Lidia Bastianich has spent a lifetime cooking for countless dignitaries, celebrities and even Pope Benedict XVI during his last visit to America in 2008. So it was probably no surprise when, earlier this year, a Vatican official asked her if she’d be interested in feeding Pope Francis during his recent three-day stay in New York City.
What did come as a bit of surprise, however, was when Bastianich and her fellow chefs were seated around a kitchen table last Friday afternoon, planning out their upcoming dinner for Francis, and she looked up to see the 78-year-old pontiff standing in the doorway.
“May I have a cup of coffee with you?” he asked.
Bastianich, the Emmy Award-winning public TV host who runs a food empire that includes restaurants, books and markets, still sounds awe-struck by the experience.
“Can you imagine that?” she tells PEOPLE. “It was just an extraordinary moment. Right when he walked in you could feel his presence, not in a dominating way. But it permeates you in the most humble way. I offered him a seat, but he didn’t want to sit down. He asked for a regular espresso. No sugar or anything in it.”
The pope chatted with Bastianich and chefs Angelo Vivolo, Fortunato Nicotra and William Gallagher, talking about a number of topics—including her son and daughter, who both attended Jesuit colleges.
“He was interested in everybody’s lives,” she says. “And just so normal. Our eyes were all swelling up. I think everyone of us had tears in our eyes.”
Earlier this year when a Vatican official asked her if she’d be interested in cooking for Francis during his stay, Bastianich—whose family was provided for by Catholic Relief Services after they escaped from Yugoslavia in 1958—claims she could hardly contain her excitement.
He asked me, “‘Would you do it again [after cooking for Pope Benedict]?’ ” she says. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God! This can’t be real.’ I just flipped.”
By the time Pope Francis departed Manhattan on Saturday, she and her team had cooked him and his 14-person entourage (Pope Benedict had 55 people in his entourage) two breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners.
“He likes light foods, especially potatoes and rice,” she says. “I thought at first, because he’s Argentinian, he would want big pieces of beef. But that’s not what happened. The food that he asked for was as gentle as he is.”
So does Francis clean his plate?
“He is very modest about it,” she says. “He does not clean his plate. He watches his portions. But I tried to overfeed him because I wanted him to have energy. I knew he needed a lot of energy, so my nurturing side told me he might need a little extra on his plate.”
Although he seems to be a disciplined eater, Francis clearly is a man who doesn’t let that prevent him from enjoying a good dessert.
“He did not want many sauces,” Bastianich reports. “And he stayed away from starches, breads and all that. But the last dessert I made was an apple tart. It was delicious, let me tell you. He spooned out all the apples, ate a little piece of the cake and ate the ice cream. But he didn’t finish it. He was watching himself, but he could not resist that.”