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Food & Dining

The Stew: Hazan made Italian cooking accessible

Published:   |   Updated: October 20, 2013 at 10:13 AM

The realization caught me suddenly the other night, as I reached for the lid to a pot full of meat sauce on the stove.

Wedged between the metal handle and the hot lid was a wine cork. For six years, I’ve used it to grab the lid instead of using a pot holder.

I put the cork there one day after interviewing Marcella Hazan in the kitchen of her Longboat Key condo. The maven of Italian home cooking in America saved a step by pushing the corks through her pot handles. It was a shortcut for a woman who lived most of her life with a right hand deformed by botched surgeries.

It was a simple yet elegant solution. If you were going to uncork a bottle of wine with your meal, you might as well use it to solve a problem. Two birds. One stone.

As I held the lid, a wave of sadness hit me. It reminded me that Marcella was gone.

On Sept. 29, Victor Hazan, her beloved collaborator and husband of almost six decades, announced on Facebook that she’d passed away at age 89.

“Marcella, my incomparable companion, died this morning a few steps away from her bed,” he wrote. The heartbreak was palpable. “She was the truest and the best, and so was her food.”

In the days after her death, the accolades poured in. She did for Italian home cooking in America what Julia Child did for French cuisine, many wrote.

It was a comparison that wasn’t entirely accurate.

Marcella herself was disappointed by what she saw as Child’s elevation of the chef to the detriment of the home cook. Julia’s greatest impact came largely through a television career launched by her early cookbooks. Marcella’s influence was primarily delivered through her own series of books, which taught an America that ate SpaghettiOs from a can to realize the glory of flavors found in fresh Italian ingredients, and through cooking classes in New York City and in her native Emilia-Romagna.

It was a legacy she passed on to her son, Giuliano. He carries the mantle by writing his own books and teaching cooking classes.

Giuliano, who lives in Sarasota with wife, Lael, and their daughters, was in Verona preparing to teach a course when he found out about his mother’s passing.

“My first impulse was to catch the first flight back to go hug my father,” he wrote on Facebook. “But I know it’s not what my mother would have wanted me to do.

“My whole career has been about passing on all that I have learned from her,” he wrote. “What better way to honor my mother that to teach this group of people who have traveled here eager to learn about genuine Italian food. I will be thinking of la mia mamma as I cook with them this week.”

My memories of Marcella come from a day I ate lunch with her and Victor in their home, and another when I took them to a Chinese restaurant in Tampa that they had yet to visit.

It was Chinese food that led Marcella in 1969 to sign up for a cooking class with Grace Chu. When the class was canceled, her classmates asked instead to learn Italian cooking with Marcella.

A year later, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne came to a lunch at her and Victor’s apartment. Claiborne’s story of his meal of Roman-style artichokes, veal, ricotta-stuffed tortellini and a shaved raw fennel salad gave her instant fame.

By the time we met, Marcella was past her cookbook years. I was there to talk about her memoir “Armarcord.” When I arrived, she and Victor were finishing preparation for lunch. He slipped on his heat-resistant kitchen gloves to pull white enamel plates from the oven. She stirred her homemade pappardelle noodles in boiling water and kept watch on her classic Bolognese ragu.

For the Hazans, there was a sacramental quality to the noontime ritual, known in Italy as il pranzo. In every place they lived together during the first 44 years of their marriage — Rome, Milan, New York, Venice — the Hazans insisted on residing close enough to Victor’s work that he could come home at lunchtime. The tradition continued on Longboat Key.

Watching them cook together in their tiny custom-built kitchen was a thing of beauty. Victor monitored the pasta, removed some with tweezers for his wife to taste. She would nod her approval. Utensils were efficiently at arm’s reach on a counter backsplash. Everything had its place.

Neither of them knew how to cook when they married in 1956. Feeding him forced her to learn. She would depend on advice from family and friends to catch up by cooking recipes that were native to Cesenatico.

Seated at their table, there was wine and a simple salad dressed only in olive oil and sea salt. With fresh vegetables, she said, simplicity is key. Let their flavors do most of the work.

Giuliano told me once that his mother always used to say the most important ingredient in the kitchen is common sense.

“It’s not just like a lab experiment, where you follow it exactly and it all comes out exactly the same,” he said. “It’s always different, and you need to adjust to what’s happening in the pan.”

Common sense. Simplicity. Like a cork in a lid handle.

Some legacies are so immense, they’re found in the smallest moments.

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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