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Lessons Marcella Hazan Taught Me

Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cooking teacher and cookbook author, passed away Sept. 29. That evening, as I prepared a simple tomato sauce for dinner, I realized I routinely hear her husky voice in my head whenever I stir a pot of risotto or sauce a pasta (“careful, not too much!”).

Known simply as Marcella, she was the acknowledged game-changer on how Americans think about Italian food, the first to give us careful recipes for such classical dishes as tortelloni di biete (Swiss chard) and artichokes Roman-style. Long after her fame settled about her like a mantle, journalists began to focus instead on her prickly, brusque, curmudgeonly personality — choose your adjective, they’ve all been applied — her smoking, and her preference for Gentleman Jack whiskey.

A first encounter

I came to know a different Marcella. Our friendship began with my fortuitous purchase of fresh scallops with their roe attached. I’d been hired as the food stylist/media escort for Marcella’s Los Angeles book tour for “Marcella Cucina.”

A flurry of faxes from the office of culinary publicist Lisa Ekus (full disclosure, now my agent)  preceded the Hazans’ arrival: Be sure to hold her book face-out at the airport gate. Don’t even think about taking them to an Italian restaurant. They like Chinese food and American hot dogs. I was suitably unnerved.

Marcella was brusque all right. She acknowledged me with a nod and a grunt, slid into the back seat, and proceeded to speak only to her husband, Victor, and only in Italian. At our first stop, Marcella met with the food editor, and Victor hovered as I readied shrimp and scallop salad with orange sections for the shoot. In the recipe’s headnote, Marcella waxed poetic about using scallops with their roe attached but lamented their nonexistence in the United States. Enter the aforementioned scallops. First lesson: Close reading of an author’s work, especially the extra matter, garners undying gratitude. At the end of that first day, I was invited up to their suite to get better acquainted with the inseparable team.

A love of home cooking

That I was a home cook and eager student endeared me to the Hazans. Marcella’s life’s work was the Italian family meal, and she saw in me a kindred spirit she could entrust to liaise between her food and restaurant cookery. Second lesson: Home cooking is the backbone of family life, il sacro desco (the sacred table), and a career-worthy subject.

The Hazans and I kept in touch, and two years later I was hired to assist Marcella at a series of cooking demonstrations at the Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. My job was to keep her food from getting “cheffed up” by the pros preparing the finished meals. I can just imagine what then-resident-chefs Gary Jenanyan and Sarah Scott must have thought about the need for a “food translator.”


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Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

At “home” in the Mondavi’s luxurious three-bedroom guest house, with a fire going against the November rain, the Hazans and I became an ersatz family. Over morning coffee and cigarettes (hers), Marcella told me stories about their early years together, dished about the celebrities she taught, and talked about the dynamics of teaching. It was essentially a rehearsal for her memoir, “Amarcord.”

We scavenged ingredients from the winery larder to make home-cooked comfort food: stovetop veal tenderloin; tomato salad; and an Italian sort of Potatoes Anna, lush with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Marcella cooked generously and fearlessly over high heat. There were splatters everywhere, but the resulting sauce for the veal was a deeply flavored rich brown, the potatoes were roasted to crisped perfection. Instead of adding notches to my culinary belt with lavish meals at the French Laundry, I had a one-on-one kitchen tutorial with one of the great teachers of our time.

At home in Florida

I saw Marcella at her most relaxed when I visited the Hazans at their condominium in Longboat Key, Fla. As though she was still a young girl in her native Cesanatico, she’d whistle to me from her first-floor balcony as I approached from the white-sand beach. She laughed easily, flirted with waiters, enjoyed living near son Giuliano and his family. Of course, leaving Venice meant having to buy shrink-wrapped food at Florida supermarkets instead of fresh, live ingredients along the Rialto. I heard a lot about that too.

The Hazans taught me to be on the lookout for the simplest site-specific gustatory pleasures when I traveled to Italy — the incomparably fresh mozzarella di bufala in Naples, the aroma of white truffles in Alba — and how those trump the air-shipped versions we get here, a sensibility I apply to my writing on seasonal, local foods. Ever the teachers, they were happy to impart their knowledge to a willing student who would pass it along.

If I could give Marcella something in return for all these lessons, it would be this: She sometimes felt discouraged that Americans’ obsession with food porn had become the new barrier to honest cooking. I’d like her to know how much she really did change our culinary landscape.

Top photo: Marcella Hazan cooking in Florida. Credit: Courtesy of the Hazan family

  • Cindy Ripley 10·3·13

    Really enjoyed reading this!

  • Amelia Saltsman 10·3·13

    Thanks Cindy, I’m pretty sure I must have used some Luna Garcia pottery in a Marcella photo shoot!

  • Donna Sternberg 10·3·13

    A fitting tribute and something I think Marcella would be very pleased to read.

  • Julia della Croce 10·4·13

    Amelia, you really captured the essence of Marcella. I had to laugh at your saying that it was your job to keep her food from being “cheffed up”! As an Italian cookbook writer, I always experience the same challenge when other people are cooking my recipes for media events and such. Now I have a term for it, “cheffed up”–perfect! You have my gratitude! Interviewing Marcella and Victor was one of my very first newspaper assignments as a journalist. It was a challenge in many ways as I tried to navigate through the complicated dynamics of the Marcella-Victor personality. I think their books truly taught people how to cook genuine Italian food because Marcella was a master teacher and Victor is a masterful writer. The combination of content, talent, and skill made for their enduring classics.

  • Amelia Saltsman 10·4·13

    I hope so. The time I spent with Marcella and Victor made a big impact on me. So many vivid “student” memories, so hard to choose.

  • Amelia Saltsman 10·4·13

    Julia, you understand so well! Writing this remembrance, I had trouble untwining the two–do I write about her singular or them plural, in the past or present tense? In the end, I just let it go where it would and hoped for the best. And I agree that the best Italian cooking honors a certain simplicity of presentation, even in dishes that are time-consuming to create. This above all else drove Marcella crazy–why the need to embellish, or worse, drown a dish in sauce. Bah, she’d say, “wet food.”

  • Martha 10·5·13

    The day after Marcella’s passing I prepared Pink Shrimp with Cream from her Essentials book served with pappardelle. The simple ingredients yielded an elegant and sumptuous dish. I think Victor translated her vision with as much elegance and love and respect as she had for her food and they had for each other.

  • barbara Giacometti 10·6·13

    What beautiful memories and such a wonderful tribute. Marcella gave simplicity in the Italian kitchen a value all it’s own.

  • Amelia Saltsman 10·7·13

    Martha shares that she made Marcella’s Pink Shrimp with Cream from Essentials. I’m curious to know what other Marcella fans are inspired to make these days.

  • Mary Ellen Rae 10·8·13

    Amelia, thank you for sharing these private moments with the Hazan family. Italian food is beautiful on its own, certainly doesn’t need to be “chuffed” up!

  • Margaret | Destination Here&Now 10·8·13

    A gentle tribute Amelia. Simplicity. Love the image of the three of you scavenging together a dinner when you could have been swanning it elsewhere. A very special time to hold on to.

  • Karen Berk 1·9·14

    I literally “ate up” every word. I wasn’t as fortunate as you to really “know” the first lady of Italian cuisine (or Victor), but I did spend a week with them at a class I took from them in Bologna. Reading your description positioned Marcella larger than life in my wonderful memories of that week, that I’m sure have been incorporated into my way of approaching Italian food ever since then. You got her public personality down to a “t,” so I was glad to read about that other side of her you found in Florida and elsewhere. “Thanks for the memories….” Love, karen

  • Sonya 1·14·14

    This was a very fun article to read. I disagree with Marcella about food porn because while it certainly may take away focus from more important things, it also draws more people into cooking, and motivates them to cook when they are tired or bored otherwise. There is no such thing as perfection in life, including social movements.

  • Barbara Najarian 1·8·17

    Great article. I saw Marcella in New York Degustibus cooking from her Classic italian Cookbook, which she purchased and autographed for me. To this day this is my very favorite Italian cookbook. She was a fabulous teacher. She is missed!!