When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States this past April, he stayed at the Residenza Pontifica on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and two prominent New York restaurateurs—who also happen to be prominent Catholics—were chosen to prepare his meals. Lidia Bastianich (of Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant Felidia), along with her team of chefs, was tapped for the task of preparing the Pontiff's dinners on April 18 and 19. Her son, Joseph Bastianich (who co-owns Grand Award-winning restaurant Del Posto and Best of Award of Excellence-winning Babbo, among others, with chef Mario Batali), served as the sommelier for the two dinners.
Wine Spectator: How did the opportunity arise to serve Pope Benedict during his visit to New York?
Joseph Bastianich: Lidia is pretty tight with the archdiocese and Cardinal Egan and … has done a lot of things for the Columbus [Citizens] Foundation—she was the grand marshall of the parade—and they approached her with the idea of cooking for the Papal visit, and obviously we were very honored.
WS:How did you and Lidia select the menus for the two dinners?
JB: [Pope Benedict] is from Bavaria, Munich, and with us being from Trieste and Friuli, we share a certain culinary heritage. [Lidia] discovered that his mother was a cook in the hotel/restaurant in the town where he grew up and her intention was to prepare the kind of food that his mother would have made for him. The first meal was on Friday so we served whole-roasted wild striped bass, and on Saturday we served flatiron steaks with warm potato salad. The wines we served were all our own, from Bastianich in Friuli and from La Mozza in Tuscany. The Pope is an 81-year-old man, so he has to drink and eat pretty gingerly … but he really gravitates toward the sweeter style wines. We served him a little bit of everything, but the one that he really took to, that kind of became the Pope's wine, was not even commercially released: We'd made it for Lidia's 60th birthday party. It's called Plus Passito "per Lidia" , and it's a Tocai Friulano appassimento, where we dry the grapes on the vines, and it gets a little botrytis. He really liked it.
WS:Did the Pope express an interest in the vinification and origins of the wines you selected?
JB: On the first night, we had dinner with 21 American cardinals and Cardinal Bertone, who is the cardinal secretary of state at the Vatican. He's an aficionado of wine, and as I was serving them, a 45-minute conversation between myself, Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bertone ensued about making sweet wines. Benedict was very interested in the geography and the history of sweet wines in Friuli, especially with Picolit, which is an indigenous variety that was very prolific in the courts of the Austrian/Hungarian empire. We use it in our Vespa [a dry white wine], and we also used it in the "per Lidia."
WS:As a Catholic, what did this event mean to you personally?
JB: Wine is such an incredible part of the culture of the Catholic church and it's an incredible thing to share [the Pope's and cardinals'] passion for the product. It was pretty amazing—the guy's like the Vicar of Christ, and sitting down with him and having a glass of my wine and listening to someone play Mozart—the best way I could describe it would be surreal.