How Marcella Hazan Made Italian Food All-American

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It's not going too far to claim that America would never have fallen in love en masse with Italian food were it not for Marcella Hazan, the Italian-born cook and teacher who died this morning at her home in Longboat Key, Florida. Pizza and pasta, to be sure, were well established in postwar America, along with shrimp "scampi," steak alla pizzaiola, lobster fra diavolo, garlic bread and all the other warhorses of Italian-American cooking that have lately been undergoing a retro revival at the hands of hipster chefs like Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone.

But these were ethnic, not mainstream, foods. Italian dishes were seldom allowed into white-tablecloth restaurants, unless they had French names and some cream thrown in. Chefs were trained to cook French food, and that’s what any chef who wanted to make a name and charge fancy prices served. Today, a new restaurant without pasta (even if it's gluten-free) on the menu is a rarity, risotto is ubiquitous, and no serious diner would give a second thought to an ambitious restaurant’s charging as much for Italian food as for French. Americans eating out prefer Italian food, cheap or expensive; the Olive Garden has grown to 800 locations since its opening in 1982, and last year had $3.5 billion in sales.

This would not have happened, at least with the speed it did, had Hazan not been such a skilled, clear, rational teacher -- and had her husband and writing alter ego, Victor, not been one of the most gifted prose stylists ever to write about food. Because the Hazans championed fresh vegetables many people had never heard of (artichokes, fennel), olive oil and -- above all -- simplicity and clarity in cooking, they can be argued to have had even more influence on how Americans cook than Julia Child, a similarly gifted teacher and writer whose rise immediately preceded theirs and probably made it possible.

Both Child and Hazan were the creatures of a newly powerful media machine that for the first time turned its interest to food. Hazan began as an emigre with degrees from northern Italian universities in natural sciences and biology, yet found herself with little to do in Manhattan, where Victor had been summoned to work in his family's fur business. Friends who exclaimed at the exotic, unfamiliar dishes she served them convinced her to start informal classes, which came to the attention of Craig Claiborne, who brought attention to chefs and cooking in a way no journalist had before because he did it at the New York Times. He invited himself over to lunch, wrote about it and her classes, and after the day his story ran, on Oct. 15, 1970, Hazan wrote in her 2008 memoir, "I have never since then had to be concerned about how to occupy my time."

The book that the couple published in 1973, "The Classic Italian Cookbook," was invariably compared to Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in its comprehensive, step-by-step approach that brought any dish within reach of a patient, interested home cook. Like Mastering, the Hazan's book seemed to put the entirety of a glorious cuisine that had only been available to a privileged few into the hands of any cook. The comparisons between the two books were set in stone when Child's editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, took over Classic from another publisher (as she had done with Child's) and re-designed and publicized it.

What the book really did was liberate cooks from the idea that the more you did to an ingredient, and the more butter or cream you buried it in, the better it was. Classic -- classy -- food could be quick and easy and made with what was lying around the bottom of the refrigerator or kitchen cabinet. Yes, Americans learned for the first time how to make pasta by hand, roll out sheets for ravioli, then cut and stuff them with long-cooked fillings, techniques that had seemed unthinkable before. But they also learned that the best way to roast a chicken is to stuff it with two cut-up lemons and an onion; the best way to serve the greatest American fish, striped bass, is simply to bake it over several layers of sliced potatoes; and that an elegant dessert was nothing more than sliced oranges dusted with sugar and left to chill. They learned they could make a pasta sauce in the time it took to boil the pasta, and that the sauce could be both meatless and tomato-less -- all of this now commonplace, all of it then revolutionary.

More than Child, and more than any popular writer before her, Hazan made cooks understand that recipes in books are just blueprints and the real architect is the cook. You can change up a sauce, or a whole recipe, depending on your mood and what you found -- or didn't find -- at the market. Improvisation was what a cook was expected to do, not an act of desperation.

The Hazans also promoted a different understanding of a meal: one that began with something light and barely prepared, went on to a restrained pasta or risotto course, and then to a similarly simple meat with one or two vegetable sides--and ended with fruit, not dessert. That had never been part of the way Americans ate. And if it still remains beyond the weeknight habits of most people, the idea of a menu divided into many sections of small dishes was an outgrowth of the concepts the Hazans introduced -- and a concept that rules in most new restaurants today, however apparently un-Italian. Fergus Henderson, for example, who popularized nose-to-tail, meat-centric cooking at his St. John in London, says that Hazan "shaped, more than any other person, this British chef cooking British food."

Hazan was both warmhearted and prickly. She wasn't always patient with students, but she always had a rough humor that showed she didn't really mind a dumb question, even if she made clear it was dumb. She was competitive. My own career in food writing began when the then-editor of the Atlantic asked me to write about the operatic rivalry he heard me describe between Hazan and a Tuscan-born teacher of Italian food who had the gumption to head-to-head with her for students in both New York and Italy.

When I last visited the Hazans in their Longboat Key condominium, in February of 2009, they noted with pride that the royalties of the combined two volumes of Classic Italian Cooking still contributed significantly to their living expenses -- and pointed out that they had combined and revised the two books against the advice of their original editor, with whom they had broken as a result, and that the book, which they called "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking," was in its 19th printing. "It's amazing how stupid publishers can be," Victor remarked.

But they also noted with enormous satisfaction how much had changed since the time they first were writing, when olive oil "only came in one kind in a huge can," balsamic vinegar was unknown, and you could barely find Parmigiano-Reggiano. Their cooking lives, wherever they went in America, were much simpler, even if they lamented the lack of good vegetables in Florida ("green beans shrink in a day -- maybe the water evaporates, but they're never good") and offal of any kind.

I asked for one recipe recommendation, to help promote Essentials (they greeted the suggestion of writing a piece on a website for free to promote the book with silence and tight smiles). Marcella shrugged. "I'm always in love with very simple recipes," she said. "People are frightened to cook. The problem is that people love recipes that are complicated because they think that's what they will love. You want one really very simple? Here's a sauce for pasta. Take pasta, a piece of butter, a small onion or half an onion, a tomato and let it cook. If canned, the tomato should be very good: Italian cooking means that the ingredient is supposed to be very good. If it doesn't have the right flavor, the dish won't either. And sauce for pasta never cooks covered. You know that, right? Never. Leaving it uncovered evaporates the sauce and puts in salt."

This was Hazan: food at its essence, always with a timeless tip for capturing and preserving flavor, and clear instructions delivered with as much impatience as concern that you get it right. The food world will be poorer without her.