By Richard Thompson
“We were cleaning our aprons when he just comes in to have coffee. We were planning the dinner and he just walks in. Really, it was like he floated in,” recalls Lidia Bastianich, award-winning chef of Felidia and meal curator for the Pope.
Bastianich gets giddy and, in her sweet Italian accent, recounts the time that the People’s Pope walked into her kitchen and took a coffee break with her and her staff. “He talked to us about family – in Italian of course – for nearly 15 minutes. It was extraordinary, but beautiful because he addressed each one of us and asked us to pray for him.” she says.
For Bastianich, who is a devout Catholic, the pope’s surprise visit to her kitchen resonated on a personal and professional level. “He makes people feel important in his life. From somebody of his magnitude…it’s big,” Bastianich says.
For anyone wondering if the Pope likes cream or sugar in his coffee, he doesn’t. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because…I am proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family,” she says.
Bastianich worked alongside Angelo Vivolo and a team of executive chefs that included Bastianich’s children to carefully curate a meal plan that would embody a homeliness for the spiritual leader. “For me, food – comfort food – is home, and I wanted [the pope] to feel welcome and feel like he was right at home,” says Bastianich.
Initially aiming to create a series of dishes reminiscent of Pope Francis’s background, Bastianich instead moved to lighter fare such as squash and other vegetables, rice and fresh fish to accommodate his diet better. “I wanted him to feel like he was in his mother’s kitchen. We were going to show off American beef – a whole rack – for Argentinian beef meals, but we were told he wanted to eat light, so I cooked more seasonal fare like rice dishes… He loves risotto with some olive oil, lemon and parsley,” she says.
The first meal that would grace the pope’s plate was Caprese di Astice e Burrata (Heirloom tomatoes, house-made Burrata and steamed Maine lobster) followed by Brodo di Cappone con Anolini (Capon soup with Grana Padano raviolini) and veal medallions ‘Boscaiola’, porcini, corn and fresh tomato – known as Medaglioni di Vitello alla Boscaiola. For dessert, Sobetto di Uva Fragola con Torta degli Angeli – Concord grape sorbetto with angel food cake.
While the pope follows a very specific diet, Bastianich’s capon soup was such a hit with His Holiness that he had leftovers the next day. “It was really done from the heart…I made a big pot of capon soup and fed it to him twice. One day with lots of vegetables and one day with lots of rice,” says Bastianich.
Each morning started at 6:45 am with the pope coming down for a breakfast that consisted of a medley of frittatas, all kinds of yogurts, honeys and cereals and fruits of every type, recalls Bastianich, “He was rather simple on the breakfasts he liked and was very undemanding of everything, but he loved his coffee.”
The pope never did business at the table – maybe with the exception of light scheduling – and didn’t stray from his routine of mangoes and pineapple, Melba toast and some jam, despite the abundance of jams, baked goods, crepes and freshly squeezed juices that were available. “Saturday was the last breakfast…and he greeted everyone’s family before eating,” Bastianich says. “It was very moving.”
Bastianich relied on her own personal garden to provide many of the ingredients in the vegetable-inspired lunch that was prepared for Pope Francis. Insalata Cotta e Cruda con la Nostra Ricotta, cooked and raw vegetable salad with Felidia’s ricotta, comprised a veritable cornucopia of Bastianich’s private vegetable reserve. “Whatever I had in my garden is what I made with…beautiful squash, string beans, beets, sage, basil, parsley, tomatoes….” she says, “We wanted the pope to feel the love of home.”
Next came the Risotto con Porcini e Tartufi (Risotto with porcini, summer truffles and Grana Padano Riserva) followed by Pere ed uva al forno con Gelato alla Vaniglia, roasted pears and grapes with vanilla gelato, for dessert.
For dinner, Bastianich focused the four-course meal of fresh striped bass, tuna and vegetables. The Tutto Tonno is tuna tartare made with a semi carpaccio preserve and tonnato sauce that was followed by the Cacio e Pere, pear and pecorino filled ravioli, aged pecorino and crushed black pepper. The main dish of the evening was Bastianich’s signature Felidia dish, Spigola Striata al forno con Olio d’oliva e Limone, which is whole roasted striped bass, late summer vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and lemon. The dessert was a specially made apple crostata with local honey ice cream. “I think the focus is on the ingredients – the goodness of the ingredients. When making traditional Italian, stick to traditional Italian products. I always say, ‘Follow the recipe…don’t be dominated by it,’” says Bastianich.
Bastianich tempers any pride in who she serves with the humility that the Holy Father carries with him to the masses. “Food is not a luxury,” she says with the inflection of an Italian matriarch, when asked why cooking for Pope Francis meant so much to her. “Food nourishes us all in about the same way.”
Amen to that.