"Lorennn" -- I can still hear that smokey, Italian-accented voice in my head. It belonged to the extraordinary Marcella Hazan who died a week ago in the art-filled apartment on the Gulf of Mexico that she and Victor, her husband of 60 years, shared. I had first met Marcella in 1976. Peter Boyle and I had been living together for a couple of years and in Joan Didion's kitchen in Malibu, I mentioned to her that after more than a decade I was sick of writing about rock'n'roll.
"What do you want to do?" she asked.
"Improve my cooking," I answered.
Joan, a good cook herself, said to do it. So with her permission, I jumped into a spot someone had vacated in The Classic Italian Cook Book author Marcella Hazan's latest class. She taught at that time in her tiny apartment kitchen on E. 76th St. in New York. Marcella, quite frankly, terrified me on first meeting because she did not take to dumb, or even not-so-dumb questions. In that very first lesson she taught us the correct way to flatten, bread and fry veal cutlets. "What temperature should the oil be?" I asked. She grabbed my hand, held it over the hot oil with perhaps an eighth-inch to spare and said, "That's how hot." Fear soon gave way to understanding and admiration. Marcella didn't teach a slavish devotion to the recipe. She made us grasp what properly-cooked Italian food should taste like and how essential the right ingredients were in its preparation. Cooking was like jazz... get the notes and the timing right and then you could improvise. But first you needed to learn the notes.
When Marcella found out that Peter was my guy, she and Victor invited us to dinner because they had loved Young Frankenstein. As a cook, I immersed myself in Hazan's cuisine, proceeding to take her cooking course in Bologna where we visited amazing restaurants and markets. Another master cook, Danny Kaye, took the same class entertaining all of us with schtick while she ingrained in us the soul of Italian cuisine. Later the Hazans moved to a gorgeous apartment in Venice where we brought our then little girls to dinner. Although they loved pasta in most forms, I warned them there was no picky eating allowed, but they needed no cue to wolf down pappardelle with sausages and sweet peppers(More Classic Italian Cooking) for the first time. That recipe is now part of their own repertoires. Two years before Peter passed away, our whole family joined the Hazans and their friends, including many food world heavyweights, at Villa Giona in Valpolicello, Italy, for her 80th birthday feast where an evening of indulging in the best food Italy had to offer was capped off by fireworks. We all hoped to return to celebrate her 90th.
At the age of 89, Marcella still had the magic, as I learned when I visited her for one last time in April in Florida, where the Hazans had moved to be near their grandchildren. Their apartment overlooked the sparkling Gulf of Mexico which perhaps reminded her of the Adriatic of her childhood home in Cesenatico. Although Publix is a far cry from the variety-laden Rialto food market in Venice, she made me a delicious baked shrimp, artichoke and mozzarella dish from her Marcella Cucina book. Marcella, Victor, and I shared food and warm laughter remembering our good times together.
In the days when Chef Boyardee in a can meant ravioli, Marcella brought Americans into the world of hand-rolled pasta, pancetta, and balsamic vinegar. Her books, translated into precise and fluid English prose by Victor, changed America's attitudes towards Italian food. Before Lidia and Mario and Giada there was Marcella leading us away from the spaghetti and meatballs of our childhood to a more regional and earthy cuisine that emphasized fresh ingredients. I will miss hearing the voice on the telephone of my friend Marcella who, with her husband Victor, made America appreciate the true virtues of Italian cuisine.