YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Voice of Italian Cooking : Author: Marcella Hazan is dogmatic and very serious. But her three cookbooks have changed Americans attitudes about the cuisine of Italy.

May 30, 1991|RUSS PARSONS | Parsons is food editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. and

Marcella Hazan is admonishing her cooking class, about 50 serious women who look as if they've taken the morning off from their stockbrokerage jobs.

"I have written about how to clean an artichoke many times, but still I see people doing it incorrectly," she says. "First, do not trim the stems. They taste just like the heart and it would be a waste to discard them.

"And when you peel the leaves, bend them back against your thumb until they snap and then pull down. Look, the strings come away cleanly. Everything left is completely edible."

The students look at each other and nod. It's a master-teacher moment. Later, she expounds on everything from a detailed analysis of the Italian rice varieties that may be used for risotto to instructions for preparing artichokes alla Romana.

She also chews out her chef assistant for not having the whipped cream ready when she needs it, and she will remark disparagingly on his technique in stirring risotto. She does not joke, and the kind of flashy showmanship that sometimes passes for culinary instruction is entirely absent.

Hazan, author of three cookbooks that have helped change the way Americans eat pasta, is serious about Italian food. Too serious, say some, who paint her as a humorless martinet. Yet for many, including former students and those who have only cooked from her cookbooks, she is the ultimate voice of Italian cooking.

To put Hazan into focus, it pays to reminisce. Think back to an earlier time, when every other restaurant on your block was not named Trattoria Something-Or-Other. A time when fresh (albeit slightly gummy) pasta was not a dairy case staple and when--you may laugh at this one--radicchio was considered the height of exotica.

Then, basil came only dried, and people snickered when someone said "virgin" olive oil. Italian delis were famous for their submarine sandwiches, and fancy folk drank cafe au lait rather than caffe latte.

Italian cooking still meant spaghetti and meatballs, and cooking with garlic was considered "racy," but Hazan was writing about paglia e fieno alla ghiotta (fresh yellow and green noodles with cream, ham and mushroom sauce), calamari ripieni stufati al vino bianco (stuffed squid braised in white wine) and her well-known arrosto di maiale al latte (pork loin braised in milk).

"There wasn't anything like a classic Italian cookbook before Marcella," says Judith Jones, then and now Hazan's editor at Alfred A. Knopf. "She was really the first to make Northern Italian cuisine available to Americans."

Craig Claiborne, former food editor of the New York Times and an early promoter of Hazan, remembers: "In private homes at that time, Italian cooking was almost unknown. Risotto, the different cuts of pasta, these were all things that we've only learned about in the last 10 years."

Now, 15 years after the widespread publication of her first book, Hazan is back at it--rewriting and retesting almost every recipe in her first two books to come up with a master oeuvre , as yet untitled, that will reflect everything she has learned along the way. It is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1992.

"All of my books are still selling, even the first," Hazan said in an interview, "but I thought it was better to make them more modern. You know, 20 years of teaching teaches you a lot.

"And many things have changed. To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable with some of the things I had said before. For example, I said to put sugar in your tomatoes, but that was only because you then had very bad canned tomatoes in this country.

"I said to buy a certain olive oil made in Sicily. It was the worst, but it was the only one available. Now, you have so many olive oils it's just a matter of choosing the one you like best. Fennel was very hard to find then, and very few people wanted to eat squid, even if you called it calamari. You could go on and on, there were so many things."

This was the world that Hazan, armed with doctorates in biology and natural sciences from the University of Ferrara, faced when she moved to the United States. She began teaching cooking classes in her home in 1967, and met Claiborne in 1970.

"I had never heard of her, but someone said they had just taken fantastic Italian cooking lessons from this woman, so I called her and introduced myself and said I would like to talk to her," Claiborne remembers. "She said I might come over for lunch, but she made it clear she had never heard of Craig Claiborne. When the article appeared, she was dumbfounded. She became well known to the general public of New York almost instantly."

"Classic Italian Cooking" was originally published in 1973 by Harper's Magazine Press, but her writing career really took off when she met Jones in 1975. Editor of James Beard and Julia Child, Jones bought the rights for the book for Knopf and republished it in 1976. It is now in its 17th printing.

Los Angeles Times Articles