Why Marcella Hazan Mattered

Marcella Hazan, who came to America as a newlywed with a biology degree in 1955 and taught herself how to cook here in order to feed her husband, and who went on to become our country's most influential and revered expert on the cuisines of Italy, died at the age of 89 at her home in Longboat Key, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 29. She had battled emphysema and circulatory problems for years.

In order to fully appreciate the contributions made by Hazan to the way we eat in America today, you have to remember — or imagine — what Italian food was like in this country back in 1973, when she published her first tome, The Classic Italian Cook Book. An Italian restaurant dinner in that era probably meant an antipasto plate of pickled vegetables out of a jar followed by veal parmigiana or "shrimp scampi," with spumoni or maybe zabaglione for dessert. If you made Italian at home, you probably rinsed your cooked pasta (thereby removing the starch that makes the sauces cling) and made risotto with long-grain rice. Unless you came from an Italian family that had maintained strong culinary ties with the old country, you very likely would simply have never heard of, much less tasted, porcini, pancetta, bufala mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar. radicchio, or even arugula (called rucola in Italy). You couldn't even buy baby greens; when I gave a dinner party and wanted to serve an Italian-style salad, I'd go to a nursery and come home with little pots of seedling lettuce meant to be planted in the garden, then uproot and clean the leaves and toss them with some shredded beet leaves (standing in for radicchio) in good olive oil; that was as close as I could come. And, incidentally, good olive oil was hard to come by in America then, too, and people still snickered when you said "extra-virgin."

It was more than the unavailability of ingredients, though. When I first started traveling in Italy, I realized that what people actually ate in that country was for the most part far simpler than the gussied-up Italian-American interpretations of it that I was used to. It was chicken roasted with garlic and rosemary, not chicken in a wine sauce with sausage, artichoke hearts, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms; it was fettuccine Alfredo made with just rich butter and Parmigiano, not loaded down with cream and ham and peas. It was food that trusted itself, that expressed the enduring virtues of purity, flavor, and continuity — and that was an absolute revelation to American food lovers, and not a few American chefs. There were other Italian cookbooks around in the '70s, but none had the influence that Hazan's did; it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that it did for Italian cooking in America what Julia Child's famous Mastering the Art books did for French. Hazan valued simplicity in cooking, and was credible, accessible, and authoritative — and most important of all, her food tasted really good. (I owe at least part of whatever early reputation I may have earned as a decent home cook to her foolproof cold trout in orange marinade, which I served to almost every dinner party; who had even known that such a dish was Italian before Hazan? That and her pork roasted in milk was pretty much a one-two punch.)

As Hazan wrote of the recipes she included in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992), a compilation of rewritten and enhanced recipes from her first book and its successor, More Classic Italian Cooking (1980), she chose them "in pursuit not of novelty, but of taste." She continued, "The taste they have been designed to achieve wants not to astonish, but to reassure. It issues from the cultural memory, the enduring world of generations of Italian cooks, each generation setting a place at table where the next one will feel at ease and at home." That notion guided everything she did.

Teaching herself how to prepare the food she had grown up with in her hometown of Cesenatico, in Emilia-Romagna, she discovered that she knew more about cooking than she'd thought, and soon she was turning out accomplished, authentic Italian meals. She became an Italian cooking teacher, indirectly, though, because she liked Chinese food. In order to bring variety to the lunches and dinners she was preparing for herself and her husband, Victor Hazan, an Italian-born New Yorker who was to become a noted wine expert, and who later "translated" his wife's considerable culinary knowledge and opinions into elegant prose, she enrolled in a Chinese cooking class. She apparently made an impression on her fellow students, because when the instructor announced that she was taking a sabbatical in China, her classmates asked Hazan if she would teach them Italian cooking instead. She agreed, and in 1969, she established The School of Classic Italian Cooking, in the Hazan apartment. A few years later, Craig Claiborne heard about her, came, and wrote an article, then asked her to contribute Italian recipes to The New York Times.

That led to her first cookbook, then many more, and to a charming memoir called Amarcord: Marcella Remembers (2008). It also led to famous cooking schools in Bologna and then in Venice, which became her adopted Italian home, at least until the city's many steps and slippery streets defeated her and she moved to Florida to be close to her and Victor's son, Giuliano, himself a noted Italian cooking teacher. Along the way, she became a legendary figure of the food world, respected, sometimes worshipped (a New Yorker cartoon once showed a home stove over which hung an icon of Hazan, as if she were a saint), and more than a little feared.

Hazan was a good-hearted person, but she had little patience for what she saw as stupidity or incompetence, whether in her classrooms or in the restaurants she visited. It was a bane of her existence, in fact, that when she toured around America, her hosts always wanted to take her to the latest hot Italian (or "Italian") restaurant. She usually found them wanting. I remember having lunch with Hazan and her husband and a small group of friends and admirers at a would-be Italian place in midtown Manhattan. From the way she toyed with her pasta, it was clear that she found it more or less inedible. When the young American chef came out proudly later to ask how we'd enjoyed our meal, she fixed him with her fearsome stare and asked "How do you make your soffritto?" He hemmed and hawed and it quickly became clear that he had no idea what she was talking about. (A soffritto is the mixture of finely chopped onions, carrots, celery, parsley, and usually garlic, cooked long and slow in olive oil, that is the essential base to many pasta sauces, including whichever one our hapless chef had essayed.) To make Hazan happy, her friends eventually figured out, take her for sushi, or to a good Chinese place.

She could be doctrinaire, too. She knew exactly how to make various dishes, and didn't see why she should change her ways. Watching her make risotto in her Venice apartment one afternoon, I was surprised to see that instead of homemade chicken stock, she used a Maggi bouillon cube. When I asked her why, she basically harrumphed and said, "Everybody does this." Then I asked why she didn't pour wine over the still-raw rice as most risotto recipes call for. "It's supposed to help the rice maintain its texture as it cooks," I ventured. She scoffed. "I've never used wine in my risotto. You think it doesn't have the right texture?" Er, no...

The Hazans were talking about making one last trip to Venice and Cesenatico this September, if Marcella's health allowed. It didn't. The New York Times reports that the night before she died, the couple supped on the little elongated twists of Ligurian pasta called trofie, with pesto made with basil from their garden. (Victor, no slouch in the kitchen himself, cooked.) Simple, and classically Italian.

Hazan will in fact return to Cesenatico. Her husband plans to take her ashes there for burial.