By Joanne Rosa
Before Lidia Matticchio Bastianich became our favorite Italian-American Grandma, she was a young girl in the Italian city of Pula, on the Istriam peninsula, living her best life by the sea. That all changed when Istria was taken over by Yugoslavia under Tito’s communist regime.
Little did Lidia-or Giuliana as her mother used to call her-know at the time, that her life would change forever, and eventually propel her to become an Emmy award winning TV host, restauranteur, best selling author, wife, mother, and devoted grandmother to five grandchildren.
Lidia’s memoir “My American Dream” details her dicey voyage escaping Pula, taking refuge in Italy for two years, immigrating to America, and making a life for herself in New York City and New Jersey. If it weren’t for each experience Lidia shares in “My American Dream,” our tastebuds wouldn’t have encountered the mouth-watering dishes that come from Lidia’s restaurants.
In the spring of 1958, 11 year-old Lidia, her brother Franco, and her mother and father were informed that the United States opened up its immigration borders. After medical examinations and waiting for a month, at last the visas for Lidia and her family were approved. On a sunny day in April, the family of four hopped on a train with their one-way tickets to Rome with hopes of making a new life in America. Lidia paints her description of the family’s journey by air to New York City in this excerpt of “My American Dream.”
My parents were now unified and seemed happy, although my father appeared pensive and apprehensive, and my mother was emotional. No matter, my brother and I were very excited. Franco was always the quieter one, inquisitive but reserved. That day, however, he could barely contain his elation, skipping and jumping and wearing a broad smile.
There were a lot of other immigrants on our bus to Ciampino Air- port, then Rome’s main airport. A plane had been chartered to bring us all to the United States, starting with an old KLM jet-propeller-driven plane for the first leg of our journey, to Amsterdam, where we would transfer to a DC-7 for the transatlantic flight. There were a number of passengers on the flight with us, all refugees, not only from Italy, but from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia—from all the communist countries.
As we were waiting to board the flight, two representatives from the Red Cross, a man and a woman, both of whom wore large armbands bearing the Red Cross symbol, approached my mother. The man was carrying two small bags, and the woman held a young in her
arms. The child was bundled in a blanket with a that read “Gianfranco” fastened to its coverlet.
“You were a teacher?” I heard the woman ask my mother.
When she responded in the affirmative, the woman asked if she would be willing to take care of the infant during the flight. “You know how to care for children; we have confidence that the baby will be in good hands with you.”
My mother looked confused. “To whom will I give him?” she asked, concerned that they wanted her to care for the child indefinitely.
The woman reassured my mother that there would be someone meeting her in New York to take custody of the baby, that she needed only to care for him during the transatlantic flight, and that in America she would be relieved of the responsibility. He was six months old, and was going to America to be adopted, she explained as she placed the child my mother’s arms. She next directed the man to give my mother the bags he was holding. “In one bag, you will find food for him. In the other, you will find clothes and diapers,” she said. This was the first time my mother had ever seen a disposable diaper. My brother and I were happy, because Mom now had someone to take care of and would be distracted from crying and worrying about our trip. That would give us more time to explore the insides of the plane.
Indeed, having the baby to look after turned out to be a blessing for my mother. She had been crying for much of the day, and her distress seemed to be getting worse now that we were at the airport. I know she was happy that we were finally leaving the refugee camp, and that our dream of going to America was about to be fulfilled, but she was also plagued with worry. Had she made the right decision in uprooting her family? Would we really be happier in a new land? What if she and my father couldn’t find work? How would they care for us? We did not know a single person in the United States, and neither of my parents spoke English. In Trieste, we had Zia Nina, and we all spoke Italian.
Franco and I had seats next to my mother on the plane, but we were so busy exploring that we hardly sat in them, so she was able to lay the baby down for a nap. The stewardesses didn’t seem to mind our marching up and down the aisles, and even treated us to juice and snacks. My mother was so occupied with Baby Gianfranco, feeding him, changing his diaper, and rocking him to sleep, that she had no time to focus on anything else, and she finally stopped crying.
My father’s seat was across the aisle from us. He slept for much of the flight, but every so often he’d open his eyes and give us a nod and a smile.
One leg of our journey had us landing in Reykjavik, Iceland, to refuel. No one was allowed to deplane, so Franco and I stared out the window as the ground crew tended to our flight. Looking out the window, I saw nothing but snow and ice.
As tired as I was, I didn’t sleep at all during the transatlantic portion of the flight; the excitement of our journey and the effects of the three caffeinated sodas I had consumed in flight had me wide awake and eager to get a glimpse of our new homeland. Cheers erupted throughout the cabin when the captain came on the PA system to announce that we were about to land at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport). Franco and I were glued to the window, hoping to get a glimpse of the tall buildings we had seen on television.
My mother seemed surprised when she realized that we had landed. We waited while she bundled the baby into his blanket, then followed her off the plane and into the international arrivals terminal. “Such immense ceilings!” she shrieked. “Beautiful, beautiful!”
Two representatives from the Red Cross were waiting for us at the gate, again a man and a woman. They thanked my mother for the care she had provided to little Gianfranco, and allowed her a moment to say goodbye. She had grown attached to him during the flight and was a bit mournful to let him go. Then she grew upset when the woman tried to give her money, twenty-five dollars in cash, in gratitude for what she had done for Gianfranco.
My mother refused to accept it. “Non posso accettare questo denaro,” she told the woman. She explained that she had not paid for our flight, or for any of our travel—someone else had covered all of our expenses—and she could not in good conscience accept this payment.
But the woman insisted and would not let my mother leave without the cash.
“Madonna!” she exclaimed, turning to my father. “Here in America, they give you free money.” In her mind, she was now a millionaire. One American dollar was worth more than one thousand dinars back home in Pola, and here she had twenty-five!
Excerpted from “My American Dream” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Copyright © 2018 by Tutti a Tavola, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.