Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks weren’t the first, just the best

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How’s this for a recipe that will take an entire afternoon? You make pasta dough and roll it out to the size of your work table. Then you spread it with a mixture of pureed spinach and ricotta, roll it up, wrap it tightly in cheesecloth, secure the ends with kitchen twine, and lower your gigantic sausage into a stockpot of boiling water. When it’s done cooking, you lift it out, slice it thickly, lay the slices in a baking dish, and spoon over bechamel sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It comes out of the oven golden brown on top and a little crusty — a delicious dish that takes an enormous effort.

I made it over and over again. It came from an early Marcella Hazan cookbook, and whatever Marcella said to do, I did. Weary of French butter sauces and potato gratins, I was eager to explore the new Italian cooking that in the early ‘80s was becoming the thing in a handful of forward-looking American restaurants. Here, pastas were not bathed in long-simmered tomato sauces, the way they were in Boston’s North End. This was Northern Italian cooking seen through the eyes of a native of Emilia-Romagna who had advanced degrees in natural sciences and biology. Marcella did things in the kitchen few of us had ever seen: tossing a large Parmesan rind into a simmering pot of minestrone, braising pork in milk, cooking beef in milk for Bolognese, adding an onion and butter to the tomato sauce that would become her trademark (the recipe ran with her 2013 obituary in the New York Times), stuffing a roast chicken with two small lemons, making her cakes with olive oil rather than butter. These techniques may have been centuries-old in Italy, but they were new to us. Aside from time-consuming handmade pasta, everything Marcella did was within reach if you had some decent cooking skills. She taught readers about prized ingredients: Parmesan, Arborio rice, porcini, olive oil, all with their Italian names, many of which, years later, would roll off our tongues.

After writing “The Classic Italian Cook Book” (1973) and “More Classic Italian Cooking” (1978), Hazan combined the recipes from those volumes into one book, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” (1992). That book has just been reissued in a 30th-anniversary edition, with an introduction by Lidia Bastianich, who calls Marcella “the mother of traditional Italian cooking in America,” and another by her husband of 58 years, Victor, whose Jewish family was also from Italy, but escaped the Nazis before the Second World War. She never mastered written English so she cooked and Victor wrote her books.

Cover jacket of 30th anniversary edition of the late Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”handout

She explains her philosophy in the original edition of “Essentials.” “Recipes in this book move on the same track,” she wrote, “in pursuit not of novelty, but of taste. The taste they have been devised to achieve wants not to astonish, but to reassure. It issues from the cultural memory, the enduring world of generations of Italian cooks, each generation setting a place at table where the next one will feel at ease and at home. It is a pattern of cooking that can accommodate improvisation and fresh intuitions each time it is taken in hand, as long as it continues to be a pattern we can recognize, as long as its evolving forms comfort us with that essential attribute of civilized life, familiarity.”

Now you can understand what drew me and millions more to her cooking.

She was not the first Italian author — previous books include (translated titles here) “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi; “The Talisman Italian Cook Book” by Ada Boni; and “The Silver Spoon.” None explained what Marcella could, as an Italian transplant in America looking at the transmogrified cooking of 19th-century Southern Italian immigrants.

Imperative in Marcella’s recipes — especially pasta sauces, risotto, and soups — is soffritto (known in French cooking as mirepoix), which adds richness and depth to the dish. Soffritto, a mixture of onion, garlic, and other ingredients such as carrots and celery, was once sauteed in lard, but she used oil and butter, insisting that you add the vegetables to the pot consecutively, rather than all at once, which is more common.

Marcella’s Minestrone alla Romagnola (vegetable soup, Romagna-style) is a recipe from her home that begins with soffritto, adding the vegetables — zucchini, potatoes, green beans, and cabbage — as she instructs, in “a sequence that is indicated.” Put one ingredient in the pot and prep the next one in line. The soup is simmered in meat broth (her recipe calls for a mixture of beef, veal, and chicken) for three hours. Into the pot goes a large piece of rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, which gives the soup salt and other appealing umami flavors. We didn’t know at the time that it was that deep, savory character that we were always reaching for, but Marcella knew instinctively.

Her lentil soup starts with soffritto and shredded pancetta or prosciutto. A pasta and bean soup, also with the initial chopped vegetables, adds fresh or dried cranberry beans and homemade pasta or small macaroni. There may be many cooks who make Marcella’s Bolognese Meat Sauce and don’t even realize it’s hers because the recipe has been passed from cook to cook since it first appeared. You get a checklist of instructions so the result is a “mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor.” The more marbled the meat (she prefers ground beef chuck), the better the sauce; add milk to the beef to keep the sauce from getting an acidic taste after wine and tomatoes go in later.

On the page, Marcella was tolerant and understanding of the constraints her readers operated under — both from the point of view of tools and skills. In person, she could be otherwise. I interviewed her several times in Boston and had to swat away the insults about what I didn’t know and listen patiently as she itemized the shortcomings of the restaurant we were sitting in.

If you want to learn a lot, start at the beginning of “Essentials” with antipasti and cook your way through to zabaglione.

“There are no high or low roads in Italian cooking,” she writes. “All roads lead to the home, to la cucina di casa — the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking.”


Sheryl Julian can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.

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