By Claudia Luther
9:18 PM EDT, September 29, 2013
For Marcella Hazan, Italian food wasn't spaghetti and meatballs or pizza buried in cheese, and, in fact, never really existed as a simple meal on a red-checked tablecloth. The food of her native land was really the food of individual regions that through the ages had been independent, sometimes hostile, and certainly not prone to mimicking their enemies' cuisine at the family dinner table.
She made it her life's work to preserve and innovate recipes that reflected the best of regional cooking in Italy and in the process introduced legions of Americans to the true foods of her native land.
A straight-talking cookbook author and teacher, Hazan died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Fla., said her husband, Victor. She was 89 and had been in failing health for several months.
Hazan, who was born in a small Italian fishing village on the Adriatic Sea and moved to New York City in the late 1950s after her marriage, was revered in the food world and beloved by home cooks, who found her earthy advice to be bracing and her recipes to be both doable and delicious.
Julia Child once called Hazan "my mentor in all things Italian." The New York Times' Craig Claiborne, who discovered Hazan when, as she recalled, "my cooking had been simply of the wifely and motherly kind," called her "a national treasure."
In 2000 she was given the James Beard Foundation's lifetime achievement award, one of cooking's highest honors.
Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cook Book," published in 1973, and "More Classic Italian Cooking" (1978) were updated and combined into "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" in 1992. All of them admonished home cooks to start with only the best ingredients: the freshest vegetables, fruits and herbs; the highest-quality meats, poultry and fish.
"Marcella Hazan has been one of the most influential teachers and cookbook writers of her generation," said Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York City. Along with Child and a few other serious cookbook writers, he said, Hazan "helped lead us away from the all-too-frequently slipshod and compromised cut-and-paste foreign cookbooks of the post-World War II period."
Hazan gave detailed instructions — often many illustrated pages long — on how to turn these ingredients into the ravioli al plin, pork loin braised in milk, risotto con funghi e le mandorle and many other dishes that she remembered from growing up in Italy.
Hazan did not believe in masking good food with too much seasoning or heavy sauces, dismissing the latter as "wet food." She decried the overuse of garlic and would walk out of a restaurant that smelled too strongly of it.
In her classes and cookbooks, she urged home cooks to be more daring. She instructed them on the difference between any old olive oil and truly fine olive oil, and taught the fine points of when — and when not — to use such things as an expensive balsamic vinegar.
"What you keep out is as significant as what you put in," she wrote in her 1997 cookbook "Marcella Cucina."
Hazan once wrote that she felt a passion not just for good food but for the hands-on process of preparing it. She once said that "80% of Italian cooking is done in a saute pan." Even cooking in an oven put her "at a distance."
"I need to smell its smells, to hear its sounds, to see food in a pot that simmers, bubbles, sizzles," she wrote in "Marcella Cucina." "I enjoy the physical involvement of stirring, turning, poking, mashing, scraping."
Her recipes had measurements, but she didn't use them when she was the one cooking.
"Taste, texture, time" was her mantra.
Hazan was born Marcella Polini on April 15, 1924, in Cesenatico, Italy. As she grew up, her family of landowners moved about Italy and had a maid who prepared their meals.
Hazan showed no interest in the kitchen; a scientist, she earned two doctorates in biology and natural sciences at the University of Ferrara.
In 1953, she met Victor Hazan, an Italian who had moved to the United States as a boy in 1939. The couple met in Italy, and Hazan soon found herself married and living in New York, where she tried to please a husband who adored good food.
"Victor can cope with many bad things in life, but he cannot cope with a bad meal," Hazan would say.
Using a cookbook by Ada Boni, who then set the standard for Italian cuisine, Hazan honed her skills in a small kitchen.
When her son was a child, she enrolled in a cooking class given by Grace Chu, who introduced many Americans to fine Chinese cooking.
Soon Hazan's classmates were urging her to teach them Italian cooking. She charged $80 for beginner classes in her apartment — a fraction of what her later courses would cost.
Word got around, reaching the New York Times' Claiborne in the fall of 1970. When he called, Hazan did not know who he was but invited him to share lunch with her and Victor.
She prepared tortelloni di biete (tortelloni with Swiss chard filling), spaghetti all'ortolana (spaghetti with eggplant) and artichokes Roman-style. Claiborne included the recipes in the story headlined, "There Was a Time She Couldn't Cook."
"When the article appeared, she was dumbfounded," Claiborne told Los Angeles Times food writer Russ Parsons 20 years later. "She became well-known to the general public of New York almost instantly."
Eager home cooks flocked to her doorstep in New York and later to schools in Bologna and Venice.
As her career took off, her husband, who had been working in his family's furrier business, partnered with her to produce some of the most successful cookbooks of their time.
Marcella would cook and recook her recipes, carefully gauging her husband's reaction. Victor, an authority on Italian wine who wrote well-regarded books of his own, would translate her recipes from Italian and write for the cookbook. No one who knew the Hazans thought of one without thinking of the other.
"In a way, all the cookbooks have been outgrowths of the eager, affectionate conversations about the day's meals that the two of them had in their first New York apartment," food writer Anne Mendelson wrote in reviewing "Marcella Cucina" for the L.A. Times.
With Hazan's first efforts at codifying recipes, she struggled to identify appropriate substitutions for the finer ingredients used in Italy. But by the time "Marcella Cucina" was published, home cooks were demanding and getting the extra virgin olive oil, radicchio and other products that had not previously been available.
Eventually, Marcella's success led the Hazans back to Italy. For years, she taught in the kitchen of a converted 16th-century palazzo in the Cannaregio section of Venice where the couple lived, shopping at the city's open-air Rialto market.
In recent years, Hazan lived with her husband in Florida, near their son, Giuliano, a chef and also a cookbook author. Both survive her, as do two grandchildren.
Luther is a former Times staff writer.
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times