Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Hazan's key ingredient: simplicity

  • By
  • | 4:00 a.m. October 2, 2013
  • Longboat Key
  • News
  • Share

The “Godmother of Italian Cooking” visited Olive Garden only once. She had to order a Jack Daniel’s to console herself after tasting one of the dishes.

It was 2004, and Marcella Hazan dined at the chain’s Sarasota location, accompanied by her husband, Victor, and USA Today reporter Jim Cox.

The Jack Daniel’s was ordered after tasting the tortellini di fizzano, pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, served in a beef-and-pork Bolognese sauce. Hazan, though, declared the pork filettino “a winner” with its tender meat and sautéed, flavorful potatoes, according to Cox’s report.

She questioned selections such as lobster spaghetti, though.

“There are 60,000 recipes in Italy,” she said. “Why do they have to invent new ones like lobster spaghetti?”

Hazan emphasized simplicity and fresh ingredients in the six Italian cookbooks she wrote that sold more than 1 million copies combined and are credited with introducing Americans to authentic Italian cooking.
She believed a two-ingredient Bolognese pan-roast of pork and milk best embodied the genius of Italian cuisines.

Her famed tomato sauce contained just four ingredients: tomatoes, butter, onion and salt.

“She believed in homecooked meals, in not taking shortcuts, but that doesn’t mean that a meal had to take a long time to prepare,” said her daughter-in-law, Lael Hazan, who runs Cooking with Giuliano Hazan with her husband in northern Italy. “She was very gifted in making cooking accessible to millions of people. She changed what people thought of Italian cooking.”

Hazan, of Longboat Key, died Sunday, Sept. 29. She was 89.

She was born April 15, 1924, in the seaside village of Cesenatico, Italy, into a world in which her family never purchased pasta, because her grandmother used a rolling pin — nearly as long as she was tall — to role it out using her own eggs and flour every day, Hazan recalled in her 2008 memoir, “Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.”

She cherished her childhood days at the beach, but left them behind when her family sought refuge in Lake Garda, Italy, during World War II.

She cooked her first meals — mush for a piglet the family was raising to eat — during that period. Those would be the last meals she cooked until after she married.

She went on to earn doctorates in biology and natural sciences.

In 1952, she met Victor Hazan, a Jewish Italian-American who had moved from Italy to New York with his parents in 1939. They married in 1955.

Hazan spoke no English when she moved to New York, but navigated her way through American supermarkets while making recipes from an Italian cookbook by Ada Boni.

She discovered that the traditional Cesenatico flavors her mother and grandmother created were imprinted in her mind, and she soon learned to recreate them. She believed she knew how to cook without realizing it, although her science background also came into play.

“She had a scientific mind in that whatever she cooked, she always analyzed things,” said Mariarosa Rockefeller, a friend and neighbor of the Hazans at Promenade. “Why did this work? Why didn’t that work? I think that’s one of the reasons she was so good. She had the art and science both.”

In New York, Hazan took a Chinese cooking class as a way to learn more about that style of cooking, even though Hazan never believed cooking could be taught. After the class’s teacher went on sabbatical, the group’s members asked Hazan to teach them traditional Italian dishes.

The cooking class led to a fortuitous meeting with Craig Claiborne, famed New York Times food writer, in October 1970. Claiborne wrote about Hazan’s cooking classes. Her classes never lacked for participants after Claiborne’s article.

Grand Bay resident Lois Scheyer remembers taking a class with Hazan out of her New York apartment.
“She had great zest. She made everyone hungry just the way she talked,” Scheyer said. “Everything I learned about Italian cooking, I learned from her.”

A year later, in 1971, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine Press asked Hazan to write a cookbook. It wasn’t something she ever thought she would do, but her first book, “The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating,” was published in 1973.

She would go on to teach cooking throughout the world, both through her classes and books.

She has also been credited with popularizing balsamic vinegar in the United States, after introducing it to a Williams Sonoma executive — although she was later chagrined by the inauthentic types she later saw at stores.

In 1997, the Hazans purchased their unit at Promenade after visiting the Sarasota area, where their son, Giuliano, had moved.

According to Michael Saunders & Co. agent Bobbie Banan, who sold the couple their unit at Promenade in 1997 and went on to develop a friendship with them, Hazan was drawn to the Key because she grew up near the ocean.

“She redesigned the kitchen so that her stove faced out to the water,” Banan said. “She said, ‘Why would somebody want to face the wall?’”

She told NPR’s Scott Simon in 2005 she believed that the cookbook she published in 1997, “Marcella Cucina,” would be her last, however, she saw an opportunity for a new book after moving to the Key because in Florida she had only the supermarket for her ingredients.

“It doesn’t have much variety,” she said. “Especially the vegetables. It’s very tired.”

She bought most of her food from Longboat Key Publix, although occasionally she’d venture further to Whole Foods or the Cortez Fish Market, or even have ingredients flown in when necessary.

In retirement, Hazan still cooked for friends and family.

She never planned far in advance for a meal; instead, she’d see what produce looked freshest and what meat or cut of fish looked best and plan her meals accordingly.

Many of her friends cooked for the culinary legend, as well.

“It wasn’t intimidating if you know you’re cooking something Marcella doesn’t cook. She liked Indian food, so that would be the kind of food I’d prepare,” Banan said.

She also enjoyed dining out, often opting for Chinese food rather than Italian restaurants.

She supported many local art causes and also frequently attended Promenade events. Like all guests, she brought a dish to every gathering.

Hazan’s son, Giuliano, continues her culinary traditions. He published his fifth cookbook, “Hazan Family Favorites,” last year, for which Hazan wrote the introduction.

As news of Hazan’s death spread Sunday, many foodies attempted to sum up her life and legacy in 140 characters or less.

Tweeted celebrity chef Mario Batali:

“More than anyone, Marcella Hazan brought Italian flavors to the U.S.; her books continue to inspire. A true chef’s chef. She will be missed.”


Related Articles