Kim Severson, one of my favorite food writers, has a profile of Marcella Hazan in today’s New York Times. The occasion is the forthcoming release of Hazan’s memoir, Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.
If you don’t know, Marcella Hazan is credited with single-handedly bringing Italian food to America. Calamari was virtually unknown in this country until she included it in her first cookbook.
The article brought to mind a profile I did on Marcella about 10 years ago, visiting her first at her home in Venice, where she was packing up the apartment on the top floor of an old villa overlooking the rooftops of the city, for a move to Longboat Key, Florida, where she resides today.
I was in Florence visiting a friend and arranged to meet with Marcella in Venice. I took the train up the day before and wound my way through the narrow passageways to the apartment building where I was greeted by Marcella and her husband, Victor.
We sat and chatted a while. I took notes and sipped the espresso they offered me (stunned that I preferred it without adding sugar). Then Victor took me off to the Venice market to buy supplies for a meal Marcella was planning. Even then, Marcella, who is 84 now, did not get around very easily, and Victor ran most of the errands. And when I say ran, I mean I had a hard time keeping up with this man who was easily 30 years older.
The fastest way to the market was by gondola, he said, but not one of those tourist trap boats that line the Grand Canal. This was a large boat that only went back and forth a canal from one bank to the other — a sort of ferry. Victor told me that real Venetians stood in the boat as it crossed — they did not sit down — so that’s what we did, like Washington crossing the Delaware.
The Venice market is an amazing place; no foodie should miss it, but you have to know where to look. There are a few food stalls set up around the Rialto Bridge for the tourists, but this is not the real market. Find your way beyond the bridge and you’ll come across the most dazzling array of produce, meats and seafood you can imagine.
The seafood is most impressive. You can stand in the middle of the fishmonger stalls and not smell one whiff of foul air, so fresh is the product. There were fish from all over Europe, but, counter-intuitively, the “imported” fish cost less than the locally caught seafood.
While walking through the produce, I asked Victor about an incident a few days earlier. In a Florence market I was fascinated by some immense mushrooms and reached out to touch one. The vendor went ballistic on me and started yelling and batting my hand away. “It’s absolutely forbidden by law” to touch produce, Victor explained. Mind you, the mushroom was covered with manure, but that apparently didn’t matter.
(Go into a supermarket in Italy and you’ll see rolls of plastic bags in the shape of crude gloves over the produce rows; these are for shoppers to pick up their selections.)
Victor was on a mission to buy pig snout for a special sausage Marcella had in mind, but the butchers were fresh out of snouts. We went back to the flat with some other meats and vegetables. I chatted a bit more with Marcella and started to thank them for all their time and say my good-byes — it was now late morning — and Marcella said, “But you’re coming to lunch with us.”
Then she said, “Julia is in town and wanted to have lunch today, but I told her we were having lunch with you.”
That would be Julia Child, who was in Venice, at a hotel on the Lido. And when Julia Child gets bumped in your favor, how can you refuse? (They made arrangements to have lunch with Child the next day; that’s what the pig snout was for, and, yes, they liked Julia Child very much.)
Victor and Marcella took me to one of their favorite restaurants, Fiaschettera Toscana. (Despite the name, the restaurant is Venetian, not Tuscan. Venice has exorbitant fees for changing signage, Victor told me, so when the current owner bought the restaurant, he kept the name so he wouldn’t have to pay for new signs.)
At the Hazans’ insistence, I had the house specialty. the fritto misto, fried assorted seafood, including, no doubt, some of the seafood I had seen in the market that morning, such as cuttlefish.
After much food and much conversation, Marcella had had enough. She ordered, in Italian, a shot of Jack Daniel’s (there it’s an import) and pushed her plate away. “Basta,” she said.
And if you saw my farewell column in the Sentinel where I used that word, that was where I got it — from Marcella Hazan, sitting in a small trattoria, in Venice, away from the crowds. Enough food, she was saying.
And more Jack Daniels.