A few months ago I found out that Joe Bastianich was about to publish a new book. I’d been following his work for a few years already, especially his participation as a judge in MasterChef USA, so I asked his publisher UTET whether they could provide me with a digital copy of the book (which they very kindly did).
I confess I devoured it in a matter of hours: “Giuseppino” is one of those books you can’t lay down until you’ve found out how it ends. But it’s so much more: Bastianich traces back his difficult family history with the utmost delicacy, starting with the escape of his grandmother Erminia from Tito’s dictatorship, continuing with the stay in Italy and the new life in the United States, putting the personal experience inside an extremely complex historical and political context.
A troubled and frankly unexpected story in a man I only knew as a successful restauranteur and a TV character as competent as he is impossible to please. His fame as an incredibly exacting judge on MasterChef precedes him, in the American version long before the Italian one, where I can say without hesitation that his brilliant spirit and his just intransigence (but also, let’s face it, his initially uncertain grasp of the Italian language) have brought him a fame that is similar to the one he’d earned himself in the States.
I admit I didn’t believe Joe had so much to say, nor did I know his story, which he tells with lucidity and a lot of affection. His is a family of strong and tenacious women, starting with grandma Erminia and continuing with his mother Lidia, who have undoubtedly inspired and guided him to the research of what his destiny is and has always been: that of a wildly successful “restaurant man“. Not a chef, like renowned Lidia, but a business man in a field that is indissolubly tied to his roots.
The story of Italy and the United States interweaves with that of Joe’s family: from Istrian refugees to Italian immigrants in an alien and incomprehensible NY, a lot of work, many sacrifices and a unique determination. It’s difficult to read history pages trying to put oneself in the shoes of people who actually lived those times, but here we see a glimpse of that world through the hopeful (but also uncertain) eyes of someone who left everything behind in search of a new life and new opportunities.
The book is structured fundamentally in two parts: the first is an incredibly emotional account of the “going”, the flight of the family from Istria and the slow, laborious building of a living in a new world; the second part contains the “return”, the travels that brought Joe to discover his homeland. A bond that strengthens with each iteration, a bond that Joe instinctively craves (a proof of which is his burning desire to bring MasterChef in Italy and participate as judge, in spite of the economical contraindications this decision would have).
I would go so far as to say that the book closes the “circle” of this return to the origins in a perfect Jack London style: his success in MasterChef, Crozza’s parody, his increasing presence in Italian magazines, newspapers, blogs and even advertising only confirm a role that can only be defined as central in the food industry of Italy (although, again, Joe is not a chef).
I don’t know of many TV characters who managed to cross borders and language barriers in such a structured manner, becoming a stable reference in two countries divided by an ocean. Joe has managed to bring MasterChef from the USA to Italy and he has managed – together with Oscar Farinetti – to bring Eataly from Italy to the USA. A culture, food and wine cross-contamination that cannot avoid having long term consequences, if we consider the popularity – literally – of the topic.
In the end, Italians like Joe. He’s described as a non conformist, but maybe what surprises people is his lack of patience towards who wastes other people’s time and resources by failing to seize great opportunities. Someone even said that as Joe’s skills in Italian increase, his “character” on MasterChef becomes less and less funny, less interesting, less worthy of being watched. Anyway, it’s worth discovering how he got there, and the book is a great way to do just that. Along with providing food for thought (and why not, some motivation) to those who are willing to listen. Besides, if a Wall Street broker manages to become a wine producer in Italy, everything is possible.
Or isn’t it?