Marcella Hazan champions simple Italian cooking

January 03, 1993|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

A chance meeting: Marcella Hazan, with her husband, Victor, is in Chicago as part of a promotional tour for her new book, "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf, $30). Minutes later their countryman Angelo Gaja, the legendary wine producer, comes on the scene. The three are old friends. Victor Hazan has written a book on Italian wines. They embrace and decide to commemorate the reunion with a photograph.

The two handsome men and the smiling Marcella strike a pose not unlike the famous photograph of Jeanne Moreau and her co-stars from the classic film "Jules et Jim." Photos are taken.

After they leave, the photographer shakes his head in admiration. "She did it," he says. "She just lit up and made that photo work."

The photographer has learned what others exposed to the force of Marcella Hazan's personality come to understand: She is no mere cookbook writer; she is a vivid and vital personality. In her, intellect is softened by earthy common sense, dogmatic

convictions by a scholar's curiosity. A charismatic smile and throaty laugh counterbalance impatience and a sometimes brooding intensity.

In her self-appointed role as translator for Americans of the Italian cucina -- the linchpin of Italian life and culture -- Ms. Hazan champions simplicity, flexibility and clearly accented flavors and gently indulges the culinary foibles of Old Country cooks. Her tone turns blunt and harsh, however, when she uncovers what she considers needless elaboration or cynical misrepresentations of traditional fare.

A lifetime of research has led her beyond her beloved Bologna, Italy's culinary capital, and Venice, where she and Victor now live. It has taken her throughout the country in search of classic regional and even individual community cooking practices. She put the knowledge she had acquired to use soon after arriving in the United States in 1967, teaching cooking to small groups in her New York apartment.

Three books followed over two decades ("The Classic Italian Cook Book," "More Classic Italian Cooking" and "Marcella's Italian Kitchen") along with countless cooking classes across the United States and in the school she founded in Bologna.

The current book, which may stand as her monument, began as an assignment to revise the first two. "When I found myself rewriting each recipe," she explained, "I realized I had a new book.

"There were several reasons to change things," she explained. "Italian ingredients had become more available, and people want less fat in their food. And equipment such as the food processor didn't exist at the time of the first book. I'd learned myself and found easier ways to do things in 24 years of fielding students' questions."

What emerges is not a revelation. But neither is it a mere update. It is, quite simply, the most logical and helpful book on Italian cooking for a generation to whom (thanks to travel and restaurant meals) Italian fare is not intimidating but whose culinary skills are limited and whose commitment to food preparation is governed by whim and the constraint of time.

"Essentials" is organized by meal courses, not by region, and is a reflection of the way Italians eat. Pasta receives the most space, 116 pages plus 36 more for risotto, polenta and other starches. Vegetables come next at 92 pages; then meats, 66, and soups, 62.

The opening chapter, titled "Fundamentals," is invaluable. Ms. Hazan not only describes a given condiment such as balsamic vinegar, she also writes subtext on "how to judge it" and "how to use it." For those who wonder why Italian cooks use capers so often, she writes: "Their sprightly, pungent, yet not harsh flavor makes them one of those condiments that readily support the improvisational, casual style that characterizes much of Italian cooking."

More important, the vital teaching techniques in the first two books have been amalgamated and streamlined.

"Italian cooking is still very provincial," she says with pride. You won't find a Venetian risotto in Milan, she says. The pasta is different from region to region. It's the greatest merit of Italian cooking.

"An Italian still doesn't consider himself Italian," interjects Victor Hazan. "He's a Roman first, or a Tuscan. Now young people are going back to the old recipes, Grandmother's cooking. I believe the future of Italian cooking is in its past."

"Nouvelle cuisine was a colossal failure in Italy," Marcella adds with considerable satisfaction. "It was a little sad that Italian chefs felt they had to be trendy. They even began copying Americans and making dishes with all sorts of colored pasta. It caused a lot of confusion.

"At heart, the Italians are very conservative. Cooks are still oriented toward what comes from the soil, what's in season. In shopping and cooking, our first thought is vegetables. They are the basis on which our appetizers, sauces and soups -- our daily menus -- are built."

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