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The Liberation of a Home Cook : "Marcella Cucina" by Marcella Hazan (HarperCollins $35; 471 pp.)


One morning about 20 years ago, we all awoke to read that Italian food was being discovered by those in the discovery business. Not, we have to remember, without a degree of general incredulity, noted by Marcella Hazan in her introduction to the 1979 "More Classic Italian Cooking":

"In a recent magazine article I read that the status of Italian cooking is not yet so firmly established that Americans feel comfortable in serving it to important guests."

But even then, canny culinary fashion brokers had begun shuffling French-dominated portfolios with an eye to the potential of Italy. Something had been in the air at least since 1976, when the illustrious firm of Knopf rescued Hazan's first work, "The Classic Italian Cook Book," from the collapse of another publisher.

Two decades further into this America Discovers Columbus phase, we have much to celebrate but also much to shake our heads over. Wonderful ingredients and excellent Italian cookbooks are everywhere.

Yet I can't help thinking it's a great pity that the enormous, still-growing Italian vogue coincided, alas, with an increasing tendency on the part of "serious" foodies to see themselves as upscale consumers rather than from-scratch home cooks.

Today, the status-minded probably would earn moral credit with really important guests by taking them to the priciest Italian restaurant in town. On lesser occasions, they might show that they do, too, know their onions by picking up something suitably Italian from food boutiques and gourmet takeout shops.

Hazan, though unavoidably bound up with the events that have brought us haughty Florentine dining spots and $100 thimblefuls of vinegar, has always stood a little apart from the post-"discovery" cult of visiting Italy via expensive purchases. Hers has been an odd cookbook career--odd, that is, when you compare what she's saying with the vehicles through which it's hitherto been said.

In various distinguished works, she has conscientiously led American readers through the basic materials and logical underpinnings of Italian cooking. Her recipes are meticulously designed to illuminate the sober virtues of well-chosen ingredients and properly directed culinary efforts.

But the true reward for those who apply themselves to the professorial and painstaking instruction of the Hazan books isn't that the food is good (though it is). It's that, after a certain amount of going through the motions, they stumble on an indefinable truth implicit in all honest Italian cooking and amounting almost to an emancipating anti-cookbook message: something like, "Just let the ingredients tell you what to do with them," or, "Why, look how it all falls into place by itself."

The latest and, we're told, last Hazan cookbook is remarkably unlike its predecessors. "Marcella Cucina" flies straight to that same liberating lesson with an air not professorial but sprightly, and at a glance it feels like the work of some fresh-spirited individualist about a third the age of the seventysomething author.

The new book could profitably be used by someone who owns all or none of the other four. Its agenda is one of a kind. Though it has such expectable cookbook furnishings as 180-odd conscientiously tested recipes arranged in orthodox appetizer-to-dessert fashion, they turn out to have been chosen with no very rigid program in mind. This is all to the good.

What "Marcella Cucina" includes is simply what Hazan feels moved to include. The work is plainly meant as a free-form repository of pronouncements, musings and autobiographical jottings with "Tribute to Living Legend" written all over it. Given such leeway, some or many of the cookbook writers whom we're pleased to call living legends would have fallen on their faces. Hazan simply manages to be purposeful in a more spontaneous way than before.

There is no attempt to include all the often-categorized "basic" or "classic" Italian dishes, from focaccia to pesto variations. But the areas of risotto, polenta and homemade egg pasta are covered with such thoroughgoing intelligence that a complete beginner could make a decent show as an Italian home cook on the strength of this material alone.

Similarly, Hazan doesn't try to conduct us through a systematic A-to-Z survey of all the crucial ingredients, but the thoughts she delivers on a strategic trio of olive oil, Parmesan cheese and its relatives, and salt are just about worth the price of admission.

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