Giada De Laurentiis' media empire wasn't born of a master plan. Born in Rome and raised in a large Italian-American family ruled over by her grandfather, film director Dino de Laurentiis—whose own interest in food led him to open a grand, marble-encrusted proto-Eataly in NYC and Beverly Hills in the early '80s called DDL Foodshow—empire-building wasn't in the script for her.
"I grew up in a family where the boys had to have drive to do something big, to keep up with my grandfather and what he built, but for women it was different," she says. "There weren't really a lot of expectations for me, it was just have fun, do whatever you want, get married, and have kids."
But having fun is how she ended up training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, then spinning a small private catering company into four TV shows, three daytime Emmys, 16 books, a restaurant in Vegas, and numerous corporate partnerships, including a recent collaboration with Triscuit to hand out $250,000 in funding to small food businesses. Call it an extreme case of right place, right time—even if her movie-royalty family didn't initially think so. "My grandfather made very clear to me he was worried that I would somehow discredit the name in some way," she says. "Not only was it TV, but it was cable when cable was really not glamorous."
She joined the Food Network in 2003, a time when, to much of America, Italian food was still red sauce and bagged mozzarella shreds. Ingredients like prosciutto and burrata had barely made it out of the Martha Stewart East Coast elite tower, and Rachael Ray, who hit the airwaves shortly before De Laurentiis, had only just introduced a large portion of the country to the nuances of good olive oil by coining her own cutesy term for it, evoo. De Laurentiis, who makes it a point to pronounce words like spaghetti and ricotta with the R-rolling, T-sticking accent of a native Italian, struck a new middle ground for the 10-year-old network: a professionally trained cook with more everyman appeal than its first wave of restaurant-pedigreed stars, which included Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali.
Like many of her Food Network peers, De Laurentiis has made a name for herself with simple, unintimidating recipes that are uncompromisingly authentic. "I like to think that's what I do, streamline things so I can bring them down to their core essence," she says. That’s more than just clever media branding—in real life, her tastes run less to the caviar-chugging, lobster-eating superstar lifestyle than to the childlike pleasures of texture (crunchy, creamy, melty). She delights in making games out of the things she eats, like peeling apart chocolate croissants to get to the hidden treasure inside, and proudly proclaims her love for instant ramen.
From making pizza with her grandfather, to the pasta that caught the attention of the Food Network, these are the 10 dishes that made Giada De Laurentiis' career.