Queens isn’t known for its gardens but Lidia Bastianich has maintained her own in the borough — Douglaston, to be specific, her residence of 30-plus years. It’s here that she’s planted an heirloom garden, shaped by her growing up in Istria, formerly Italian, now Croatian, across the water from Italy-at-large. While what she’s growing may not be served at her restaurants for volume and logistics sake, it has inspired the menu at her restaurants like Felidia, that’s been open since 1981.
Italian gardens aren’t a run-of-the mill tomatoes, squash, and herbs. They can be quite specific, with some immigrants building trellises for Concord grapes, drying seeds for vegetables like cucuzza, and planting Italian tomato varietals “anywhere there’s room,” says Bastianich, who points to plants next to black-eyed susans, tucked between rose bushes.
“I need to have my hands close to the ground,” she says. It’s how she grew up, and it’s how she’s cooked, with her garden surrounding the entrance to her kitchen that’s outfitted with an expansive Viking range: This is where her PBS show Lidia’s Italian Table used to be filmed.
Around the property — in addition to the beans, beets, celery and fennel, eggplant, chicories, berries, garlic, and all sorts of peppers — Bastianich harvests herbs in pots close to the house, with rosemary, thyme, verbena, and Italian oregano among them. Closer to the chimney by the side of her house, fig trees in giant pots stretch overhead, having survived multiple New York winters, despite the cold. She stops short of the efforts of some Italians, who opt to bury fig trees in the ground over the winter.
Back at Felidia on the Upper East Side, where head chef Fortunato Nicotra has been cooking since the 90s, dishes are shaped by what she is growing, from the poached fruit served with chicken liver pate, to the capesante, scallops with its variety of tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables. Herbs inform teas as well as more potent drinks like grappa, pictured below, infused with ruta, or rue, a lemon-y, bitter herb. After a few months or so, a few springs in a bottle transform a bracing drink into a mellower digestivo. Take a look around Lidia’s garden, below.