During Pope Francis' September 2015 visit to the U.S., chef Lidia Bastianich cooked several meals for him. "We were nervous about it. How were we going to do it?" she says. "But as we got closer, an easiness, a peacefulness came about."

Jennifer Russell: This is not the first time you've cooked for a pope. What was it like to cook for Pope Francis?

Lidia Bastianich: Cooking for him was extraordinary. I cooked for Pope Benedict XVI -- and that was in itself extraordinary -- but there was something this time. I adore this man.

Heirloom Tomato, Housemade Burrata, Steamed Maine Lobster Bastianich's recipe: Heirloom Tomato, Housemade Burrata, Steamed Maine Lobster

In the planning before, when they told me that we would be cooking for His Holiness? Oh my god. We set up the team: It was Angelo Vivolo; my daughter, Tanya Manuali; and the chef at Felidia, Fortunato Nicotra. We sat down and we said, "OK, what are we going to cook?" Of course big pieces of meat came to mind. [Francis is] from Argentina.

We were nervous about it. How were we going to do it? But as we got closer, an easiness, a peacefulness came about.

First, he did not want meat or anything big. He wanted very simple; he wanted light fare. So we stayed light.

JR: Cooking for someone can be really personal, like giving somebody a gift. What inspired you as you were planning his menus?

LB: We followed his needs. We decided, "We are going to cook Italian, the food that we know best." He's Italian; he's from Piemonte. [Editor's note: Francis' father was from Piemonte.] He loves rice, he loves squash, he loves beans.

Cooking team From left to right: Angelo Vivolo, Lidia Bastianich, Felidia’s Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra, Felidia’s Chef de Cuisine Anthony Decker and Tanya Bastianich Manuali.

First of all, I made him a big potful of capon stock. When you travel, soup is restorative. You're right -- when you cook for somebody, you give of your love, you give your sentiments, you want to take care of this person. At least that's how I feel. Some soup was surely due.

But we wanted to elaborate a little bit and give him some of the local fare. Being on the East Coast, we got some Maine lobster. We made a great appetizer of lobster caprese with broth, tomatoes and seasoning.

I went into my garden. My mother, who's 96 -- we saved for him some of the best vegetables. We had beets, we had Swiss chard, tomatoes and squash.

For the table, we made risotto. We enriched it with porcini mushrooms and truffles. For him, white risotto -- risotto bianco. What that means is with oil, with a little bit of onions and lots of Grana Padano cheese. He ate a nice bowlful of that. You get gratified when you cook for somebody and then you see the plates come back empty.

Friday we stayed all with fish. We made tutto tonno three ways over tonnato sauce. But for him we did grilled tuna with a little bit of sauce. He loved it.

For the main course, Long Island striped bass. We had some fishermen who brought them in the night before. We roasted the whole striped bass with a little bit of olive oil, lemon juice and a little bit of parsley. He enjoyed that as well.

For dessert, we made angel food cake, which was nice and light. I think it was kind of a little fun there. Concord grapes are in season, so we made Concord grape sorbet. It was very easy, very light. He loved it.

For the other dinner, for dessert, I made an open apple tart. He scooped all the apples out with a spoon. He just took a little bite of the crust, even though it was delicious.

Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine

JR: It all sounds delicious. I love that you sourced some of the food from your garden.

LB: That's the ultimate. In the Vatican, they have their own garden, they have their own chickens, their own eggs. I wasn't going to be outdone. I wanted it from my own garden.

JR: I read you were actually cooking in the townhouse where Pope Francis stayed. I had the notion of you cooking in a sterile kitchen somewhere and bringing all the food in. It wasn't like that at all, was it?

LB: No. At heart, I'm a home cook, cooking for the family, for the table. Being in the townhouse, that makes a big, big difference because it's like being in the family. He was there; he was in the surroundings.

On Friday we served lunch, and he went to rest for a few minutes. Then all of a sudden these secret servicemen run into the kitchen and said, "The pope is coming." "Oh my god," I said.

Don't you think that the pope walked in the kitchen and he said, "May I have coffee with you?" We were all stunned, but it was so beautiful. He had his coffee, and he talked to us individually about us, about our lives. It was just celestial, if you will. We were out of bounds there, in a sense.

Bastianich's recipe: Concord Grape Sorbetto with Angel Food Cake

JR: What did this whole experience mean to you?

LB: I felt very moved by His Holiness, his presence and all. But also I felt very much part of what he was saying. I was an immigrant from a part of Italy that became Yugoslavia. We escaped back to Italy from there, communist Yugoslavia, and then we moved on to the states. It was the Catholic Relief Services that brought us to the U.S., helped us find a home and fed us. I related very much in many different ways to what he was saying.

JR: Food can bring us all together.

LB: Food is the common denominator to all. We have our differences, but we all sit at the table. We all need to feed. To use that as a venue, to feed each other, to show love to each other, to show understanding for each other I think would be the ultimate. Food is the simplest conduit that we can all use to do that.

Jennifer Russell
Jennifer Russell is a founding producer at The Splendid Table. Before coming to radio, she made historical and arts and cultural programming for public television. She claims to have come out of the womb a food lover -- when other girls played house, she played restaurateur. Follow her comings and goings on Twitter: @jenejentweets.