For Lidia Bastianich, cooking for Pope Benedict XVI was more than an honor. In her own words, it was a "closing of the circle."
Forty years ago, when Lidia was 12 and living in a refugee camp in Trieste, Italy, with her parents and brother, a Catholic relief organization provided them with safe passage and the proper visas to emigrate to America. But Lidia and her parents had to go to the Vatican to get the blessing of the pope at the time, Pope Paul VI.
So one can only imagine how thrilled she was to cook not one, not two, but three meals for the current pope during his visit to New York City. And Pope Benedict XVI turned out to be a serious eater, which is not surprising, given the fact that his mom was a hotel chef. This is what Lidia and her colleagues served His Holiness.Saturday Lunch
Lunch on Saturday was a relatively light repast that Lidia and her colleagues, Mark Ladner (Del Posto) William Gallagher (Becco), and Fortunato Nicotra (Felidia), improvised on the spot to work with what the nuns had already prepared for the pope:
-Italian cherry tomatoes with celery and grana Padana alongside some fresh mache
-Asparagus soup thickened with boiled potato and sautéed asparagus
-Baked monkfish Sicilian-style with seasoned breadcrumbs
-Peach fruit tart that, according to Lidia, almost went directly from the oven to the tableSaturday Dinner
Dinner on Saturday was for 52, including all the cardinals from around the world who had gathered in New York City for the pope's visit. Most of the recipes can be found in Lidia's most recent book, Lidia's Italy.
- String bean salad with sheep's milk ricotta and pickled shallots and toasted almonds
- Ravioli with fresh pecorino and pears
- Risotto with nettles, fava beans, and ramps
- Whole roasted striped bass with boiled fingerling potatoes and a frisée salad
- Apple strudel with honey vanilla ice cream (with honeycomb intact)
It sounds like a lot of food, and it was, but when you serve the pope, Lidia said, you can't give him too much food at once. Each plate is presented separately because the pope can't be seen as gluttonous, gluttony being one of the seven deadly sins.
Lidia said that, after this meal, she asked the pope whether he enjoyed it. The cardinals laughed, as that's not a question one is supposed to ask the pope, who is supposed to be preoccupied with profoundly important spiritual matters. Nonetheless, Pope Benedict XVI smiled and said he had indeed enjoyed himself.Sunday Dinner
Dinner Sunday was for the pope's entourage, a mere 24 people. Here's the menu:
- White and green asparagus salad with fresh 30-day pecorino, fava beans, and green chickpeas with lemon and olive oil
- Agnolini (little flying-saucer-shaped pasta filled with roast meat that Lidia served because they look like hosts) in free-range chicken soup with grana Padana on the bottom of the bowl
- Beef goulash made from Wagyu-style flat iron beef with a side of patate in tecia (pan-fried potatoes with bacon and onions that Lidia says remind her of hash browns) served with sauerkraut and sour cream
- Chocolate-hazelnut cake with "Tu Es" inscribed on it, topped by a two-foot-high marzipan mitre made by Bruno Bakery owner Bruno Settepani
- Apricot and ricotta crostata
After the goulash, the pope said to Lidia, "These are my mother's flavors." Lidia said she almost cried when she heard this. All the wines, Lidia said, were selected by her son, Joe Bastianich, and came from the Bastianich vineyards in Italy.
For Lidia, whose perilous journey to America at the tender age of 12 was blessed and sanctioned during a visit to St. Peter's Basilica some 40 years ago, cooking for the pope was so much more than a celebrity chef taking a star turn. "It was celestial. It meant my life had come full circle. I came to America because a Catholic relief organization provided safe passage, and here I am cooking for, feeding, and nourishing the pope. It doesn't get any better than that, does it?"