The Italian way : Once more from the top, cookbook author Marcella Hazan offers a personal lesson in pasta, sauces and other essentials.

October 22, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

Listen up, Yanks. You're still not getting it. Some 24 years after noted cooking teacher and cookbook author Marcella Hazan sat down to explain the essentials of Italian cooking, you are still over-saucing the pasta and over-using ingredients meant be flavor notes. And, by the way, you are now under-cooking the spaghetti.

Americans have learned a lot about Italian cuisine in the past two dozen years, Hazan said recently after a luncheon at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where she was battling both a cold and a grueling 16-city tour promoting her new book.

However, she added, "In some ways it's known better, in some ways it's known badly."

Before Hazan began championing it, "Italian" cuisine was a big plate of spaghetti buried under a mound of tomato sauce. Now, thanks to the woman most people call "the Julia Child of Italian cooking," "Italian" means pesto, risotto, calamari, polenta, and penne rigate barely seasoned with sauce.

But, she said, "[Americans] become much too enthusiastic about one ingredient. They misuse balsamic vinegar -- they put it in salad dressing! And sun-dried tomatoes -- they put them in everything. And pasta in salad! I put a pasta salad in my second book as a joke. I tried to take it out, but it was too late."

Undaunted, Hazan is trying one more time with the new book, "Marcella Cucina" (HarperCollins, 1997, $35). The title means "Marcella cooks" in Italian, and it is unlike her previous four books in being far less formal.

"It's home cooking, and that's why it should appeal to home cooks," Hazan said. "It's not very elaborate or complicated.

"This is my most personal book ever," Hazan said, opening the cover where the linings are photographs of her notebooks. "This is my manuscript -- written in Italian -- these are the notes I take in my kitchen -- with Victor's corrections." Victor is her husband, longtime collaborator and translator. She pages through the book. "This is the doorbell to our apartment in Venice. This is our courtyard. These are my spoons.

"Every photo was taken either in the market where we shop or at home," she said.

Venice and the Rialto market will be familiar to Hazan fans and to the many students who trooped through that front door to the cooking classes she and Victor taught there for many years. She also taught in Bologna and in the United States. Her students over the years have included performers Joel Grey and Danny Kaye, and even cooking masters such as James Beard and Julia Child came to her to learn authentic Italian cooking.

"This book is meant to be about flavor," she said. "The others were too, but this one more than the others." Done properly, she said, Italian food is very satisfying, and not time-consuming to prepare. "You can eat it every day of your life and not get tired of it."

Which doesn't mean Hazan is about to abandon technique. She worries that in a dish from the book (spinach tonnarelli with yellow peppers and tomato dice) served at the lunch, the pasta has not been cooked enough. "It's supposed to be creamy," she said.

Perhaps people will get it this time, because it will be the last chance. This is her last book, Hazan said. "I'll be 74 in April. I don't have five years left to devote to a book. It's enough."

And that's nearly it for the cooking school as well. In November 1998, the Hazans will close the cooking school and move from Venice, Italy, to Longboat Key, on Florida's Gulf Coast.

She will miss Venice, she said, but "we had Venice. We had 16 years." There are easier things than living in a 500-year-old building and toting groceries through a city founded just after the fall of the Roman Empire, where cars are not allowed, she said. "In Venice everything you buy you have to carry home -- over bridges, up and down steps." She and Victor are getting too old for that, she said. "One time you have an ache in the knee, the next time it's the back."

Nor does she care for the state of health care there. "People say, where do you go when you don't feel well?" Answer: "To the airport."

Their apartment in Florida, where they have spent the past several winters, is smaller, Hazan said, and it has the extra appeal of being just four miles from their only child, Giuliano, who lives in Sarasota with his wife.

Giuliano Hazan is also a teacher and cookbook writer; his book on pasta was translated into 16 languages, his proud mother said. "He helped me a lot when I was cooking. He has this love for food," shared with his wife, who is American.

"It's very rewarding," she said, of her son's career. "I never pushed him to go into this field. For me, it's like my work didn't finish, and I'm very happy about that."

Here are two recipes from "Marcella Cucina." For the first recipe, Hazan suggests a 1-pound package of dry pasta with hollows, such as small shells, or a short, tubular shape, such as penne or macaroni, cooked according to package directions.

Pasta sauce with peas, ham and cream

Makes 6 small or 4 large servings

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