room and out into the cold night air. I can only imagine the anguish my mother felt, waiting for our return, and the joy she felt upon hearing her sister’s voice declare, “Here is your Giuliana!”

Lidia told my mother that everything had gone off according to plan: the priest was at the church waiting when she arrived, and he performed the baptism without incident. There was just one small detail my aunt kept secret—she had ignored my mother’s wish to name me after her homeland, Venezia Giulia, and instead directed the priest to christen me with her own name, Lidia, and Giuliana as my middle name. On the way out of the hospital, my aunt even stopped by the records desk to list “Lidia” officially as my first name. She told the clerk she was there at the request of her sister Erminia, the mother of the child, and the woman happily obliged.

It wasn’t until my mother went to the city hall in Pola to obtain a copy of my birth certificate so she could register me for the first grade that she learned the truth. A clerk told her that there was no record of a “Giuliana Matticchio” born on February 21, 1947. “I have another baby girl Matticchio born to Vittorio and Erminia Matticchio Motika on that date, but her name is Lidia-Giuliana.”

“Giuliana” had a deep meaning for my mother. Friuli–Venezia Giulia is still a region of Italy, and Istria before the war was part of that region. Istria was in the Giulia part of the region, and we were Giuliani, as the emigrants from this area were referred to.

In one of my life’s more unusual twists, the switch to communist rule allowed my aunt to change my name. For the first five years of my life, I was known as Giuliana by everyone who knew me—friends, family, and everyone in town. I was Giuliana. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t. Suddenly, I was Lidia.

In school, I had to go by the name shown on my birth certificate—Lidia. My teachers and fellow students all called me Lidia, a name that I associated with my aunt, but certainly not with me.

It was as if I was being asked to play two roles in life: Giuliana at home and Lidia at school. At first, I didn’t even respond to the name Lidia and wondered whom people were calling. Eventually, I got used to responding to both names, much like some people respond to both their given name and a nickname.

My grandmother never really embraced my new name, and to this day, my mother and my brother still jump back and forth between the two, sometimes calling me Lidia but most of the time Giuliana. No matter what name people used, I remained true to myself. Deep down inside, I was still Giuliana from Pola, even if people called me Lidia. Over time, I learned to embrace both. It wouldn’t be the last time that I had to find a way to embrace more than one “me.”

***

Life in Yugoslavia under the rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito was not easy for the ethnic Italians who remained, my family included. My parents were watched closely by UDBA, the secret police. My mother was tutored and forced to teach all of her classes in Croatian; she was also expected to indoctrinate all of the young and impressionable children in her classes on the new communist order. From a rather prosperous lifestyle under Italian rule, everything shifted to stringent living conditions under communist rule.

My time as a young child was divided between two very different settings. One was in the city of Pola, where I lived with my parents and brother in a beautiful house with parquet floors, a tiled kitchen, and a bathroom with its own water heater, a luxury back then, and a claw-foot tub. The other was Grandmother Rosa’s home, three kilometers or about two miles away, in sleepy Busoler, a tiny village with just thirty homes along one narrow white stone road. Most of the people in Busoler were farmers, and my grandmother tended goats, pigs, and rabbits. She also labored over a large garden, which provided much of the food for my family.

In Pola, my parents owned half of a two-family house in a fashionable area of the city. It was spacious, with a living room, dining room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom, with long hallways connecting some of the rooms.

The entire family was careful to protect the parquet wood floors from nicks and scuffs. We’d make le pattine, sliders, that allowed us to move—slide, actually—from room to room without worrying. They were sewn together in the shape of a large sole from pieces of old blankets or tattered clothes. We’d step on them and slide with the fabric under our shoes to prevent scuffing. As an extra benefit, they helped shine the floors, too.

My brother and I always had fun stepping on the sliders and racing down the long hallway leading into the kitchen. We’d get a running start, then slide the rest of the way and sometimes fall. Once, things didn’t go quite as planned, and both of us wound up in trouble for the broken door glass in our wake.

My family shared the yard behind the house with the family that rented the other apartment in our house. My mother tended a small garden there, though she didn’t grow much—at least not in comparison with my grandmother’s garden. I remember two apricot trees, a walnut tree, a large fig tree, a small peach tree, and a loquat tree. I had a pet turtle I called “la mia tartaruga,” my little turtle, who would resurface every spring. She loved the apricots—and, yes, it was a she, because she laid eggs every season and would bury them underground. But there was no male turtle to fertilize them, and year after year she would resurface alone. I also had a black-and-white cat named Micia. I played with my pets during the school days, when I was not with Grandma Rosa in Busoler. We also had a cantina, or cellar, where my father stored his tools, and a laundry room with a cauldron that we filled with water and heated to wash our clothes. The windows at the back of the house overlooked the playground of my nursery school, which I attended when I was four. Sometimes I’d get homesick at school and miss my mother. During recess, I’d stand in the playground and stare up at the windows of our house and cry, wishing she would come pick me up. Today the two-story building sports a fresh coat of deep burgundy paint and a new number 7 by the front door. But otherwise the building looks unchanged.