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Improbably, Joe Bastianich Is a Massive Star in Italy

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How an NYC restaurateur became an Italian celebrity

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I have seen New York City restaurateur Joe Bastianich in his Italian element and it is something. I'm not easily shocked in post-Berlusconi Italy, but I would be lying if I didn't admit to be taken aback by seeing children carrying Restaurant Man in translation, patiently waiting for Bastianich to appear at his restaurant in northeastern Italy to sign their books. Rarely does a foreigner — and an Italian-American at that — enter Italy's strange pop culture sphere and capture the attention of millions. Call it a sign of the times in Italy in which a brash TV persona is a proven path to fame. But Bastianich and his Italian celebrity are more complicated than that and whether he enters Italian homes on the pages of tabloids like Chi and Oggi, magazines like Vanity Fair and GQ Italia, or via Sky's hit show MasterChef Italia, Bastianich is here to stay.

Photo: MasterChef Italia

Where does Joe Bastianich come from?

In Italy, cultural identity and family bonds are sacrosanct. And in the country's northeastern corner, where national boundaries shifted violently for centuries, ancestral origins and notions of legacy have considerable gravity. It is there, in the region of Friuli, that Joe Bastianich has crafted his Italian base and where he spends time overseeing the Bastianich Winery, which was established in 1997 and currently produces more than 250,000 bottles of wine made from indigenous and international grapes. Across the street from the vineyard and home, Orsone, a restaurant and hotel opened in 2013, feeds Del Posto-inspired food to locals. The bar in the adjacent tavern space serves Bastianich wines, burgers, and lobster rolls.

Italians really want to eat Italian-American food?

Absolutely. Especially Joe Bastianich's fans. The bar is packed at aperitivo time and the burger trend is in full swing over here.

On my first visit to Orsone in August 2013, the "Restaurant Man" known for his abrasive TV persona worked the room as the consummate host, jumping behind the bar to pour his wines, pampering VIPs, and signing autographs for school-children whose parents snapped their photos with the famoso Joe. At the time, MasterChef Italia was between its second and third seasons, Bastianich was overseeing the opening of Orsone, and his Italian stardom was in full swing.

Orsone. [Photo: Official]

How did Joe Bastianich end up in Cividale del Friuli, 35 miles northwest of Trieste and 10 miles from the Slovenian border?

The journey to Friuili started in the 1950s. Like hundreds of thousands of ethnic Italians, Bastianich's parents, Lidia (née Matticchio) and Felice Bastianich departed, separately, from the Istrian peninsula (former Yugoslavia, now Croatia) during Josip Broz Tito's oppressive and violent Communist regime. During this post-war exodus, Lidia's family fled first to Trieste, where they lived in a refugee camp, and ultimately received asylum in the US in 1958. Lidia and Felix met in the early 1960s, married in 1966, and welcomed Joe to the family two years later.

Photo: Fox/Getty

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Bastianich family traveled to Italy to visit relatives. It was as close as they could get to their native Istria, which was closed under Communist rule. During these visits, Joe and his sister Tanya experienced a culinary immersion. "What really stands out about those visits was the way flavors were linked to our culture," Joe told me back in August 2013 when I visited Orsone. "What happened in the Istrian peninsula after WWII is one of the untold ethnic migration stories of the war. What you had is a whole population of people that left and moved to Toronto and Sydney and New York. There's a whole specific culture of people with no homeland." As immigrants, the Bastianich clan adapted to their New York surroundings, but family recipes linked them to memories of a vanished land.

Joe Bastianich in Chi Magazine. [Photo]

So Joe Bastianich's love affair with Italy started in childhood?

Not exactly. In his book Giuseppino, recently released in Italy and currently unavailable in English, Bastianich was uneasy with his Italian origins. ( The book is In his recently released book Giuseppino, co-authored with Sara Porro, a prominent Italian food journalist and co-founder of the popular blog Sauce Milan). He was bored on those family trips abroad and back home in the States, he was mortified by his family's broken English and ethnic foods. Finding tripe sandwiches in his lunchbox while the other kids ate "normal" American food was a humiliating memory he found difficult to shake.

How does Bastianich's second book Giuseppino differ from Restaurant Man?

It's a softer autobiography that recounts the Italian-American experience in New York and Italy, and a life influenced by family, with special praise reserved for Erminia, Bastianich's 94-year-old grandmother.

Bastianich's trademark MasterChef Italia phrase, bad Italian meaning "Do you want me to die?" [Photo: Ebay]

How did he end up embracing his origins?

As Bastianich matured, so did his relationship with Italy. Trips as a teenager to Montalcino and Milan captured his affection. But the biggest turning point may have been an extended road trip in his early twenties behind the wheel of a Fiat Croma. He grew to love Italy, but until a few years ago, the Bel Paese was mainly the object of summertime flirtation. A few years ago, Bastianich started getting serious about Italy, spending more time at his vineyard home in Friuli, building Orsone, and making frequent visits to Milan to appear as a judge on MasterChef Italia. Meanwhile, he played gigs with his band, The Ramps.

What do Italians think of Joe Bastianich?

Bastianich's appearances on MasterChef Italia, characterized by explosive tirades, gave rise to more than a few internet memes based on vitriolic critiques of contestants. Viewers were immediately intrigued by this Italian-American restaurateur with a distinct accent, endearing malapropisms and a critical persona. And in a society in which upward mobility — especially for immigrants — is a rare occurrence, the Bastianich's Italian-American success story and entrepreneurial spirit is a curious anomaly.

Public opinion is divided but his popularity is certainly due to his masterful ability to craft a television persona that demands attention and exudes confidence and expertise.

Did he leave MasterChef and MasterChef Junior to spend more time in Italy?

After five years as judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, Joe Bastianich announced his departure from the US-based programs. He will continue appear as a judge on MasterChef Italia. He told Fine Dining Lovers, "I feel like I reached the end of the road with MasterChef in the US. It was a beautiful experience and it changed my life, but it had run its course. I would like to spend more time in Italy. I don't have other restaurants in mind at the moment, but I'd like to do more TV about food and other topics. I want to prove to myself and others that I can become a TV personality beyond the theme of food and that I am not just fortunate because I have lived a life immersed in food."

Photo: MasterChef Junior

Aside from Italian television stardom, what else does he have in store?

Currently he is focusing on Eataly's continued expansion in the Americas. The Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group is a partner in the US-based locations of the gloabal Eataly brand. While the family's other endeavors have been launched according to calculated business plans, the motivations behind Orsone (an independent venture not affiliated with the B&B brand) aren't solely economic. Instead, Bastianich is driven by his own parents' exodus from their homeland. Cividale del Friuli is the Italy-based substitute for the Istrian peninsula. The wine estate and Orsone are an acknowledgement that if there is no homeland to return to, one can be created. "That experience is one that leads me to want to put roots down more firmly and really give my kids a sense of where they come from and who they are," Bastianich told me back at Orsone. "Restaurants may come and go and Babbo may not be there when my sons are 30 years old, but this will. Being able to do the restaurant here and make the wine here kind of puts it on the table and makes it real and tangible."

· All Joe Bastianich Coverage [E]