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Counting Her Blessings


Town & Country — November, 2004

Marcella Hazan's influence as a cooking teacher and author cannot be overstated. After all, had it not been for her, we might still be eating spaghetti and meatballs instead of risotto alla Milanese. Through her books (she's published six, starting with The Classic Italian Cookbook) and her classes in the late 1960s, she introduced America to prosciutto di Parma, extra-virgin olive oil, pesto alla Genovese and tagliatelle verde, all of which savvy food-loving Americans have incorporated into their diets. She has publicly skewered fast food, turned up her nose at microwaves ("It doesn't take me long to reheat things the old-fashioned way, over the stove") and other unnecessary — to her — gadgets, and she has steadfastly stuck to her principles of "simple, true Italian cooking." Marcella Hazan has no regrets, except one: her early enthusiasm for balsamic vinegar, which started a craze that won't abate. "I don't know what what happened," she says ruefully, in her raspy, heavily accented voice. "Wine vinegar has practically disappeared. People put aceto balsamico on everything. They're not supposed to." (Don't fret, Marcella; there are worse things in life to bemoan.)

As Marcella's eightieth birthday approached last spring, her son, Giuliano, decided it was high time she was honored for her achievements and the inspiration she's been to others. Even though three generations of Hazans (Marcella and Victor, her husband of almost fifty years; Giuliano and his wife, Lael; and their two daughters) now reside on the west coast of Florida, there was no question about where the event would take place: at the 16th-century Villa Giona, now a small hotel, outside Verona, Italy. It is there that Giulano, following in his mother's culinary footsteps, has set up his own cooking school . Invitations went out to friends around the world with the hope that a handful would consider making the trip. To Marcella's astonishment, almost everyone said yes.

So, earlier this year, on Sunday, May 30, more than a hundred people gathered to eat wonderful food prepared by local chef Giorgio Soave and drink the well-chosen Allegrini wines of the Valipolicella region. But they were really there for one reason only: to pay tribute to the woman who had touched the lives of everyone present. Among the crowd were, of course cari amici e famiglia , including food writers, food editors, cooks and former students. Even Marcella's doctor made a house call for the occasion. A group of musicians from her hometown, Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast, serenaded her with Italian folk songs. Victor, who is also her collaborator, gave a moving toast, citing her unswerving dedication to quality in all things relating to Italian food. A fabulous time was had by all.

In what she swears is her last book, Marcella Says... , which has just been published by HarperCollins, she imparts her wisdom on everything from preparing a perfect pasta sauce to the importance of making your own bread crumbs. Small stuff? Not to Marcella, who is never at a loss for an opinion, especially when it comes to Italian cooking.

Like most Italians, Marcella believes that the heart of the home is the kitchen, where quality of life begins. And it doesn't matter how small or how large, how low- or high-tech the kitchen may be. What counts are two things: the passion one puts into the act of cooking and, of course, the results. Herewith, some of Marcella's musings from her new book:

"My food career began with the classes I first gave in the small kitchen of a New York City apartment in the 1960s. Cookbooks came later, but teaching cooking was my first and fondest love."

"Simple doesn't mean easy. One of the most difficult dishes to do really well is that triumph of Roman cooking, spaghettini aio e oio , thin spaghetti sauced with garlic, olive oil, chili pepper, Italian parsley and nothing else no, not even cheese."

"I assume that a conscientious cook will use the best ingredients obtainable, but the 'best' is certainly not the same everywhere. The best that I had at the Rialto market in Venice, where I spent most of my later years, was of quite another kind than the best available to me at the Publix store in Longboat Key, the little island off the west coast of Florida where my husband and I now live. If I have learned anything from having to buy most of my food at a supermarket, it is that when it comes to putting food on the table, the ingredients however ordinary or wonderful they may be, are no worse or better than the intentions of the cook. It is intentions that really matter.

"It is not my intention when I cook to provoke surprise at the family table or to dazzle guests with my originality or creativity. I am never bored by a good old dish I wouldn't shrink from cooking something that I first made fifty years ago and my mother made perhaps a hundred years ago. I don't cook 'concepts.' I use my head, but I cook from the heart. I cook for flavor. Flavor must be more revelatory than exploratory. It wants to be disclosed than imposed; it is neither stylish nor pedantic, nor is it exhibitionistic. Like truth, it needs no embellishment. It is not the idea of a thing, but the thing itself.

"Flavor reaches into what may be our deepest source of pleasure. The happiness that food can arouse is an endlessly renewable resource and has the capacity to outlast every other drive that propels our lives. It fades away only when life itself begins to fade."

Like Mother, Like Son

Marcella Hazan is all but retired these days, but her son, Giuliano, is doing a fine job of carrying on the family culinary tradition through the cooking courses he conducts four times a year in Italy. Held at the atmospheric 16th-century Villa Giona, now a nine-room hotel, each course runs for a week and accommodates twelve students, at most. All classes are taught in English. To qualify, one needs only to have an abiding interest in food, especially Italian cuisine. Because the classes are small and are offered so infrequently, it is smart to book early. The next course starts on May 22, 2005. The cost ranges from $3,775 to $4,175, depending on the type of accommodation. (If you bring a companion who does not participate in the class, he or she will be charged less.)

Giuliano, the author of the best-selling Classic Pasta Cookbook and Every Night Italian , teaches participants about various aspects of Italian cuisine, while vintner Marilisa Allegrini tutors them in the wines of the major regions of Italy. Each class is five hours long and concludes with a dinner served in the classic Italian style in other words, course by course, from antipasti (appetizers) to dolci (desserts).

Villa Giona is situated on twelve bucolic acres in the Veneto region, appealingly close to Verona. For more information, visit giulianohazan.com .

By Pamela Fiori. Text © 2004 Pamela Fiori. Photographs © 2004 Roger Sherman. Reprinted with permission.

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Historic 16th Century Villa Giona in the gastronomic heart of northern Italy