Mum’s the word about menu for pope’s 81st birthday celebration

NEW YORK – The tightest of security surrounded the meals being prepared for Pope Benedict XVI during his April 15-20 U.S. visit. Even the menus were being kept secret.

“We were told by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, nuncio to the United States, to not reveal the menus, the budgets or even the ingredients of dishes we’re preparing,” said Franco Nuschese, the owner of Cafe Milano, an Italian restaurant in the Georgetown section of Washington.

Mr. Nuschese, executive chef Fabio Salvatore and 23 other professionals were responsible for Pope Benedict’s 81st birthday lunch April 16 at the Vatican Embassy, or nunciature, in Washington.

“When Franco first told me, I thought he was joking. But then I quickly realized he was being serious,” said Mr. Salvatore, a graduate of the Istituto Professionale Albergiero in Pescara, one of Italy’s finest culinary institutes.

“I was glad initially because it’s an incredible honor to cook for the pope but the full weight of it didn’t really hit me until about a week later. And then I got really nervous,” Mr. Salvatore told Catholic News Service April 14 in a telephone conference call with him and Mr. Nuschese from Washington.

Following Archbishop Sambi’s instructions, Mr. Nuschese and Mr. Salvatore had little to say about the four-course menu they were preparing for the pope.

“Though the nunciature has very good kitchen facilities, we will be bringing some of our own equipment along with the ingredients and a brigade de cuisine of about 23 individuals including our executive pastry chef, Mary Lee Orr,” who was in charge of the pope’s birthday cake.

The question as to whether the birthday cake was angel food cake or devil’s-food cake solicited a chuckle from Mr. Nuschese but mum was still the word.

“Even though the pope is German, we won’t be serving any German dishes. We are sticking with Italian cuisine,” Mr. Nuschese said. “The dishes we will be preparing for the pope are served at the restaurant for VIPs but do not otherwise appear on the menu.”

Though the two were briefed as to things Pope Benedict does not enjoy, the two had a great deal of leeway in developing the menu. Both participated in creating and planning the menu.

“I can say, however, the menu has a strong Emilia-Romagna influence,” said Mr. Salvatore, referring to a region in northern Italy.

“We will be preparing a special pasta dish,” said Mr. Nuschese. “It’s based on an old family recipe created by my grandmother.

“The dish is not easy to make,” he added. “It requires fresh vegetables which are currently in season. The dish would have been otherwise impossible to create had His Holiness come at any other time of the year.”

He said 90 percent of the ingredients for the meal, “other than fresh vegetables, meats and fish,” had been imported from Italy.

The birthday-party table was to feature custom-made decorative plates specially prepared on Italy’s Amalfi Coast by Vittorio Ruocco, a ceramist friend of Mr. Nuschese’s.

The plates are decorated with the Vatican seal and inscribed with the words: “On the occasion of the 81st birthday of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Nunciature, Washington D.C., April 16, 2008.”

The menus for the pope’s birthday party were printed at the Amatrulo Paper factory, the oldest still-functioning paper factory in the world. It was established in the 13th century in Amalfi, Italy.

Though neither Mr. Nuschese nor Mr. Salvatore has ever cooked for a pope, Cafe Milano has hosted many other dignitaries, including Queen Sirikit of Thailand, King Hussein of Jordan, U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Vice President Dick Cheney, first lady Laura Bush and most members of the current Cabinet.

“There are a lot of presidents around the world but there is only one pope,” said Mr. Nuschese. “We are concentrating on the presentation, which will be very nice and memorable.”

Mr. Nuschese is a parishioner of Holy Rosary Church in Washington, which was established in 1913 to serve the spiritual needs of Italian immigrants and still offers Mass in Italian.

“My faith is very important to me,” he said. “It’s important to believe and have faith. It keeps us going.”

Mr. Nuschese said he was “thrilled and humbled to prepare this lunch for the pope. It’s a very big honor. … This is not something that happens every day. This is the pope. You don’t get bigger than this. I can’t tell you how thrilled and excited I am for this opportunity.”

“This is a special, special occasion,” added Mr. Salvatore. “Pressure is normal … but I’m very excited.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.