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
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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.”
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