Remembering Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking

The woman who taught Americans about real Italian food was as genuine and robust as her cuisine.

I blame Marcella Hazan for the $175 bottle of imported balsamic vinegar in my pantry. She taught me about the good stuff.

It was 2004 and the first time I met the woman who introduced Americans to authentic Italian cooking. She was doing publicity for her sixth cookbook, Marcella Says, and had invited me and a photographer to her lovely high-rise home overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

Marcella Says was to be her final book, though a memoir came in 2008 and again I went to the Longboat Key condo to interview her, that time about Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. It was at that condo where Hazan died on Sunday at the age of 89. In recent years, Hazan, a longtime smoker, had suffered from emphysema and poor circulation. She is survived by her husband of nearly 60 years, Victor, and a son, Giuliano, and his wife and children, who live in Sarasota. Giuliano, too, is a cookbook author and cooking instructor.

I had read tales from other journalists about sumptuous feasts prepared by Hazan during their interviews, so I could only fantasize about what the master might make on that first visit. Would it be pasta with her legendary tomato sauce? Or perhaps a bowl of pasta Bolognese, another specialty?

Actually, it was a glass of ice water and a wee spoonful of balsamic vinegar that tasted nothing like the contents of the bottle I had at home. That was over the course of two hours.

Her lunch was at 12:30 p.m. and rest followed, so we were to arrive promptly at 3 p.m., she told me on the phone. Too late for lunch; too early for dinner.

Regardless of the lack of food, I was enthralled and felt especially privileged to stand in her working kitchen, where every inch was covered with the tools of a good cook.

It's because of Hazan that we halve lemons and put them in the cavity of a chicken before roasting. She's the one who taught us to make risotto in a saucepan on the stove by stirring constantly, adding hot liquid as we go. It's because of her that we make pesto from fresh herbs and know that dried pasta should be cooked in rapidly boiling water. Oh, and never add oil to the water or the sauce will slide off.

Her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, written like all her books with the help of Victor, is a bible in many homes. At that first interview, she talked about the difficult time she had learning English when she came to New York as a new bride from her native Italy in the mid 1950s. She never really conquered writing in English, though she'd been communicating with friends and family on Facebook recently.

A Facebook status update on Sept. 24 revealed her beliefs about home cooking and made me think about my time with her in the Longboat Key condo. She was inviting people to weigh in on the "difference between making something at home for the fun of it or making it to taste better than what you can have elsewhere."

Hazan was a contemporary of Julia Child and has often been credited for doing for Italian food in America what Child did for French cuisine. Both brought authentic ingredients and technique to the masses. Before Hazan came along, Americans were content shaking Parmesan from a cardboard container.

Unlike Child, Hazan never became a fixture on TV, which is why she may not be as much of a cultural icon. She could be intractable in her opinions, especially when it came to cooking. At that first interview, she was looking ahead to an appearance on the Today Show, where she said she expected to get into a tussle with the stylists.

"I know which vegetable I want to talk about more and they always put it too far away," she said.

At the second interview, I giggled a bit when she recounted a student in a cooking class who wondered if what she was making would freeze well.

"Why do you want to freeze it?" she asked the student. "Just cook it and eat it."

That was Marcella Hazan.

It was a pensive Hazan I met in 2004. "Victor was cold," she said, so they moved to Florida to be near their son and warm up. But having been so used to the markets of Italy, where they maintained a second home for years, and the walking culture of New York, she felt isolated in Longboat Key. She lamented the dependency on cars.

She looked out the window and down toward the beach at the parade of exercisers marching up and down the sand.

"What is the point of that, premeditated walking?" she asked. "You can't get anything done out there. There's no market, no bakery, no shoe store."

At this point, her legendary rough edges went soft and her eyes were moist. Days after that story ran, she left a voicemail that started ominously. "No need to call me back," she said in her characteristic gravelly voice. Uh-oh. She went on to say she liked the story.

Back to that balsamic vinegar.

Hazan introduced Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma to balsamic vinegar and said she was sorry she did because of what came after. That pathetic stuff sold in grocery stores is not the real deal, she told me, just red wine vinegar with caramel flavor and coloring.

And then she gave me a spoonful. Really, just a dropper's worth. The vinegar had been aged for years in wood after having been cooked to half its volume in a copper kettle. It was like a black lava syrup, its tartness and richness ricocheting around my mouth. I imagined one single drop on a strawberry.

For Christmas that year, my observant husband bought me a bottle of Cavalli aged balsamic. It came in a wooden box, and the bottle looked more like something you'd see in a laboratory than a kitchen. The syrupy elixir slipped out one drop at a time.

I pulled the bottle down on Sunday night after I heard the news. It's only half gone. That's how precious it is.

One drop on a spoon and down the hatch.

Thank you, Marcella Hazan, for being true.

Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.