La Dolce Vita

Jan D'Atri and Mom, Livia, Living The Sweet Life

Jimmy Magahern | Jul 1, 2011, 10:13 a.m.

But beyond the saleable image, Livia D’Atri is clearly the real deal. As the story goes, having survived Mussolini’s tumultuous rule, the young beauty, lured by the promise of marriage to an Italian butcher living in California who had fallen in love with her picture, she immigrated from Venice to America after World War II carrying little more than the clothes on her back and, of course, a cookbook.

“My mother gave it to me as a wedding gift,” she says, rolling off the title in mellifluous Italian. “In English, it means ‘Book of Happiness.’”

Today Livia says what she enjoys most is teaching the art of cooking to liberated Mr. Moms. But back then, pleasing a man’s stomach was truly seen as the quickest path to his heart — an adage which certainly proved true for this self-described “catalog bride.” Johnny and Livia D’Atri opened their first Italian restaurant in Lake Tahoe in the late ‘50s, and it quickly became a favorite with showbiz names like Jimmy Durante, Louis Prima, Liberace and Nat King Cole. The couple remained happily married until Johnny passed away in Livia’s arms some four decades later.

All along, food was at the center of family activity, though Jan insists all her years spent growing up in the kitchen were about more than simply good Italian cooking.

“Life happens around the kitchen table,” she says. “A boy has broken your heart in third grade. Where do you go? You’re at the kitchen table, where mom’s making the brownies. You’re getting ready for your first date, you’re at the kitchen table. Every event in your life, large or small, gets talked about at the kitchen table.

“And food is the panacea,” Jan continues. “‘You got a headache? Eat. Tired? Eat. You’ve got a broken heart? Eat!’ There’s something wonderful when a pasta pot is boiling. When momma’s in the kitchen, life is good.”

Recipes for Happiness

Given their inherited passion for food, it’s a marvel that both Jan and Livia have managed to stay so trim and healthy. Livia says it’s not about how much you eat, but what you eat.

“I only eat good food, no junk food,” she says. “I raise my own fruits and vegetables in my garden, and I do my own cooking. Coming from the Old Country, I know what is good and what is not good.

“But it’s not just the food,” she adds. “I have been into sports all my life. I have played golf, tennis, snow skiing, water skiing, hiking, biking. And that keeps a person active and in good health.”

Jan admits her habits are not as healthy as her mom’s. “I don’t sleep enough, I drink way too much coffee, and I’m a grazer – little tiny meals all day, but good food, always good, natural food,” she says. “I live on coffee, adrenaline and laughter. But I always get a great report back from the doctor.”

At 57, Jan looks remarkably unchanged from her early days on the set. When asked, she swears she’s never had any “work” done. “I don’t do facials. No Botox,” she says. “Mom always taught me never do anything with your face. She says that the less you can touch your face, the better.”

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