In 1973, when Marcella Hazan published "The Classic Italian Cookbook," balsamic vinegar was still fermenting in blissful obscurity under the roofs of Modena; instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano there was that smelly, processed Parmesan in bright green shakers; the best-known Italian cook in America was probably Chef Boyardee. If any one person changed all that, it was Marcella. She's been called the Julia Child of Italian food, but that's not quite right. Julia opened the world of French cuisine to Americans; Marcella taught us to make dinner.
Author of five seminal cookbooks--a sixth, and self-proclaimed last, "Marcella Says...," will be published this fall--Marcella turned 80 this spring, and her fans and her family have leapt at the occasion to honor her with parties at home and abroad, culminating with a grand fete in Verona last week. For 30 years, Marcella has taught avid amateurs, mostly Americans, first in Bologna, then in Venice, always with long intervals in New York. Five years ago she moved far from Venice's vibrant Rialto market, to Longboat Key, on Florida's West Coast, and in a challenge we all face, now shops mostly at the local Publix.
Every time we roast a chicken with two lemons tucked inside, or saute a chicken cacciatore, or braise pork chops with sage and tomatoes, make a minestrone or stir up a risotto (only with short-grain Italian rice), hell, every time we throw a handful of pasta into (lots of rapidly) boiling water (adding salt only when it comes to a boil and never olive oil), just knowing Marcella was there first gives us the confidence to make her food our own.
Now she's sitting at a table at the French Culinary Institute in New York, the only place she still teaches (twice a year), her 12 students worrying the skins off green peppers with those swivel, slingshot peelers. "Peppers, unless you roast them, must be peeled, or else they're too bitter." "You!" she scolds in that signature voice, roughened as much by Marlboros as the years (Simone Signoret would play her), "You press too much, I can see from here." One former student recalls her watching him pound a scaloppine of veal: "What are you making, a leather belt?" she taunted, mischievously rolling her eyes. "Marcella," says her friend, Town & Country editor Pamela Fiori, "minces garlic. She does not mince words."
Marcella is famously cranky. Her friends dread taking her out to dinner, not because she's a prima donna, but because as a home cook she's uneasy, distrustful in restaurants, deeply disappointed when bad things happen to good ingredients. "Most restaurants, I see ideas on a plate. No respect for the food. No flavor. Not cooking. It's beautiful, bring me a camera. I'll take a picture. And after, bring me food."
What she says and how she says it, however, are two different things. She still writes--recipe testing notes and all--in Italian. And if you've ever heard Marcella's lusty mix of Italian and American, so original you almost can't tell which language she's speaking, you might wonder how her written prose is so uninflected. Elegant. The answer in a word is Victor, her Italian-born, Harvard-educated husband of 49 years. As her teaching partner, he holds forth on wine (mostly Italian and mostly red). As her writing partner," he keeps me in," Marcella says. "He does not take me out." Maybe. But listen to this from the new book: "I cook for flavor. Flavor must be more revelatory than exploratory. It wants to be disclosed rather than imposed; it is neither stylish, nor pedantic, nor is it exhibitionistic. Like truth, it needs no embellishment. It is not the idea of a thing but the thing itself."
Here's how Marcella explains it: "I teach cooking, I don't teach recipes. I hate to measure. If you chop a little more onion, you brown it less. If you chop less, you brown it more, because it's the browning that brings out the flavor." In many ways, "Marcella Says..." is the most lyrical, passionate and heartfelt of all her books--culinary textbook and rich philosophy interwoven--a distillation of all those years. "It's our last chance to say these things," Victor said recently, "things that we've always talked about, like insaporire, making tasty, instilling the flavor that's in back of all Italian food."
Both Hazans are culinary conservatives: "What we are seeing," Victor predicts, "is the collapse of an integrated life, the life built around a nucleus of values. You don't become a family by going out to a restaurant. You become a family by staying at the same table six days a week. You become a cook by cooking for people who don't expect you to put on a drama every time you bring something to the table."
"For me, it's normal," Marcella adds. "It surprised me when I came to America and people asked me if I cook at home. Of course I cook. I eat."
"Sogno" ("I'm dreaming"), says Marcella with a sigh as she looks out the train window at the Venice station, where red poppies on the tracks grow as randomly as her memories. We're headed to the gala birthday celebration in Verona. Leaving Venice by train recalls stories of her student years, when she commuted daily to university in Padova, then Ferrara, for advanced degrees in paleontology, then biology. Verona is near the Lago di Garda where her family took refuge for five years during the war, far from their constantly bombed hometown in Emilia-Romagna. Soon, more than a hundred loving friends--former students, restaurateurs, two granddaughters--will float across the lawn of the Villa Giona, the refined 16th-century estate in the heart of Valpolicella wine country, where the Hazans' son, Giuliano, teaches cooking. He has planned a splendid, almost endless feast. An accordionist plays into the darkening night. Later there will be fireworks, her name ablaze: MARCELLA.