My very dog-eared copy of The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan has the following inscription: “Many happy hours in the kitchen, with love, Mom, Christmas 1986.”
I was 21 years old when my mother gave me that cookbook. Even though I would soon move to Rome and live there for five years, cooking with and learning recipes from Italian friends and family, The Classic Italian Cookbook remains my go-to bible of Italian cooking.
The subtitle, “The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating,” points to the heart of the book, which is the joy and naturalness of the classic Italian multi-course meal, where, as the book jacket notes, “no one course dominates ”¦ meals have a natural flow ”¦ dishes are designed to complement each other”¦” And people enjoy the meal, and each other.
Although we here in the U.S. may be kings of the super-sized single-course portion, many Americans are confounded by Italian menus that offer Antipasti (appetizers), Primi (first course), Secondi (second course), Verdure (vegetables), and Dolci (desserts). How could anyone possibly eat all that food? Hazan shows you – through her accessible, delicious, and reasonably proportioned regional Italian recipes – that there is an art to this way of cooking and eating and that you can do it too.
When she came to the States in the 1950s, Italian food was pretty limited to spaghetti and meatballs with tons of garlic and drowning in sauce. Think Disney’s Lady & The Tramp dinner scene. What she did was bring regional Italian cooking to the U.S.
“The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist. ”˜Italian cooking’ is an expression of convenience rarely used by Italians. The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of regions that until 1861 were separate, independent, and usually hostile states,” she writes in the introduction of Classic. “The cooking of Venice, for example, is so distant from that of Naples, although they are both Italian cities specializing in seafood, that not a single authentic dish from one is to be found on the other’s table. There are unbridgeable differences between Bologna and Florence, each the capital of its own region, yet only 60 miles apart.”
Marcella Hazan wrote six cookbooks, starting in 1973 with The Classic Italian Cookbook. She was never as famous as Julia Child and remains unknown to many cooks today, which is a pity because her influence on American cooking, and the mainstreaming of Italian food here, cannot be overstated, as the New York Times noted in her obituary. She was gruff and a chain smoker; she insisted on simplicity and precision in her recipes, and she did not suffer fools or lazy cooks.
When she arrived in New York in 1955 as a reluctant immigrant (she was a former biology teacher following her newlywed husband Victor Hazan) she spoke no English and could barely cook the meals she had grown up on in the seaside town of Cesenatico in the Emilia-Romagna region. Her desire to become a cook was born of necessity: she wanted to cook well for her husband and young son Giuliano (now a chef and cooking teacher himself). She could not believe what passed for Italian food in New York and railed against the overuse of garlic. She took a Chinese cooking class to meet new friends and later took over the class and started teaching Americans how to cook real Italian food, focusing on regional dishes. She ran a cooking school out of her New York apartment and did weekly salon-type lunches that caught the interest of a New York Times food critic. Her first cookbook wasn’t published until she was nearly 50 years old.
She never learned to write in English and her husband Victor, who wrote about Italian wines, translated all her books. In 2008, she published her memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers: The Remarkable Life Story of the Woman who Started Out Teaching Science in a Small Town in Italy But Ended Up Teaching America How to Cook Italian. She died September 29 in Florida at age 89. She is survived by husband Victor and son Giuliano.
I learned to cook many meals from her cookbooks that have given my family and friends many happy hours in the kitchen. Grazie, Marcella.
Pia Hinckle is the publisher of The FruitGuys Almanac.