Marcella Hazan: Ambassador for Italian cuisine who changed the way that Americans cooked


Marcella Hazan was the cooking instructor and best-selling author who propelled mid-20th century America beyond canned beefaroni into a world of homemade pastas and what she called the "simple, true" cuisine of her native Italy. When she died her husband, the wine writer Victor Hazan, sent word to their son Giuliano not to cancel his scheduled cooking class in Valpolicella because that's what his mother would have wanted.

Hazan said she had never cooked before her marriage in 1955; her family in Italy had always relied on hired help. Her first trips to American markets were demoralising, she said: "The food was dead, wrapped in plastic coffins." Her husband, working for his family's furrier business, encouraged her passion for recreating the savoury pleasures of her youth. She had "innate intuition" for cooking, he later said, because she "came out of a culture where food is a central part of life."

Her cooking career was an accident. She was taking a class on Chinese cuisine in 1969 when classmates asked her for Italian recipes. Word soon got to the influential food writer and critic Craig Claiborne of The New York Times, who cemented her reputation in a feature article the next year.

From then on, Hazan was a leading ambassador of Italian cuisine. Julia Child once called her "my mentor in all things Italian." Her workshops in New York and Italy drew ordinary home-makers as well as the chef and food writer James Beard and entertainers such as Danny Kaye and Burt Lancaster. Her cultural status was affirmed by the New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress, who captured her allure in a drawing for Gastronomica magazine a decade ago. He depicted two women in a kitchen, one telling the other about the image in a shrine over the stove: "It's not a saint, exactly. It's Marcella Hazan."

For each of her six cookbooks, which sold millions of copies, Hazan offered clear, uncomplicated and dependable recipes. She demanded the use of extra-virgin olive oil years before it became a staple of the Mediterranean diet fad. She taught people to put a lemon in the cavity of a roast chicken; to savour spaghetti sauced with garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and flat-leaf parsley as much as any tomato sauce; and to notice the difference salt makes by smelling, not just tasting.

The genius of her four-ingredient tomato sauce – fresh or canned San Marzano tomatoes, butter, an onion and salt – freed home cooks from having to reconstruct the thick, overly sweet red blankets poured from a jar.

If Child, a friend, gently criticised her for being "too much of a perfectionist," Hazan felt she had much to be exasperated about in trying to correct American cooking habits and trends she found ludicrous. The tendency to over-sauce, she once said, left her "depressed." On tomato-hued pasta, she said, "I've lost the war on this," while of sun-dried tomatoes she said, "I never cook with sun-dried tomato. That's a pickle!"

Hazan wrote in Italian, her husband translating. She admired the way Victor captured her voice, one often noted for an edge of impatience during several decades of cooking classes. "You learn a lot about cooking from the questions," she said. "Sometimes they're stupid questions. And sometimes they make you think, 'I need to explain.' The best ingredient in the kitchen is common sense."

She was born Marcella Polini in 1924 in Cesenatico, Italy, which she described in her memoir as a quiet fishing town on the northern Adriatic known for a small yet powerfully flavoured sole called saraghina and a canal designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Her father was a tailor who had worked in Paris and New York. The Polinis moved to Alexandria in Egypt when Marcella was two so her mother, Maria, could be reunited with her family.

Five years later Marcella fell and broke her right arm. Complications, including gangrene, set in, and Maria took her daughter to Bologna to correct the problem. A series of operations left Marcella unable to open her arm fully and with a crooked hand. Yet she credits that turn of events with setting her on a course that led to her career.

Even though her mother was a good cook, Marcella was interested in academic rather than culinary pursuits. In the early 1950s she received doctoral degrees in biology and geology at the University of Ferrara. She met Victor Hazan about that time and moved with him to the US. The Hazans moved back to Italy in 1962, lived in Milan, Florence and Rome before returning to the US in 1967. In Manhattan, visits to Pearl's, a Chinese restaurant, led her to Chinese cookery classes, but when the teacher cancelled after one class, Hazan found herself teaching Italian dishes to six former classmates.

Claiborne called about the classes and came to lunch at her apartment. She served tortelloni and veal scaloppine. This led to an article and a lifelong friendship. Her first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973), did not come easily. "Every time I would measure," she said, "I would forget what I was doing and the recipe would come out wrong." Victor was the one who put transparent coverings over bowls and pots, to catch and measure the ingredients she tossed in as she worked.

Although Hazan called Marcella Cucina (1997) "the last book of her life", for which she received an advance of $650,000, she went on to write Marcella Says: Italian Cooking Wisdom From the Legendary Teacher's Master Classes With 120 of Her Irresistible Recipes (2004) and her memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers (2008).

Hazan appeared as a guest on TV variety shows, dined with celebrities and ramped up her cooking classes at home and abroad. The sessions took days and included trips to the market. The city of Bologna built a new kitchen for her cooking school there in 1978. Nine years later, she turned the school over to Giuliano. She and Victor retired to Florida in 2000. Les Dames d'Escoffier made her a Grand Dame in 2005.

Bonnie S Benwick, Washington Post

Marcella Polini, cookery writer: born Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna, Italy 15 April 1924; married 1955 Victor Hazan (one son); died Longboat Key, Florida 29 September 2013.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Grad / Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultant - Oil & Gas

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000. : SThree: Progressive Global Energy a...

Commercial Property

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices