NEW YORK – Lidia Matticchio Bastianich has cooked for her fair share of VIPs, including first lady Laura Bush and the presidents of Japan and Chile. Nothing, however, comes close to cooking for Pope Benedict XVI.
Ms. Bastianich, better known as simply “Lidia” to the fans of her public television cooking shows, is working her magic in the kitchen the two nights, April 18 and 19, the pope will spend in New York during his U.S. visit.
“I would say in my life this is the pinnacle,” she said in an April 15 telephone interview with Catholic News Service in advance of her papal assignment.
The Italian-born chef and restaurant owner, 62, said she was “flabbergasted” last winter when Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations, asked her if she would consider cooking for the pope. Both meals will be served at Archbishop Migliore’s Manhattan residence, where Pope Benedict is staying.
While under orders not to reveal the menu for security reasons, Ms. Bastianich told CNS she would prepare fish April 18 for 52 invitees. It will be “something local and fresh. I will talk to the fishmonger to see what’s good,” she said.
As for the evening of April 19, when the German pontiff will celebrate his third anniversary as pope, Ms. Bastianich wants to “make him feel more at home and get some of the flavor of his childhood. I come from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a northeastern region, and in that region the food is substantially Mittel-European,” she said. That dinner will be a smaller affair, with only 24 enjoying the fruits of Ms. Bastianich’s labor.
Ms. Bastianich, who attends St. Anastasia Church in the Little Neck section of Queens, was born in an area of Italy that became part of Yugoslavia following World War II, forcing many Italians to relocate. Her family spent two years in a refugee camp before emigrating to the United States in 1958 with the help of Catholic Charities.
“When we were leaving Rome,” said Ms. Bastianich, “my mother took us to St. Peter’s Basilica for a blessing. I think that blessing really came full circle in every way.”
Chefs from three of the New York restaurants she owns will join her in the kitchen, and handpicked servers will ferry the food to the dining room. Her son, Joseph, will act as sommelier, pouring wines from the family’s own label.
Ms. Bastianich said she was surprised at the lack of special requests from Rome as she planned her meals. “I was taken aback by the simplicity. I want to go have a wonderful event, keeping it seasonal and light and simple,” she said.
Asked how she felt emotionally about the prospect of cooking for Pope Benedict, she became tongue-tied.
“I can’t even explain it,” she said, pausing as she searched for the words. “Usually when you have two events you get all uptight and nervous. Instead there’s such a comfort, a good feeling inside, like somebody from your family you love is coming over. There’s definitely some spiritual intervention there,” said Ms. Bastianich.