New York chef Lidia Bastianich was in awe the day she received a call from Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's representative to the United Nations. He asked if she would consider preparing two meals for Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to New York, that is, as long as it wasn't an "imposition."
The church's humble approach touched Bastianich, who was "stunned" that they had considered her.
"I know he has to eat, but certainly I didn't think it would be me," she said with characteristic modesty. "The ultimate reward, and I think blessing, is this opportunity to cook for Pope Benedict."
Most people, even established chefs accustomed to cooking for powerful people, might be nervous about such an undertaking, but Bastianich described an inner calm. "I feel very peaceful, like a warmth is around me," said Bastianich, who hosts a popular PBS cooking show.
"The menus that we planned of course is following his wishes of simplicity, of seasonality, not too elaborate a meal."
On Friday, the pope's dinner at Archbishop Migliore's Manhattan residence began with a simple salad of steamed spring vegetables tossed with an almond vinaigrette: fava beans, string beans, asparagus, and toasted almonds topped with a dollop of warm ricotta drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Next, the pope and his 52 other guests dined upon Cacio Pepe e Pere, which is ravioli filled with pecorino cheese, and fresh pears served in a cheese and crushed black pepper sauce.
The menu also included a risotto, which Bastianich described as "simple and straightforward." It was served with nettles, favas, fresh peas, legumes, and wild onions, with grana padano cheese and extra virgin olive oil. Bastianich decided upon a whole grilled striped bass as the main course. "He loved the idea of fish," Bastianich said. She filleted the bass, seasoning it with coarse sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. The fish was served alongside boiled fingerling potatoes, and a chicory and endive salad with a little mustard vinaigrette.
To complete the mouthwatering feast, the pope and his many guests enjoyed the comforting flavors of apple strudel. "I love making apple strudel," Bastianich said. "Since I was a little girl I used to roll up [the strudel] with my grandmother. He's from that part of Europe, I know he's going to love it. I'm trying to bring some of his food memories back to relax him. He's busy. He has philosophy of the world at mind. Maybe my strudel will just bring him to that moment to the table and make him relax."
Yesterday's dinner, Bastianich's second meal for Pope Benedict, was designed for a smaller crowd: his immediate circle. Saturday was also the anniversary of his third year in the papacy. The meal began with white and green asparagus topped with fresh pecorino cheese and drizzled with a light vinaigrette. Next, Bastianich chose a light soup to "make him feel warm inside and cozy."
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."
The Bastianich family's food empire extends far beyond Lidia Bastianich's television show and her five cookbooks, although those are large accomplishments in their own right. "Lidia's Italian American Kitchen," her cooking show on PBS is a huge hit, drawing in epicureans since 2001 with its simple, flavorful Italian recipes.
Bastianich's children also share her passion for food, and have expanded the family business. Her son, Joseph, is a restaurant owner, author and wine expert who will serve as a sommelier during the pope's dinner, using wines from the family's label.
Bastianich's daughter, Tanya, is an art historian who has also launched a travel company and a line of specialty products. Both Tanya and her grandmother, Bastianich's mother, Erminia Motika, have also appeared on several episodes of "Lidia's Italian American Kitchen" and Tanya co-wrote "Lidia's Italy," Bastianich's latest book.
"As Italians, family is the epicenter," Bastianich said. "I think it's just part of the culture. My mother, who's 87, who comes on the show, she lives with me still. My daughter lives in walking distance; she has two children. My son, Joe, has three children. So five grandchildren. So to find ourselves on a weekend, four generations, and find ourselves in the kitchen because that's the natural place to be; it's not uncommon. And I just love it."
They're the perfect example of the American dream, illustrating just how far the family has come both literally and figuratively.
"When we left Italy to come to America, we left from Ciampino Airport in Rome, and I remember specifically we went to Saint Peter's Basilica to ask for a blessing on this, in this new venture, in this new world," Bastianich recalled. "And I remember, you know, looking around because it's just an amazing place, it was my first visit but also my mother really saying, 'Ok, ask for a blessing. We're going to need it, we're going far away.'"
"And then to be able to have this great blessing in my life in America, this great opportunity and really sort of verifying myself in a sense, becoming myself, and turn around and be able to now host and feed and cook for his holiness is just a complete circle that may be only in a dream -– maybe it is a dream."