Unlike her approximate contemporary Marcella Hazan, Anna Teresa Callen never achieved mythic status in her role as a teacher of Italian cooking and author of a number of evocative and highly usable books on her country's cuisine. Though she appeared on television with some frequency throughout her career (even doing stints on Late Night with David Letterman), she remained a favorite of the cognoscenti — and of the thousands of students she guided over the years — more than a foodie celebrity.
Callen was born in 1926 in Guardiagrele, in the mountainous region of Abruzzo, east of Rome, known for its wild game, serious sausages, and hearty pastas. She started paying attention to food at the age of five or so, after discovering that "the marvelous perfumes permeating the house at certain hours exuded from the kitchen." After reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the help of a dictionary as a teenager, she learned English officially in London, where she had gone to teach Italian in the 1940s. She journeyed to New York in 1959 as a lecturer on a ship. There she met and married Harold Callen, a television writer and playwright. She went with him to Hollywood, returning to New York in the mid-1970s, where she worked as a researcher for CBS-TV. Appalled by what passed for Italian food in American kitchens of the time, she talked her employer into letting her produce and star in a short-lived cooking show, then opened a modest cooking school in her Greenwich Village apartment. She went on to teach at Peter Kump's (now the Institute of Culinary Education) and elsewhere.
She also wrote sensible how-to books about pizza, pasta, and one-dish meals, but it was her culinary and cultural portraits of the two parts of Italy she loved the most that best demonstrated her talent as a writer and her deep understanding of Italian food and its relationship to the country's soul — Naples, where she lived for a time as a child, and her native Abruzzo: My Love for Naples: The Food, the History, the Life and, most of all, Food & Memories of Abruzzo, Italy's Pastoral Land. Both were cookbooks and memoirs, but they were also works of unpretentious gastronomic philosophy, richly textured and a pleasure to read.
Callen was a good-natured, unfailingly generous woman, always happy to answer questions and to share her considerable knowledge. I didn't know her well, but enjoyed my conversations with her and always walked away feeling that I'd learned something (who'd ever heard of a hot turkey galantine? Who knew that marzipan was called pasta reale in Abruzzo or that rabbit heads would sometimes get thrown into a "poor man's stew"?). She was the real thing, and I suspect that her influence on the way we cook and eat Italian food today in America is much stronger than her modest reputation would suggest.
Callen died on June 3, following cancer surgery in Lanciano, near her birthplace, where she had returned to live last summer.