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Lidia’s Italy: A Confused Brand Recipe

PBS chef and 1999 James Beard award winner Lidia Matticchio Bastianich is a stark contrast to the Food Network’s lineup of chef entertainers. She exudes knowledge and offers simple, clear instruction on her PBS show Lidia’s Italy. There’s no pageantry or pretense — just a serious chef with a love and appreciation for Italy’s many classical, regional dishes. Yet while I’m a fan of her show and her approach to cooking, her brand strategy lacks the refinement of her recipes.  As meticulous and knowledgeable as she comes across on her program, the translation of the promise she establishes isn’t consistently translated across her many ventures, most notably her restaurant Lidia’s in Kansas City. 

On a recent trip I gave Lidia’s a try, both out of professional curiosity as well as a genuine desire to answer her episode-ending call to action: “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” (everybody to the table to eat!) It took but a brief moment to realize that Lidia’s was a far cry from the intimate and authentic experience an Italian family’s dinner table, or trattoria, offers.  The chef clearly means for the space to evoke an Italian farmhouse, but it’s best described as an upscale Olive Garden.  Although nicely appointed, hokey details such as Dale Chihuly-inspired chandeliers in the shape of vines and some out-of-place paintings distract more than set the desired mood.

The menu also is far removed from Lidia’s professed love for seasonal ingredients, relying more on tried and true staples, such as ossobuco and all-you-can-eat pasta specials.  The pasta is clearly homemade, as promised by the waiter, but drowning in cheese and heavy sauces.

Even without life-altering events, personality brands are tough to manage.  Being true to oneself while monetizing ones’ brand requires clarity and a disciplined portfolio strategy.  Nevertheless I was surprised, even dismayed, to find that Lidia, of all personalities, had such a blind spot when it came to her own brand. 

Lidia’s many ventures, including books, vineries and a number of restaurants, are all part of her portfolio.  However, she committed a cardinal mistake when giving her name to a restaurant that couldn’t be further removed from the brand promise she establishes through her shows and cookbooks.  The name Lidia’s implies an intimate glimpse and taste of her cooking and living philosophy, yet it isn’t.  And by attempting to lend instant credibility by using her first name, the restaurant’s shortcomings could end up spoiling the broader portfolio. 

Interestingly enough, none of her other restaurants, except for Lidia’s sister venue in Philadelphia, carry her name.  It may well be that Kansas City wouldn’t be the town to support the kind of restaurant her show and books conjure up in my mind.  Yet, that points to another weakness in her approach.  Knowing your market and deploying your brand capital wisely is crucial to any brand venture.  She likely understood the market and what concept would be successful, but took a branding shortcut.

When cooking, there are many ways to prepare a dish as long as the ingredients are purposeful and balanced.  Unfortunately, Lidia’s brand recipe isn’t. I wish she had spent as much time thinking through her brand portfolio as she does her recipes.


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