Cooking, Finally, From The Greatest Italian Cookbook Ever Written

I never heard the name Marcella Hazan until she was dead. That was September 29, 2013, some five years after I began professionally writing about food. Even though I was a restaurant critic and didn't develop recipes at the time, to call myself a food writer and not know Marcella Hazan was like being a novelist who never read Joyce or Faulkner.

Here's how I justified my ignorance: Marcella Hazan came from the Julia Child-Diana Kennedy-Sheila Lukins generation of cookbook authors—decades before my time. My kitchen education came from Michael Ruhlman, Ina Garten, and Jamie Oliver. As a working food writer, I was also sent a half dozen new cookbooks by publishers each week, resplendent books produced with sumptuous photography and design. Every new cookbook seemed to push the genre forward with novel recipes and artful prose, their pages teeming with personality. Compared to the endless blocks of dry text from the cookbooks of yore, I thought anything published before 1985 seemed, well, remedial.

That line of thinking, of course, is of someone less sophisticated and open-minded than he is now. Yes, there remains much value in Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, The Joy Of Cooking, and the like. What ultimately inspired me to explore culinary literature's back catalog was Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. Though it was published in 2004, its maximum-minimalism approach to French bistro cooking might as well come from a book published 30 years earlier. The takeaway (I spent a whole week cooking from it) was learning to extract deep flavors from the fewest possible ingredients. Take the boeuf Bourguignon: other chef's recipes might include accoutrements such as bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions, but the Les Halles version featured none of them. Veal stock was eschewed for tap water. You might look at the recipe and think it was bland. But then you'd taste the finished product, and it was like discovering profound beauty in a 12-bar blues or a Robert Ryman white-on-white abstract painting.

Such was the genius of Marcella Hazan's Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking, regarded as one of the greatest cookbooks ever published, written by a woman I never heard of until she was dead.

Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking is a 1992 reprint of two of Hazan's best-known titles, 1973's The Classic Italian Cook Book and 1978's More Classic Italian Cooking, collected in a nearly 700-page hardcover. I bought mine for $6 at a used bookstore. For the better part of a week I cooked from it, read it from my couch, kept it by my bed, and breathed in her wisdom.

From its first pages, Hazan's prose is lyrical and mellifluous, a pleasure to read. (It should be noted: Hazan didn't write in English, and much of her books were a collaboration with her husband Victor Hazan and editor Judith Jones.) "However much we roam, we shall not be able to say we have tracked down the origin of Italy's greatest cooking," Hazan wrote in Essentials's introduction. "It is not in the north, or the center, or the south, or the Islands. It is not in Bologna or Florence, in Venice or Genoa, in Rome or Naples or Palermo. It is all of those places, because it is everywhere."

Hazan often expressed her opinions as gospel truth. She was exacting and earned a reputation as someone who did not gladly suffer fools. Still, her words ring more as authority than braggadocio. For storing Parmigiano-Reggiano, Hazan instructed: "Each piece must be attached to a part of the rind. First wrap it tightly in wax paper, then wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Make sure no corners of cheese poke through the foil. Store on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator."

Who was this woman anyway? In her native Italy, Hazan earned a doctorate in natural sciences and biology. When she moved to New York City with her husband in 1955, she was aghast at the food she discovered. In her 2008 autobiography Amarcord, Hazan described trying a hamburger with ketchup for the first time: "I was not prepared for its cloying flavor, and I found it inedible. That sweet taste over meat was an experience that I would be subjected to again, bringing me grief at my first Thanksgiving dinner." Hazan taught herself to cook, relying on a cookbook by the Italian chef and author Ada Boni. Eventually Hazan would teach cooking classes in her Manhattan apartment. She dispelled the notion that Italian food was a monolith; the food of her native Emilia-Romagna might be unrecognizable to someone in Calabria.

The The New York Times obituary described Hazan as a cook who "embraced simplicity, precision and balance in her cooking. She abhorred the overuse of garlic in much of what passed for Italian food in the United States, and would not suffer fools afraid of salt or the effort it took to find quality ingredients." Her husband Victor told the Times, "Marcella was always very distressed when she would read complicated chefs' recipes. She would just say, 'Why not make it simple?' So the sentiment holds. We will make it simple."

As scrupulous (and persnickety) as Hazan could be, much of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and its nearly 500 recipes is an exercise in brevity. Where someone used to being hand-held through the cooking process might find her instructions lacking, someone else would consider it elegant and concise.

Her preference for economy extends to her dishes. The ingredients for her roast chicken comprise the yardbird, salt and pepper, plus two small lemons, full stop. Her most enduring recipe is a tomato sauce cooked with a halved onion and a generous amount of butter.

There is nothing ostentatious about Marcella Hazan's recipes; things taste of what they are. She remained horrified by the American palate (see: ketchup on hamburger); her recipes are rarely drenched in heavy sauces or herbaceous frills. Her interpretation of Italian cooking must have been foreign to Americans used to the garlic-laden dishes at restaurants with red-checkerboard tablecloths and "That's Amore!" playing on a loop.

I was most excited to try Hazan's recipe for Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style (pg. 417). Here the required ingredients were butter, vegetable oil, pork rib roast, salt and pepper, and whole milk. Who could resist after reading her hype: "If among the tens of thousands of dishes that constitute the recorded repertory of Italian regional cooking, one were to choose just a handful that most clearly express the genius of the recipe, this one would be among them.... As [the pork and milk] slowly cook together, they are transformed: The pork acquires a delicacy of texture and flavor that lead some to mistake it for veal, and the milk disappears to be replaced by clusters of delicious, nut-brown sauce."

The fatty hunk of pork sat in a lazy simmer of whole-fat milk. Slowly the milk turned a dark beige, coagulating into salty cheese curds that would eventually be spooned over softened pork slices and polenta. Three pounds of milk-braised pork lasted in our household for three days.

One night we made a variation of her famous tomato-butter sauce. The Tomato Sauce with Heavy Cream (pg. 155) is marginally more involved than the original—it uses a mirepoix of finely chopped onion, carrots, and celery, along with one-third cup of butter. (My suggestion is to sauté the mirepoix first, as the chopped vegetables did not soften in the sauce.) In this version, a half cup of heavy whipping cream is stirred in at the end, and the result was a safety-cone orange sauce registering level 11 on the richness scale.

Truth be told, I've made pasta sauces and Sunday gravies with greater depths of flavor. But Hazan's recipes also didn't involve wild goose chases through spice shops for a pinch of fennel pollen and marjoram. These are foundational recipes made with ingredients already in my—and your—pantry. It's a relief to know you can, without stepping outside your house, create satisfying Italian food with minimal effort tonight.

The last dish we cooked from Essentials was A Farm Wife's Fresh Pear Tart (pg. 589). As was the case with most of the dishes we chose that week, the decision to make it fell to her irresistible introduction: "This tender, fruity cake has been described as being so simple that only an active campaign of sabotage could ruin it."

Mix together eggs, milk, sugar, salt, and flour, then pour the resulting thick cake batter over sliced pears in a round buttered tin lined with breadcrumbs. Then bake it for 50 minutes. That's it. The tart shares a lineage with the classic French dessert clafoutis—lightly sweet, the warm and tender pears unyielding to the fork, lovely with afternoon tea.

As I write this in April 2020, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is an appropriate book for the times. I can crack it open to any page and most likely cook that recipe with what's on hand. But there's a greater benefit from this timeless cookbook for this moment: Hazan's recipes seem to require more of your cooking gut, and as such, there's greater buy-in needed from the home cook. Rarely have I felt a greater connection with a cookbook, and these days connecting to something—anything—is a welcome respite.