Marcella Hazan (15 April 1924 – 29 September 2013) was to Italian cooking in America as Julia Child was to French cooking.
She had a husky voice, like Julia Child, perhaps from her indulgence in Marlboro Light cigarettes (Child was a smoker, too, until 1968.) She did not drink wine. It’s not that she didn’t drink, but when she did, her favourite tipple was Jack Daniels on the rocks. Wine was the domain of her husband, Victor Hazan.
Victor, the wine connoisseur in the family, is a Sephardic Jew, born in Cesena, Emilia-Romagna, on 5 November 1928. In the spring of 1939, his parents wisely sold off everything they had, and immigrated to New York to run a fur business. Victor was 11. After high school, he studied at Harvard. Many of the Jewish-Italian cooking traditions have come through in Marcella’s work as well, including her love of and defence of deep-frying. She wrote:
“…every other cooking method transmutes food, delivering it to us in an altered state. Frying strips away only the rawness, and by its quick, deep heat encapsulates the ingredient with all its intrinsic qualities — the juiciness, the taste, the texture — intact. When, after I was married, I began to cook, the first thing I learned to do and do well was frying.” (from Marcella Says, 2004.)
Marcella Hazan was born as Marcella Polini in 1924, in Cesenatico on the Adriatic coast of Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Her father, Giuseppe Polini, was a tailor. Her mother, Maria Leonelli, was from a line of ex-pat Italians living in the Middle East: the Leonelli’s were tobacco manufacturers in Beirut. When Marcella was two years old, her mother wanted to rejoin her family abroad (they were in Egypt now), so they did, living in Alexandria. When Marcella was seven, she fell and broke her arm. The special medical attention she ended up requiring necessitated the family moving back to Italy permanently.
During the Second World War, her family moved north to Lago di Garda to escape the bombing, though it followed them there on occasions.
Marcella studied first at the University of Padova, then earned a PhD in biology from the University of Ferrara, Italy, commuting to each by train from home. She married Victor Hazan, an American citizen, on 24 February 1955, and followed him back to America in September 1955, arriving in New York on the S.S. Cristoforo Colombo.
Arrival in the United States
She began talking English lessons so that she could get work in the U.S.. Her first job there, in 1957, was as a gum (as in gums in the mouth) researcher at the Guggenheim Institute for Dental Research. The couple moved back to Italy in June 1962, living in Milan and Rome, returning to New York in 1967, taking a small apartment on West Fifty-fifth Street.
Marcella begins teaching
In October 1969, Marcella began teaching Italian cooking in their apartment to a group of six women she had met in a Chinese cooking class she took.
Part of her impetus was her impatience with what was passed off as Italian food in America, even in restaurants that purported to be all Italian. She stands for pure Italian cooking with no “English-speaking” influence:
“For one thing, the olive oil was a coarse imitation of what we used to call olive oil back home. And the grocers and vegetable men did not respond with the warmth I had expected when addressed in Italian. Not infrequently, they slipped into a dialect corrupted by dialecticized England that was incomprehensible to me. One of the men was so irritated by my failure to understand him that he ended by insulting me: ‘Ma vai, non sei mica italiana, tu’ (‘Go on, you are not Italian’), he said, offensively using the familiar ‘tu’ form of address.” Hazan, Marcella. Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. New York: Gotham Books. 2008. Page 81.
Some Italian restaurants in America responded to her approach, saying that there’s no point in being rigidly authentic if you have an empty dining room. Others felt that her first two books had a judgmental tone, almost seeming to reach out to slap wrists.
Despite her purist approach, and despite Italian being her mother tongue, all her books were actually written in English. And even though strictly speaking there’s no such thing as “Italian” food — Italy is a country of regions — she treated Italian cooking as a loose category for the various regional cuisines collectively in the country. In struggling to bring authentic Italian cooking to the reader, though, she did stay true to the Italian principle of simplicity. She presented uncomplicated recipes, many with ten ingredients or fewer. Though, to make sure you got them right, she gave very long directions: two to three pages, for instance, for risotto.
Marcella wasn’t someone who suffers fools lightly.
- she called deep-freezers at supermarkets “cemeteries of food” and the waxed boxes they are in their “tombstones”;
- she didn’t like microwaves;
- she hated garlic presses;
- she had no time for cold pasta salads;
- she didn’t like undercooked green beans: she said they tasted like grass;
- she was impatient about today’s condemnation of salt;
- she felt that people overused balsamic vinegar (some say that she was the one who introduced everyone to it, however);
- she forbade people from having lemon peel with espresso;
- she insisted that you have to make your own breadcrumbs (and above all else, that they should never be flavoured ones.)
Other preferences of hers included a dislike for cinnamon, and a partiality for olive oil from Sicily, particularly brands such as “Madre Sicilia.” She loved Chinese food, and preferred to use Irish butter.
She had many run-ins with editors over the years.
Chronology of her career
- 1955 — Marcella married Victor Hazan on the 24th of February. For several months, his parents were initially so opposed that they broke off contact with him, but they eventually came around. Marcella and Victor moved to New York a few months after their marriage so that Victor could help his father with the fur business. They got a home in Forest Hills, New York. Marcella had spent all her time in Italy studying, so found herself at a loss when she had to start cooking for herself at home in America with strange ingredients.
- 1958 — Their son, and only child, Giuliano is 1 December 1958. When grown, he became a chef and a food writer in his own right.
- 1969 — She took a cooking course — in Chinese food, from a “Madame Chu” — and taught herself to cook traditional Italian food from memory and some books. Students in her Chinese food class wanted to know what Italian cooking was like, so she had them round to show them and teach them. Victor suggested she make a business of it. She taught such things as making fresh pasta, at a time before it had even occurred to New Yorkers that pasta was ever fresh at some point in its life.
- In the fall of 1970, after a summer in Italy, she sent in information about her cooking classes for a compendium that the New York Times was compiling, but missed the deadline. But Craig Claiborne noticed her submission anyway, called her, and came round to their apartment for lunch to interview her for a column. He also printed a few recipes that he got from her. Based on Claiborne’s column in October 1970, with her phone number in it, her small cooking school “The School of Classic Italian Cooking” took off.
- 1971 — A year later, Marcella got a call from a Peter Mollman at Harper & Row publishers asking her to write an Italian cookbook. She began writing it, in Italian, with Victor translating into English.
- 1973 — In the spring of 1973, the cookbook was published by Harper & Row under the title of “The Classic Italian Cook Book”, with 250 recipes. Distribution was spotty, however. The Hazan’s made the acquaintance of Julia Child, who came around for lunch sometime in that year with her husband Paul. Julia suggested that she consider switching to Knopf, and gave her the contacts there, which she followed up on and negotiated her release so that she was free to write her second book for Knopf. In the meantime, Harper & Row, through W.H. Allan, had put out a British edition of “The Classic Italian Cook Book” in 1975. This deepened Marcella’s unhappiness. as no attempt had even been made to convert American measurements into British. Knopf then suggested that the first book should also be brought over to them. It cost the Hazan’s 20,000 US to buy the rights for the cookbook away from Harper & Row, with Knopf putting up half. The first Knopf edition appeared in February 1976. They arranged for a better British edition to be put out through Macmillan in 1980. Marcella’s cooking courses in New York by this point cost $250 for six courses, but despite the price, were booked solid two years in advance.
- In 1975, she flew to Bologna to speak with her contacts there about facilities for teaching Americans cooking in Italy. Her contacts thought she was mad for thinking that anyone would want to fly across the ocean to learn how to make meat sauce.
- 1970s — Early in the decade, she started contributing to food columns of the New York Times (invited by Craig Claiborne, food editor there at the time.)
- 1976 — Marcella opened the School of Classic Italian Cooking in Bologna, with three one-week courses in the summer. Scheduling issues prevented Victor from teaching on wine at two of the sessions there, so he prepared notes to be presented in his stead. The notes would eventually grow into his wine book (published 1982.) In 1977, James Beard, whom she already knew well, came for a week.
- 1978 — The City of Bologna credited her with single-handedly causing a 25% increase in tourism to the city, and so the city spent $100,000 US building kitchens for her exclusive use during the summers. Her cooking courses there by 1978 ran for six weeks. The cost was $1,000 US for 1 week; $1,800 US for 2 weeks. Victor quit his business in New York and came to Bologna to help Marcella with the school there. Their son, Giuliano Hazan, started working as an assistant at the Bologna school when he was 17.
- 1978 — Marcella’s second book is published, called “More Classic Italian Cooking”, with 220 recipes.
- 1979 — Marcella helped Joe DiLullo in the spring of 1979 with food and menu advice when he opened his restaurant called “DiLullo’s” on Oxford Avenue in Philadelphia. Marcella expanded Bologna cooking courses to 9 ½ weeks. Also began teaching for a few weeks each year at the Cipriani Hotel in Venice. In November of that year, they purchased an apartment in Venice in the Calle della Testa. They took possession in April 1980, but owing to renovations, did not move in until the fall of 1982.
- 1982 — Victor’s “Italian Wine” is published by Knopf.
- 1983 — Started classes in their home in Venice.
- 1985 — Marcella spends several weeks in Hong Kong to design an Italian menu for the Mandarin Hotel there.
- 1986 — Marcella’s Italian Kitchen is published by Knopf, but in Marcella’s view, they botched the launch, not having enough copies printed.
- 1987 — Bologna teaching ends with their lease on the premises, and their being unable to find another location there.
- 1989 — Marcella collaborated as a consultant for the Turntable Group of Dallas, Texas, in the opening of a 200-seat Italian restaurant called “Veni Vidi Vici” on 14th Street in Atlanta, Georgia. She stayed with the operation until November 1991. She was also an investor in it, along with several of her former students, and her son Giuliano was co-chef. She appears to have cashed out, along with some other investors, in March of 1992. The restaurant went bankrupt in January 1993.
- 1995 — The couple purchase a home in Longboat Key, Florida (Giuliano lived relatively nearby in Sarasota, Florida), even though they had retained throughout the years a condo in Manhattan across from Bloomingdale’s.
- 1996 — Marcella left Knopf, and received a $500,000 US advance (purportedly) from HarperCollins on her next book, “Marcella Cucina”, a record at the time for a cookbook.
- 1997 — Her first book illustrated with colour photographs, Marcella Cucina is published, with 185 recipes. She had spent 5 years on it. All the photographs were taken in their Venice kitchen. She announced to the world it would be the last from her hands. She’d decided she’d had enough of every trip into the kitchen being work, having to measure for the sake of writing a recipe (it was her habit to double-test each recipe herself; some she tested as many as five times.) In this year, she was 73, Victor was 69 in November.
- 1998 — Marcella closed her cooking school in Venice. Though she’d said she’d written her very last book, she changed her mind. In Florida, she found that in New York, she’d actually taken for granted that Italian ingredients were available everywhere in America. She wanted to write a book for those who couldn’t get them, and so “Marcella says…” was born.
- 2000 — Marcella started lecturing at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City, during the months of May and November.
- 2004 — Marcella celebrated her 80th birthday. At the French Culinary Institute, she was served a whiskey-soaked sponge cake with strawberries and cream. Another party was held for her on Sunday, 30 May 2004 in Italy, at the Villa Giona hotel outside Verona, Italy, where her son Giuliano had set up his own cooking school.
- 2005 — On 29th May, Dottoressa Marcella Polini Hazan was one of 87 people honoured with the “Cavaliere” (knight) level of the “Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana” by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi Italian knighthood. Retrieved January 2009 from http://www.iagiforum.info/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=169
- 2013 — On 29 September 2013, Marcella dies at home in Longboat Key, Florida at the age of 89.
Books by Marcella Hazan
- 1973. The Classic Italian Cook Book. New York : Knopf
- 1978. More Classic Italian Cooking. New York : Knopf
- 1986. Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. New York : Knopf
- 1992. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. New York : Knopf (combination of “classic” and “more classic”, with some new material)
- 1997. Marcella Cucina. New York: HarperCollins
- 2004. Marcella Says: Italian Cooking Wisdom from the Legendary Teacher’s Master Classes With 120 of Her Irresistible New Recipes
- 2008. Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. New York: Gotham Books.
Literature & Lore
Marcella had a passion for one particular junk food — potato chips:
“Marcella Hazan, author of “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” and teacher at one of New York city’s most popular cooking schools, confessed to a passion for potato chips. “I love them with vermouth aperitifs, which is the way we have them in Italy,” she said. “But there is a special brand I like best and my husband, Victor, will have to call and tell you the name because he always gets them for me.” — Sheraton, Mimi. Food Junkie confessions. NY Times News Service. In Independent Press-Telegram. Long Beach, California. Wednesday, 19 May 1976. Page F2.
“‘We’ll serve the salad course before dessert, not before the entrée, and we won’t serve butter with the bread or lemon peel with the espresso,’ said Hazan, whose goal is to teach Americans how to taste.” — Hayes, Jack. Hazan seeks to conquer midtown Atlanta with new Veni Vidi Vici – restaurateur Marcela Hazan. New York: Nation’s Restaurant News. 30 April 1990.
“Mrs. [Marcella] Hazan, a consultant to the Atlanta restaurant Veni Vidi Vici, says it serves espresso without lemon peel and the customers don’t ask for it. “I find that very encouraging,” she said.” — Fabricant, Florence. What Makes Food Italian? Don’t Ask American Chefs. New York Times. 20 March 1991.
“I don’t know how to cook measuring.” — Marcella Hazan.
Her last name is pronounced: ha – ZAHN, with the emphasis on the last syllable.
Bianchi, Francesca Cesa. Cooking with the Hazans: the best kept secrets of the Italian kitchen. Atlanta, Georgia: CNN Food. 5 May 2000.
Fabricant, Florence. What Makes Food Italian? Don’t Ask American Chefs. New York Times. 20 March 1991.
Fiori, Pamela. Counting Her Blessings: for her eightieth birthday, Marcella Hazan has the party of a lifetime. New York: Town & Country Magazine. 1 November 2004.
Hayes, Jack. Hazan seeks to conquer midtown Atlanta with new Veni Vidi Vici – restaurateur Marcella Hazan. New York: Nation’s Restaurant News. 30 April 1990.
Hazan, Marcella. Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. New York: Gotham Books. 2008
Heine, Matthias. Die Päpstin: Marcella Hazan. Berlin, Deutschland. Die Welt. Samstag, 8 Juli 2006.
Hirsch, J.M. Marcella Hazan, influential Italian chef and cookbook author, dies at 89 at Florida home. Washington Post. 30 September 2013.
Seligman,Craig. Classic Italian. New York Times. 3 October 2008.
Severson, Kim. For Better, for Worse, for Richer, for Pasta. New York Times. 9 September 2008.
Steintrager, Megan O.. A Conversation with Marcella Hazan. Epicurious Website. Posted 23 Septeber 2008. Retrieved January 2009 from http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/chefsexperts/interviews/marcellahazaninterview
Tanasychuk, John. Marcella Hazan’s final chapter. Detroit, Michigan. Detroit Free Press. 5 November 1997.
Tonge, Peter. The pasta makes this tourist spot zoom. Elyria, Ohio. The Chronicle Telegram. Sunday, 25 March 1979. Page 3. Originally in the Christian Science Monitor.