Special Feature

The First Family of Italian Cooking:
Marcella Hazan Interview

by Kate Heyhoe


In honor of Mother's Day, the electronic Gourmet Guide presents a very special interview with a woman who, along with her family, represents the classic cuisine of Italy. Marcella Hazan is known for her many cookbooks, including Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, as well as her cooking classes in her home in Italy. Her husband, Victor has been called a "connoisseur of everything"—especially fine wines, and their son, Giuliano Hazan, is himself an author, lecturer and teacher of classic Italian cooking. In this rare instance with all three of them in the same place, Kate Heyhoe and Publisher Thomas Way had the opportunity to interview the First Family of Italian Cooking.


On Cooking And Being Together...


Kate: You all are what I consider the first family of Italian cooking. You have two generations here, all masters of fine food and wine. When you cook, do you ever get in the kitchen, all three of you together, and work?

Marcella: Not together. Victor—he is at the table with us --not in the kitchen.

Kate: Do you ever fight or disagree on things?

Giuliano: (all laugh) Everybody asks that! It is very interesting.

Victor: I would like to go into some other kitchen with mother and daughter or son to see how they fight. I don't see why.

Kate: I guess it is the thing about too many cooks in the kitchen and there is always the competition in that.

Marcella: I thought it was always the space competition. Because usually the kitchen is not very big and sometimes you are used to to use all that space and then you have another person working there. But I don't know, Giuliano here has a very tiny kitchen.

Giuliano: (laughing) I'm smaller!

Kate: Are you saying James Beard would never have fit in there?

Giuliano: A little bit harder...

Kate: Do you have different styles of cooking? I mean you, Giuliano, have learned through your mother, but do you have a different style that you, Marcella, also have appreciated from him? Or do you merge in the same vein and pretty much agree on everything?

Giuliano: It is not so much a different style in than it is a different person. Things are always a little different but not dramatically different.

Kate: I know with me and my mother, my mother is a good cook also but I tend to go heavier on the spices than she would... things like that.

Marcella: No, I don't think that because I think we learn from each other. Because always you find a new way of doing something or a way of cutting that is maybe easier or so. That's what we do in the kitchen.

Victor: All cooking has a personal style. So even the same tomato sauce, if Marcella makes it or Giuliano makes it, it will be something different. It would be difficult to specify what it is or how it happens but it comes out slightly differently, whether it's timing or heat or what have you.

Marcella: and he will know which one, he will know.

Thomas: Does he make you a better cook because he knows the difference?

Marcella: He made me cook, to learn to cook.

Thomas: Really?

Marcella: I never cooked in my life until I met him

Thomas: When did you meet?

Victor: We meet in Italy. We met in my home town. Do you know where Libidi is? It is between Ravenna and Rimini, a small town on the sea shore.


On Regional Italian Cuisine...


Kate: I understand in the book you are currently working on, you are dealing with the regions of Italy. I thought it was interesting when you were saying earlier today that Italy is so chauvinistic; but I think that because of this, each region has kept its identity and is more distinctive, much moreso than any other country really.

Marcella: Very much more.

Victor: That is what people in American don't understand you know, when they eat here. There is one thing missing from the Italian restaurant seen abroad and that is regional identity. Here you don't have a really Venetian Italian restaurant or really Florentine or really Milanese or really Bolognese restaurants.

Marcella: Maybe a Tuscan restaurant is going to do some dishes that belong to Naples or some other city simply because know of them here.

Thomas: Chinese restaurants do the same thing where it is not really Sechuan or Cantonese, they tend to mix it all up.

Kate: Right. I ran into a woman recently when we were in Washington, DC. She was Italian from Italy, so I was telling her that the night before we had a fabulous meal at one of Roberto Donna's restaurants. She said she does not go to Italian restaurants in the United States because it is simply not the same, so she flatly rules out going to them, and I can understand that. Are there any Italian restaurants that you know of here that you would at least say are okay? Or do also prefer not to go to them?

Marcella: You know I have another reason other than this friend of yours for not going to Italian restaurants here, besides the fact that I live in Italy, plus I work with Italian food, I teach Italian food, I write about Italian food. In Italy we don't have ethic restaurants that are as good or as popular as in the United States. In the States there are French, Japanese, Chinese restaurants... Why I have to eat Italian food?

Victor: But it is true however when we spent more time in the States, we would not go to Italian restaurants. Really, it is not the same. Something happens with Italian restaurateurs—they have the image about what the American consumer wants and then that is want they cook for them.

Kate: Well, one of the things about Roberto Donna I was impressed with is that he is really making a big push for Italian wines and bringing them into his restaurant, Galileo, in DC, introducing his customers to them. And he is actually importing seeds from Italy to grow some of the herbs and greens here that he cannot get. I find this most interesting. So if you ever go to Washington, Victor, you should check out his wine list.

Victor: Okay, we go!

Thomas: You know what my actual favorite was? When we were there we went to a restaurant that he is a part owner with Jean-Louis Palladin. They own this place call Pesce. It is just fresh fish, and it was so simple—a small place with formica tables, but the food was just excellent and very inexpensive. It was in a neighborhood and I think you spoke on the panel earlier today about simple food, that if you can do that just so well then it is the best. When we went to the fancy restaurant I enjoyed it but I can remember Pesce most because it was great. And even more great in its simplicity.

Marcella: That's right. You don't always remember the taste, but you see, you remember the simple things.

Kate: But it was a lot more like when I lived in Longa di Schiavon in Italy. There was one restaurant, it was a fish trattoria and of course that was the only place in the village and it was excellent. This was a lot like that.....


On Teaching...

Kate: You are all great teachers. One thing that is inherent in becoming a teacher is also becoming a student—you are always learning. It was evident on the panel today, with Victor and Marcella and the other panelists, where you were talking amongst yourselves, disagreeing and agreeing and things like that. You started off as what we call dedicated amateurs—people who were not classically trained at the CIA or places like that. Are there things that each of you learn from your students?


Marcella: We keep learning a lot from the students. Especially, you learn if you write and teach. You learn what to say, what is important for them, because sometimes you take some things for granted. After you realize it is not true, you have to be more specific. And most of them are also thinking, I can teach her tricks. (laughing) They teach you tricks, you know. They say, "you know, I do this and I found out that"—maybe she was right and it is much better to do it this way than my way. Just because I am teacher, I don't say your way is faster, because I have never thought about it. So you learn this, and you learn how to explain the things that are important for them. And you learn also to be a little amusing for the next student. Because when you get some questions—some of them you get are just... incredible. And then you know, you get material. (all laugh)

Kate: Giuliano, do you agree?

Giuliano: Oh, sure. Yes, you learn how to teach better and sometimes people might show you a new way to do something, or something like that. Absolutely.

Kate: Victor?

Victor: Well, you have to start with the premise that you do know something, right?

Kate: Yes, absolutely.

Victor: You master some aspects of your subject, but I think what a good teacher needs to understand is that you don't necessarily impart what you know, but you have to be sensitive to what the student needs to know. Now, you have to put yourself in the students place and it is like giving someone directions to go somewhere. You know how to go there. You know, and you say you turn right then you say turn left but you forget that between that right and left turn there are a couple of little forks, because you always go that way and you know how to go there. But if you put yourself in the students' place, and you know after that right turn the two little forks come up and you say ignore those two forks, you are putting yourself in the position of someone who doesn't know. That is the key, the secret to good teaching.

Marcella: and I think you never can take it for granted that the students know something, so you always have to say everything you can to explain. But there is a way of doing this, and that is to say always "As you know..." this and that, because maybe you know very well but maybe you don't know, and that is to protect yourself. "As you know"... this is very nice, so it gives you confidence and you see and that is a display of knowledge.

And also, it is very important for me to be able to hold a class's attention because teaching is like staging.

Giuliano: It is a performance.

Marcella: It is a performance. If you stop talking or saying something they fade out, and you don't want that, because you have a particular job and you can't loose that.

Giuliano: You must hold their interest, you can tell when you start to lose it.

Thomas: I was at your demonstration yesterday, and I was telling Katie, we don't get a chance to learn everything because we are doing a lot of things and going to a lot of demonstrations at the same time, but I remember 2 or 3 things from your demonstration that I had not known before. And I did get something out of everything that I went to in terms of a little bit of knowledge, but in yours I found it interesting how you teach. At least in that class, it just seemed everyone was wrapped in attention.

Marcella: I think it is very important when you teach not to say just say (picking up a glass) put this glass here and not here. You have to tell why, because if you tell why they will remember better than just having the knowledge that they have to pick up like this, without an explanation.

Giuliano: Well, not only that but then in another instance, if they know the reasoning behind it then they can apply it to a different situation. So they don't just learn to do this (picking up the glass) but they will learn to do many different things besides that.

Kate: Do you find that a lot of your students are so rigid because, it goes back to the idea of following recipe..., I think it was Jacques Pepin that was saying you don't follow the recipe, you use it as the inspiration to create. Do you find that a lot of your students are fairly rigid and wanting to know the exact recipe and are afraid to veer from it on there own?


Giuliano: It is both. Some of them are too rigid, and some of them will come and say 'I did your recipe and I did this and this different.' The first time you do a recipe I don't see how you can change something, because you don't know where you are starting from. You have to do it the way it is written the first time and then you may know what you might want to change. So it's not always doing that recipe again and again and always measuring the same amount and always following it to the letter, but on the other hand there is no point in changing a recipe before you have even tried it.

Marcella: The beginning time that you do a recipe from my book, it is my recipe and you have to follow it. After a little while that you do it the second, third, fourth time, my recipe becomes your recipe. You change a little of this and that, but you change it because you know already what it is supposed to be, and you can make a little change or change it for the better. I don't like the person who says, 'Eh, Giuliano, I have to bake an apple with sugar...you know, I made your recipe but naturally instead of sugar I put salt.' That is too much. (laughter) You can say I put honey in but not change it completely, because that is now it not anymore a baked apple that is supposed to be sweet.


On Teaching James Beard...

Kate: Marcella, you being the first lady of Italian cooking... I read at one point that when you were teaching, the man known as the father of American cooking, James Beard, was one of your students. What were your impressions from that? He was a tremendous man and to have the opportunity to teach him must have been incredible.

Marcella: I was very flattered that he took a course like a regular student in Bologna. But I could understand because James Beard had a deep, deep love for food. Very deep I think. Very few other persons... I don't know if I could find one that loved food like James, but also he had a lot of curiosity about other things he did not know.

Victor: Humility.

Marcella: Yes, great humility.

Victor: He was never arrogant or judgemental in any instance.

Marcella: I can tell you one thing that happened... he wanted to teach one year at the Gritti Hotel in Venice and he was not very happy in Venice. Never, because he was a very difficult man with walking you know, and Venice is not a city where a person doesn't walk. Anyway, when he came back to New York he had been writing a column and he was writing about a Venetian recipe that he found in Venice. And one day he called me and said, 'You know I have this shrimp in pink sauce that was wonderful and I can see and recognize all the ingredients, but there is one ingredient that I never found in many cookbook and I don't know what it is...Can you help me with it?' and I said what is this? 'They call it Rubra' and I said it is ketchup. (massive laughter)... Because in Italy the name of the brand is Rubra and everyone calls it Rubra, because only Rubra at that time was making ketchup.

Thomas: Like Xerox and copiers.

Marcella: James was laughing so much, saying 'How stupid I am! Now I know it was ketchup because of the color and taste!' But he was so distracted by this strange name.

Kate: Do you teach now or you pretty much working on your book?

Marcella: I teach I just finished a course.

Giuliano: She teaches a lot, ten courses this year.

Thomas: How long does a course last?

Marcella: A week, 6 days.

Thomas: I think the woman from Food and Wine, the editor, was saying it takes three years to book a course with you.

Victor: Well, some people wait that long, it depends. If they say I want to come in April, there may not be an April vacancy for three years. If they tell our secretary, I want to come: let me know when the first opening comes up, then they only may wait a year, or a year and a half.

Marcella: Let's say we have 92 person waiting list...

Thomas: When they come to the school do they stay at a hotel?

Victor: They stay where they want to, we don't take care of their lodging.


On Recipes, and On the Future...


Kate: I read that you say this is your last book.

Marcella: Well, I don't have many years left. I am 71—and I am not Julia. (massive laughter)

Kate: It is amazing. It takes a lot to write a book.

Marcella: Takes a lot. Julia said to me the other day, I am a perfectionist. Yeah, because I wanted to test the recipe here I wanted to test the recipe there, and I can't work in another place.

Kate: You know that's want makes your books so great too.

Marcella: I don't have complaints about my recipes. They work.

Giuliano: I am working on a second book as well and I do a lot of teaching. I travel, I go and teach at cooking schools around the country...

Kate: I know you have been at Peter Kump's in New York.

Giuliano: I was just in Brazil and I am doing this course in Venice. And I have plans to go to Colombia.

Thomas: Do you live in the United States?

Giuliano: Yes. in Florida.

Kate: Terrific, and your plans Victor?

Victor: I am finishing also my last book, I hope, and it is going to be on Italian wines.

Kate: Great we need something like that!

Victor: Probably be called the Victor Hazan Guide to Italian Wine. It should be out in 1998.

Kate: Great, terrific.


And the Very Last Question...

Kate: If the angel Gabriel asked you for your last meal before entering the pearly gates, what would you like to have anything—you could pick anything you want. Victor you would pick the wines?

Victor: This sounds like what Julia says is like a media question! (laughter)

Kate: Okay we can skip it then

Victor: Well, you know it depends how we feel then. Wine—it would be red wine you know, it would be a full red, probably a very, very old bardolo in a perfect state of health

Marcella: Now, I have to cook something that would go with that. (all laugh)

Victor: It can be anything—I drink the wine because of the way the wine tastes.

Marcella: You know it is very hard, because many persons ask me this question or what is your favorite dish. And it's never the same, depending on the mood depending about what they seem to have at the market when I go to buy, maybe I come out thinking that I would like very much a lamb, roasted or fried it or grilled. Or maybe I find that there's a wonderful, wonderful live scampi, so maybe I completely change from meat into fish.

Victor: You know, thinking about it if it was going to be my last dish or pasta I think it would probably be a tagliatelle alla bolognese with a real bolognese sauce and really hand made tagliatelle—not the kind you buy in the market in the plastic but the real rolled out by hand, with the sauce made by Marcella. I think that's one of the ultimate dishes.

Kate: It is and I miss a real bolognese sauce because you can't get a real good bolognese here.

Victor: You have to make it.

Kate: You have to make it I know, I agree, I agree its one of my favorite things.

Marcella: I know you have a lot of work and such, but bolognese sauce is a sauce that can take a long time, but can make it take a long time but you can make it in 3 days... Look at 3/4 of an hour today, 3/4 of an hour another day, and so on.

Victor: Now that we have picked the first course do you have a second course that you would like to have, Giuliano?

Marcella: I didn't pick the first one you picked the first one!

Giuliano: No, you picked *your* first one! (laughter)

Marcella: I have to cook?

Victor: You have to do the cooking

Marcella: Oh, I see. (laughter)

Giuliano: Do we all have to eat this together? (laughter)

Victor: Yes, it may be our last time we eat together.

Kate: Yes—But you can have as many dishes as you want.

Giuliano: Well, unless I have just spent a week in Piedmont in truffles season I think I would go for some homemade fettucine with lots and lots of white truffles.

Victor: What about a tortino?

Giuliano: I think I would prefer to do it with the pasta just because I like the pasta so much.

Marcella: Hmmm..... I can do both you know.

Kate: All right, then! Well, hopefully the angel Gabriel was listening to that and he is whipping something up right now --

Giuliano: I hope not right now! (laughter!)

Victor: No—there is no hurry for this!

Kate: No, Thank you very much. You are truly the first family of Italian cooking, and it is a pleasure for us all to experience the meals you create for us. Buon appetito, et mille grazie!

©1994, 2007 Katherine Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Modified October 2007