Marcella Hazan, the undisputed Queen of Italian Cooking, died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key at the age of 89, the Associated Press reports. Hazan and her husband, Victor, moved to Florida in 1998 so that they could be close to her son and his family, and, she told me at the time, she worried about the quality of health care in Italy.
I visited the Hazans in their Venice apartment, the top floor of a converted palazzo that overlooked the rooftops of the canal city. They had just made the decision to move to the U.S., and Marcella was clearly having her doubts.
I was visiting in Florence and arranged to meet with Marcella for an interview in Venice. (A few months later, after they had moved, I visited them in their condo in Longboat Key and wrote a profile of Marcella in an article that ran in the February 14, 1999, edition of Florida magazine). We sat and chatted in the living room. I took notes and sipped the espresso they offered me (stunned that I preferred it without adding sugar). After a while I figured I had taken enough of their time and I started to thank them and say my good-byes — it was now late morning — and Marcella said, “But you’re coming to lunch with us.”
She explained that it had all been arranged and that she had even had to turn down another luncheon request. “Julia is in town and wanted to have lunch today, but I told her we were having lunch with you,” she told me.
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?
That’s one of my favorite stories, and I tell it whenever I get the chance.
Child had been a fan of Marcella’s before the two became friends. Marcella Hazan was an accidental Italian cooking expert. She had a doctorate in natural sciences and biology from the University of Ferrara. And her favorite cuisine was not Italian but rather Chinese. Victor Hazan was born in Italy but was raised in New York. He and Marcella moved to New York after they were married in 1955. She continued to cook Italian to satisfy Victor’s longing for food from home, but she also wanted to learn more about Chinese food. So she arranged to take a cooking class in Chinese cuisine, but she ended up talking with her fellow students about Italian food. Some of the students asked Marcella if she liked to teach. Marcella thought they were asking if she liked to teach biology, which in fact she did. It wasn’t until she enthusiastically told the others how much she enjoyed teaching that she discovered through the language barrier that they were asking about Italian cooking lessons.
In 1973, Hazan publishes “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” one of the first cookbooks to focus Italian cuisine to be published in the U.S. Child told me that the day the cookbook came out, she and some friends snatched it up and drove to the Hamptons and just started cooking all the recipes.
It’s odd to think that true Italian cuisine was so rare, even as late as the early ‘70s, but if it hadn’t been for Hazan, who knows how long it would have taken for the cuisines of Italy to make it here — if ever? Hazan, by the way, was the first to bring calamari to America.
That October day in 1998 Victor and Marcella took me to one of their favorite restaurants, Fiaschettera Toscana. During a lull in the conversation, Marcella turned to Victor and said, “When Julia comes tomorrow I’m smoking.” Hazan was a heavy smoker. She said it always shocked her students when they came for classes in her tiny (really, really tiny) Venice kitchen and she lit her first cigarette. Child, a former smoker, as you may have noticed in the film “Julie & Julia,” had become adamantly opposed to cigarette smoke. I never did hear how it went over.
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) — senza acqua; without water — 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.
But more Jack Daniels.
Hazan is survived by her husband and their son, Giuliano, who also became a cookbook author. On Sunday, Victor wrote on Facebook, “Marcella, my incomparable companion, died this morning a few steps away from her bed. She was the truest and best, and so was her food.”