Joe Bastianich, the restaurateur, vineyard owner and marathon runner, has spent his whole life living and breathing restaurants. “I grew up in restaurants. I feel more comfortable in restaurants than anywhere else. They’re my natural habitat.”
Lidia Bastianich, the prolific PBS cooking personality and cookbook author, is Joe’s mom. Joe was born in 1968 in the New York City borough of Queens. Three years later, Lidia opened Buonavia, her first restaurant. At her second restaurant, she worked as the head chef.
Food critics and hungry New Yorkers noticed and soon fell in love with the Bastianich family restaurants. Joe grew up hanging out in those restaurants after school and pitching in on weekends. He’d wash dishes and clean the sidewalks. As he grew up, so did the restaurants.
After school at Boston College, Joe embarked in an executive MBA program at Merrill Lynch. Bond trading “was the thing to do if you wanted to be successful in the '80s,” Joe says. But it didn’t take him long to realize the bond-trader path was completely wrong for him. He hated it.
So Joe went from Wall Street to Italy, where he pursued his “passion for wine and food, making wine, and working in various restaurants.”
When he came back, he opened his first restaurant, Becco, in Manhattan’s Theater District, with his mom, of course. He created a wine list with an interesting, hefty assortment of bottles priced reasonably. House-made pastas were served tableside. The place was instantly popular.
Lidia introduced her son to Mario Batali in 1997. “We met in Italy,” Joe said. “I had Becco; he had his restaurant Po.” The young restaurateurs hosted a dinner together at the prestigious James Beard Foundation. They’d go out at night and stay out late drinking. “One night we saw a For Sale sign on a coach house. We thought we should open a big restaurant.”
They did, and that restaurant became Babbo, which opened near Manhattan's Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in 1998. What Joe describes as his and Batali’s “exuberant celebration of the best of Italian food, wine, and lifestyle” soon became the city's Mecca of Italian food. The wine and the food were impeccable—but lusty rather than fussy. Batali landed a TV cooking show and ascended into celebrity chef territory. Joe kept making the wines and opening the restaurants, content to be the quiet(er) business partner.
Joe and Mario have a sort of magical chemistry. The pair opened six wildly successful restaurants in New York City: Lupa, Esca, Casa Mono, Bar Jamón, Otto, and Del Posto. In Los Angeles, they opened Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza; and in Las Vegas, they have B&B Ristorante, Enoteca San Marco, and Carnevino. Mario does the food; Joe does the wine.
“Things happened organically,” Joe says. “There’s always been an immense amount of talent around us.”
Mark Ladner, a Batali protégé, became a chef and partner at Lupa, Otto, and, later, at Del Posto, Joe and Mario’s foray into fine dining. The seafood-centric restaurant Esca came from Dave Pasternack, another disciple of Mario.
Joe started buying vineyards in mid 1990s and bought the Bastianich Winery in 1998. Why a vineyard? “We’ve always focused on doing things that were very personal, that we felt passionate about.” Joe believes in building business models to accommodate that passion.
That passion is “interpreting the Italian table for American consumers.” Restaurants are “magical,” he says. Running a restaurant, he says, means “hosting a party every night—you get to create an experience for people that they enjoy. And that’s a powerful—and empowering—thing.”
Although the infrastructure that fuels all that magic can sometimes be mundane, Joe understands its importance. The reason a lot of restaurants don’t make it, he says, is that “you can have all the artistry and passion in the world, but you need to know how to turn that into making money.”
Now that Joe has somewhere near 3,000 employees, he says he mostly “gets the problems.” But he's the proud father of an expanding culinary empire, and proud to have “created something with a life and momentum of its own.”
Joe channeled that momentum into running the New York City Marathon in 2008. He lost 45 pounds. Joe told the New York Times, “It’s kind of like a midlife crisis kind of thing... when you turn 40, you have to run the marathon, while all the parts still work properly.”
Joe is always looking for the next project. The latest is another venture with Mario, an Italian food emporium called Eataly that will feature six restaurants and retail food sales in Manhattan. There will be a pasta restaurant, a pizza spot, a meat-focused restaurant, one that serves seafood, a vegetable-driven spot, a panini bar, and a brewery.
“What we offer is real,” Joe says. “It has spirit. It’s not fluff, it’s not fake, and it’s not bullshit. We offer satisfaction in what you eat and in the environment. We offer a dose of reality.” And a dose of serious wine and wonderful pasta. And people are coming to eat it, drink it, and experience it.