A Lunch Made With Devotion

By Franco Nuschese
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I opened Cafe Milano in 1992 and even though I have had the opportunity to meet many kings and queens and heads of state, none of it compared with meeting the pope. The renewed faith I experienced will remain with me forever.

Approximately six months ago I received news that the pope was coming to D.C. and there was a possibility that I would be hosting a lunch for him. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to the United States, later confirmed the visit, that coincidentally the pope was coming on his birthday, and that I would be the one to host the event at the Apostolic Nunciature.

I was thrilled and wanted to shout it to the world, but it was top-secret. So I directed my energies into putting together a once-in-a-lifetime event. Creating the perfect meal in a memorable moment is my craft, much like an artist creates a painting.

I began to think about the menu, the table setup, the plates, the china, etc. First on the agenda was to create the perfect charger plate for the event. The charger is the first and most prominent thing you see on a table. It is the show-plate, a base under all the other plates being served. Also, this charger would go on display at the Vatican Embassy to commemorate this event.

I have a school friend in Italy who designs ceramic tiles and plates. I called and asked if he could do this in time. He said he could, so I flew to Minori, Italy, my birthplace. I told him I needed a 12-inch plate with the Vatican logo in the center. At the same time I wanted to create something that showed my dedication to my Catholic upbringing and my cultural background. So I decided each plate would be hand-painted with the logo in the center surrounded by a traditional blue ornate leafy floral border, characteristic of my region. Inscribed on the back of each plate are the following words: "On occasion of the 81st birthday of His Holiness Benedetto XVI, Apostolic Nunciature, Washington, D.C., April 16, 2008." There were 24 plates, all individually crafted. The pontiff's plate was larger, about 16 inches, and was decorated with a gold and blue leafy floral design.

We also designed the plates, done locally, for the service of the food. The linens were also specially designed. There was a red runner down the whole length of the rectangular table seating 24. The pope would sit in the middle in a chair larger than the rest. There would be baroque-style goblets of red, blue and green at each setting and beautiful bouquets of white, yellow, pink and peach roses sitting on the runner.

Then I began planning the menu. I was creating a lunch for the pope and 20 cardinals and archbishops, and the Vatican left the menu entirely up to me. I consulted with my executive chef, Fabio Salvatore. We spoke of creating a lunch menu that would be light, formal and Italian, taking into consideration that all of these cardinals were well bred and accustomed to the finer food of the Vatican and Italy. Knowing they would not be easy to please or impress, I kept it simple.

The menu:

Imported Puglia mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, black cured olive bread.

Zucchini blossom truffle tagliolini, fava beans, artichoke ragout, pecorino cheese.

Braised veal cheeks, baby spring vegetables, purple mashed potato.

Ricotta cheese, orange fallen truffle, strawberry sorbet.

Archbishop Sambi also asked me to create breakfast that morning for the Holy Father. Nothing can describe the feeling of the moment when the pope walked into the room. It was surreal.

The archbishop introduced us and I knelt down and kissed his ring.

He spoke to me in Italian. How special I felt and how peaceful it was to be in his presence. I had to be careful not to let my awe take me away. I had to stay focused. We were all pressed for time.

The pope had a light breakfast. Afterward, he left for the White House and we started preparing lunch. At this point I felt as if nothing could go wrong. We took time with the tablecloths, and the chargers were placed in position, as were the silverware, the glassware I flew in from Florence, the flowers, the runner and the linens. I was anxious to see everyone's reaction to the table setup after six months of meticulous preparation. I kept checking my watch and I felt as if time was flying. I kept staring at the table over and over again to make sure every detail was right.

Upon their arrival from the White House, there was a small reception for the cardinals in a salon beautifully decorated with paintings of famous Italian places. There was a feeling of power in the room. I was raised as a Catholic and I am used to priests and archbishops visiting for special occasions. But being surrounded by cardinals was a much more emotionally charged experience.

When the pope was ready for lunch with the cardinals, there was an aura around him that spread throughout the room. The pope approached the table and as I pulled out his chair, he warmly smiled at me. I felt once again that inner peace and then he thanked me. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, asked where I was from, and when I told him I was from the Amalfi Coast, they instantly recognized the connection in the decor of the chargers.

I could tell that they liked the food when I saw the plates coming back empty. I was pleased.

Now was the time for the grand finale. I wanted to surprise the pope with a cake I ordered that was a replica of St. Peter's Square and also had a rendition of the pope's image on it. The cake was approximately 4 feet by 3 feet. As we wheeled it in, we all sang "Happy Birthday" in English. He blew out the nine candles (eight large and one small to represent 81 years). The cake was so beautiful, we never intended to cut it. I served the orange souffle for dessert.

As the lunch ended, Archbishop Sambi announced that the pope was going to greet the kitchen and service staff, so I had my people line up in the salon and the pope greeted each one by one. Later my staff told me that it was the experience of a lifetime.

When the Holy Father came to me and thanked me, I felt blessed. I was honored and privileged to be in his presence and to have this opportunity to plan his birthday lunch and be a small part of his first visit to the United States.

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