National Catholic Register


Chef to The Pope

Papal Encounter Moved TV’s Lidia



May 18-24, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/13/08 at 1:23 PM


NEW YORK — What did the Pope eat? It’s not the first concern after a papal visit, but it’s an interesting question to raise after the main events have been considered.

The answer: Pope Benedict XVI was feted with Italian food while here in America.

“The Pope likes his privacy and frankly, his message is spiritual and I’m sure he doesn’t want people to waste time thinking about what he’s going to eat,” said TV chef Lidia, who cooked for him in New York. “Breaking bread with people is by far more important than knowing how I baked the bread.”

But she did share the experience of serving the Pope — who is her own spiritual father. She is a parishioner at St. Anastasia in Queens. “My faith and spirituality are important to me,” she said. “I try to be as good as I can!”

Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, 60, and her event planner Angelo Vivolo, 61, owner of New York City’s Bruschetteria Restaurant, prepared the meals for the Holy Father together.

Lidia was in charge of the menu and the cooking while Vivolo was in charge of the logistics of the two meals.

Lidia is star and producer of PBS’ highly successful “Lidia’s Italy,” where she teaches viewers how to cook as well as their grandmothers did. She operates four restaurants throughout the United States, including Felidia and Becco in midtown Manhattan, and cooked for the Holy Father twice.

“Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the nuncio to the United Nations, approached me, and asked if I would consider cooking for the Pope,” Lidia explained. “I had no idea it was coming. I was taken aback. I almost fell to the floor.”

Serving the Pope

Lidia’s brigade de cuisine included Chef Fortuno Nicotro of her restaurant, Felidia, located in Manhattan’s midtown, Chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto and Chef Billy Gallagher of Becco. Pastry Chef Biagio Settepani designed a humorous, miter-shaped chocolate-hazelnut cake for one of the Pope’s meals.

The two meals were served at the residence of Archbishop Celestino Migliore, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

“Sister Isabella has been in charge of the nunciature’s kitchen for 25 years and we’re using her staff to cook the meals,” Vivolo explained, “That way we don’t have to bring in any extra staff which will help in terms of security.”

Lidia’s son Joseph, who is an expert oenologist, served as sommelier (wine steward) during both meals. Despite this, Vivolo, who is also the chairman of Columbus Week Celebration and a Trustee of the Columbus Citizen’s Foundation, served as the Pope’s personal wine steward during both meals.

“The protocol at a papal meal is incredible,” said Vivolo. “It was very complex but I can say now that I stood behind the Pope for two days. It was an honor to serve as his personal wine steward. I was completely humbled by the experience.”

“Everything went perfectly,” said Lidia. “The food, the execution, the protocol, the service, the pouring of the wine. Everything! It was perfect not just because we think so but also because the Pope and Archbishop Migliore kept telling us how wonderful everything was.”

The epicures revealed a beautiful and very human side of the Pope when they reminisced about their favorite moments during the two meals they prepared.

“The most memorable moment for me was when the Pope was trying to cut the cake and he didn’t know where to aim the knife so I gently took his hand in mine and guided him,” Lidia said with a wide grin.

“Lidia has always been very motherly,” joked Vivolo.

When asked as to the highlights of the meals, Vivolo found it difficult to stop at only one or two.

“I have many wonderful memories of the experience. There were so many. For example, I had a chance to kiss His Holiness’ ring,” Vivolo said proudly.

“At the end of the first meal, the Pope graciously asked to meet the brigade,” he said. “Billy Gallagher, the Executive Chef at Becco’s, offered his children’s rosary beads to His Holiness and asked him to bless them. We were all moved.”

“There was a small concert of classical Bach pieces, three musicians, and we were all invited to listen,” said Vivolo. “It was an intimate gathering at Archbishop Migliore’s residence. Only eight other people were there and we were allowed to invite who we wanted. Lidia invited her mother, brother and sister-in-law. I invited my wife, Denise. We all had the honor of being introduced to the Pope. It was wonderful.”

“He kept thanking us for the food over and over and over,” Lidia said.

“But the best part was when after we were introduced to the Pope on the first night,” Vivolo added. “Almost immediately afterwards, he invited us outside to greet the crowds that had gathered outside the nunciature. So we followed out,” he added with a shrug. “As soon as he appeared on the street, everyone exploded in cheers and applause. He was like a rock star!”

Lidia said that when she first was presented the task of cooking for the Pope, it seemed daunting. But only at first. “I have never approached doing an event as nervous as I had been initially as I was with the Pope’s meals, but as soon as we started doing the actual planning, a great calm overtook both Angelo and I. Even when we were actually serving the Pope, I felt calm and comfortable.”

Said Vivolo: “Though this is the biggest event we’ve ever done, we’ve never been this calm before. It’s an honor and a blessing that has been given to us. We couldn’t imagine this blessing and honor. It’s an experience of a lifetime.”

“We are both still floating,” added Lidia.

“It’s like welcoming family,” she explained. “The Holy Father is close to all of us. It’s something about Pope Benedict that made us feel very calm.”

Angelo Stagnaro

writes from New York.