Paying homage to the pope's middle European roots, Bastiantich served goulash as the main course: beef shoulder braised until tender, then sliced and garnished with paprika, a dollop of sour cream and a side of sauerkraut. The meal ended with fruit croustade, a delicious rustic tart. Earlier in the week, Bastianich said, "I hope that, with this meal ... that he relaxes and that he feels that he is at home. The love that we did this with -- we want it to come through. I hope to see a big smile on him ... and I hope he gives us a blessing.
Catholicism has always been a part of Bastianich's life, and even played a role in her immigration to the United States when she was 12 years old.
Born in a northeastern region of Italy, her hometown became part of Yugoslavia after World War II, forcing her family to escape a communist regime. They returned to Italy, but the country's poor postwar economy forced them to relocate once more: to North America.
The transition was slow-going. Bastianich and her family waited for two years in a political refugee camp until a special U.S. provision allowed them to immigrate to the United States in 1958.
"The Catholic charities brought us here to New York," she said. "We had no one. They found a home for us. They found a job for my father. And ultimately we settled. And I am the perfect example that if you give somebody a chance, especially here in the United States, one can find the way."
Bastianich, 62, is active in the Italian-American community and has served as Grand Marshal of the Columbus Day Parade with the Columbus Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit organization in New York City that offers scholarships to Italian-American students and promotes Italian-American heritage.
"I'm very spiritual, and I do many humanitarian things and interact especially with the Catholic charities because they helped me and we need to continue -- it's in me to give back."
Her first memories of food were molded by her mother, her great aunt Nina, who took young Bastianich under her wing in the refugee camp, and her grandmother's fresh-from-the garden cooking.
"She grew her own potatoes. We had our wheat; we made our own olive oil, we made our wine, we had chickens, ducks, we had sheep, cows, milk," she said. "So I was raised in a very simple situation but understanding really food from the ground … the essence of food and the flavors. And those memories I took with me and I think that they lingered on. It was a way of me connecting with my roots, connecting with my family that I'd left behind. And food became such a communicator, such an important part of me, of my story. And I continued to communicate with it."
Growing up, she worked in bakeries, starting as a salesgirl but always ending up in the back baking. The same thing happened when she began working in restaurants.
"I found great rewards in cooking a dish and feeding it to someone," Bastianich said. "It was a means of communicating. I was giving part of my talent, or my gift and sharing it with somebody, making somebody happy. And it gave a lot back to me and I wanted to do more and more."
She considers daily meals an ideal forum for nurturing and connecting with family. "People at the table are open because they're taking in, they're taking nourishment for their body. But while they're taking nourishment for their body, they're taking all the other messages that are coming along."