Sliced heirloom tomatoes, steamed lobster and house-made burrata greeted Pope Francis on his first night in New York, where a celebrity chef cooking for her second pontiff said her menu was inspired by Francis' humility and simplicity.
Feeding the leader of the world's more than 1 billion Roman Catholics is a daunting task, but Lidia Bastianich said she felt the dishes she offered Francis during his 40 hours in Manhattan pulled off the feat of being straightforward, sophisticated, even spiritual.
"In this food, for me, is everything I feel about Catholicism. ... Let's feed each other some sustenance, some love," said Bastianich, who went into her own garden to pick carrots, beets, tomatoes and herbs for the pontiff's meals.
The Associated Press got an exclusive tasting of some of the dishes on Francis' five-meal New York menu, which took its cue from the pontiff's healthy diet in Rome. His doctor is reportedly trying to get him to lose 15 pounds.
The tomato and lobster salad gave way Thursday night to veal with porcini mushrooms. Dessert was Concord grape sorbet and angel food cake.
"I think it plays well, given the situation," Bastianich joked.
Friday's lunch included risotto with summer truffles and aged grana Padano cheese as well as a surprise late addition to the menu — bagna cauda, a garlic-anchovy dip for raw vegetables Bastianich heard Francis loves.
After lunch, Francis strolled into the kitchen, thanked Bastianich, restaurateur Angelo Vivolo and their kitchen crew, and asked if he could share an espresso with them. The pope ended by giving each a rosary and a blessing.
"Our eyes swelled with tears," Bastianich said.
For dinner Friday, Bastianich prepared homemade ravioli filled with shredded pears and pecorino cheese — so light and delicate they seemingly melted on the tongue. And on a day when Catholics traditionally eat fish, the main dish was roasted striped bass, freshly caught off Long Island, with a drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley, plus lemon on the side.
Though the dishes Bastianich served up may sound more swank than simple, this was a visit with little behind-the-scenes pomp. One of Francis' requests was notably modest: water and bananas at his bedside table. (Bananas will be on the menu in Philadelphia, as well: The proprietors of the popular Franklin Fountain ice cream shop are providing a special caramelized banana flavor to the seminary where Francis will stay on the last stop of his U.S. visit.)
This was the second such papal calling for Bastianich, a chef and author best known for "Lidia's Italy" and other PBS shows and her Manhattan flagship restaurant Felidia.
She and Vivolo were selected to cook for Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, a visit that included a dinner party for 52 and a golden cake in the shape of the papal tiara.
Bastianich prepared Francis' meals at the five-story Upper East Side townhouse of the Vatican's United Nations representative, where the 78-year-old pope took respite from his hectic schedule and the rock-star roar of admiring crowds.
"There's an intimacy, a closeness, a warmth — he's a guest who sleeps upstairs," she said. "It's like having family visiting and you're cooking."
Bastianich's command performances for popes have always been about more than mere meals. Her family fled Yugoslavia after World War II and were refugees in Trieste, Italy. They were brought to the U.S. by Catholic Charities.
"For me, it's gratitude, it's giving back," she said. "I was fed by people who cared, so I understand the communication that food can have."