“Lidia, oh Lidia; say have you met Lidia?” No, not the tattooed lady – I’m speaking of Lidia Bastianich. My answer is yes. Have I dined in her premier restaurant until now? My answer is no. After eating in nearly all of Mario Batali’s New York establishments, why would I delay dining at the matriarch of the B&B empire’s signature place?
My husband and I initially met Lidia in person when eating at B&B’s (Batali & Bastianich) Del Posto, the only four-star Italian restaurant in New York. She visited the tables as a gracious host asking if all was well. And of course it was. We glared at her in the center of the room as she hand-whipped and hand-delivered my husband’s zabaglione dessert. However, it was not until my birthday last week that we finally decided to respect the mother of this golden Hospitality Group and venture to Felidia for dinner.
It was a Sunday 6:30 reservation, and the bar – the only thing you see when you enter – was empty. I looked to the right, and the silence was the product of a nearly empty dining room. Since I follow Lidia on Facebook, I already knew she was basking in the culinary delights of Croatia and Southern Italy the same time we decided to visit her home in NYC. Did everyone know that she wouldn’t be there? Is that why there were only four out of 15 tables occupied?
After a delightful conversation with John the bartender, who voluntarily recommended some of his favorite dishes, we tiptoed quietly to our table. The decor was simplistic and the furniture felt a bit dated, as if it hadn’t changed since opening in the 80s, but we were here for the food. The menu distracted us from the blah-red chairs. Four tasting menu options made the selections more difficult, so instead we just ordered a la carte. The basket of mixed crispy-crust European-style breads was the first sign of quality. A spread of bean paste, olive oil and herbs was more updated than an 80s offering of just butter. After two pieces, I needed to push the basket out of reach so as not to fill up before my appetizer. I would have been easy to accomplish. The first plate to land, the Tutta Crudo, helped to ignore the bread. This first suggestion looked like a Jackson Pollack on a plate made of shaved raw tuna, salmon, branzino, vegetables, puffed rice and shaved horseradish to top it off. The bartender did mention that Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra was also a painter, and it showed. Yet it wasn’t exorbitantly decorated (although I must mention that the pricing seemed a bit exorbitant for the not-4-star Italian restaurant). John stated that everything on Chef’s plates are meant to be there for texture, taste profile, color. It’s very purposeful, and with every forkful that I stole from my husband’s plate, it served me a great purpose while I simultaneously enjoyed a pasta special filled with rabbit meat, topped with carrot and rabbit jus and butter. Not too long after came the grand dame platter of simplicity and flavor: the Gigliata de Pesce – grilled scallops, lobster, calamari, shrimp, octopus, razor clams ‘alla piastra’, string beans, green onion, sea beans. Even though I knew I would not finish it, happiness abounded knowing I would have more for a second meal the following day. While alternating cutting small pieces from each different piece of seafood, I missed the description of the black sea bass special as the waiter poured a green herb sauce into that bowl. We waited a bit before sharing a single dessert: the palacinke, which is like a caramelized crepe with poached peaches, local sheep milk yogurt, peach salad. Although Lidia was not present to greet us again, we experienced the essence of her style and felt like we raided the fridge in her home and had her personal chef cook for us.