Marcella Hazan: Demystifying Italian Cooking

Marcella Hazan, photo courtesy

Cooking at home today, I referenced Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, as I seem to do more often than I realize.  The book, published in 1992, is a fully revised and updated edition of The Classic Italian Cook Book (published in 1973) and More Classic Italian Cooking (published in 1976).  So this classic collection of classic Italian recipes and techniques – nearly 40 years old – is now itself a classic. 

Marcella Hazan has sold more than a million books – and with good reason.  Beautifully written, she takes you step by step through Italian dishes from nearly every region of Italy.  Her techniques are explained in vivid detail and she offers a fascinating glimpse into Italian culinary history. 

In 2008 – at the age of 84 – she wrote an autobiography, 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.  As The New York Times describes it, the book “offers for the first time a public glimpse into the professional and romantic relationship between a science teacher from a small Italian town in Emilia-Romagna and the Italy-loving son of Jewish New York furriers.  It is a marriage that shaped how Italian cooking came to be defined in the United States.” 


And this from Publisher’s Weekly: 

In 1969 Hazan gave the private cooking class that launched her career as the Italian Julia Child.  In an evocative memoir, she recounts her life from childhood to Florida Gulf Coast retirement.  Hazan spent her earliest years on another coast, in Cesenatico, a village on the Adriatic; during WWII the family moved to a lake in the mountains between Venice and Milan.  Fresh out of the university, she taught college math and science and met a young man who had returned to his Italian homeland after more than a decade in America.  He loved food, and his worldliness and sophistication made a good match for the comparatively earthbound author.  After they married, the couple moved several times between various places in Italy and America.  During a long stay in New York, Hazan began to offer the Italian cooking lessons that later caught the attention of such chefs as New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne.  This led to the writing and publication in 1973 of The Classic Italian Cookbook.  Hazan’s memoir is a terrific history of the expansive, postwar period when Americans were still learning the difference between linguine and Lambrusco, and an engaging chronicle of professional perseverance, chance and culinary destiny. 

Every cook — whether a professional or a home enthusiast who loves Italian cooking — should have at least one cookbook by Marcella.  Her recipes and techniques inspired many of Bellavitae’s dishes, and I still often refer to her timeless advice at home.  

Here are her cookbooks: 


As part of her promotional book tour, she granted an interview and here are a few of my favorite quotes: 

“When I go to a restaurant and they give me a very complicated, very beautifully arranged dish, I don’t think it’s food.  I would like to ask the waiter to give me a camera to take a picture and afterwards tell him, ‘Now give me food, please.’  I don’t want to impress. I want to do something that is good.  Try to make straightforward food and get it to the table.” 

“I remember once I was explaining something about the butcher and I mentioned that when you have a piece of meat you have to cut against the grain because it’s a muscle. And when I said ‘muscle,’ everyone made a strange face.  And I stopped and I said, ‘Well, what do you think that you are eating?’” 

“Sometimes they overdo it.  Before, they were serving the pasta that was gluey because it was overcooked. And so I said, no it has to be al dente.  Now sometimes I go to a restaurant and the pasta is not cooked.  It just got in the water for a moment and came out. That is too much!” 

“Cooking brings out the taste.  If you cook vegetables too little because you want them crunchy, they all have one thing in common: They taste like grass.” 

On produce from the supermarket:  “Those vegetables and fruits come from very far and naturally if they pick them at the moment they’re ripe they cannot [survive] a long time traveling.  When they reach the store, if they look ripe, they are not ripe normally.  What I mean is not ripe in the air, in the sun, attached to the tree.  It is just ripe in the wrong way, so it’s not good.  And that is happening very often with many vegetables and many fruits.  Now we have the season of peaches and they look wonderful.  After you come home, yes, they are soft, they are ripe, but they are not sweet because they did not have the time outside, attached to the plant to convert the juice into sugar.” 

On why home cooking is important:  “It is a way of bringing the people of the family together—to be together, to talk. And what is the best way to bring them?  If you offer them good food.  They enjoy it, they look forward to it, and that is why it is very important.”