She Changed the Way Americans Ate Italian Food

08marc.1.184I was a producer for Arthur Schwartz’s Food Talk Show on WOR and I was at one of the many soirees that would be thrown by New York foodies. These parties were always magnificent but never gluttonous or ostentatious. “The good cooks keep it simple.” Arthur would remind me of this constantly. He’d always prefer to talk with cooks he knew well and had no problem conversing with, rather than the Star Chefs who seemed more style than substance.

I went to get a glass of Prosecco from the bar and an older woman came over to me and her kind eyes met mine. She frowned and said, “So hey! Who are you? I have never met you before!” She extended her hand. I took her hand in mine not knowing who this woman, with a deep rich Italian accent, was.

I stammered a bit and said “I’m Mike Hayes. I’m Arthur Schwartz’s producer at WOR.”

And before I could ask who this woman was her eyes opened wide and she smiled, “Oh thank God, you are with Arturo!” as she called him. “I am Marcella Hazan. You are with someone who actually knows how to cook! Where did you go to school?”

I knew her name well. Arthur sang her praises as one of the many great cooks he admired. Today’s NY Times captured her style intimately.

Mrs. Hazan 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 tomato sauce, enriched with only an onion, butter and salt, embodies her approach, but she has legions of devotees to other recipes, among them her classic Bolognese, pork braised in milk and her minestrone.

When Mrs. Hazan arrived in New York in 1955, Italian food was still exotic, served in restaurants with straw-covered Chianti bottles and red-checked tablecloths.

She was a newlywed who did not speak English, transplanted to a country whose knowledge of her native cuisine was not much more than spaghetti covered with what, to her, tasted like overly spiced ketchup.

Armed with what little I knew about Marcella, I said:

“Well, I didn’t go to cooking school if that’s what you’re asking, Mrs. Hazan.”

“Mrs. Hazan? I am Marcella. And I didn’t go to cooking school either! The best school is in your own kitchen. I meant what college did you go to to learn how to run Arturo’s radio?”

“Ah!” I said. “I went to Fordham…in the Bronx.”

Marcella asked, “You ever eat in Arthur Avenue?”

Arthur Avenue, for the uninformed, is known as the “Little Italy of the Bronx.” It’s a wonderful little step into a place where Italian food becomes an art. I replied eagerly as I loved going there when I was at Fordham.

“All the time. When I could afford to eat a meal out!”

She smiled. “What’s the best place to eat there?”

She was testing me. “Well, I love Roberto’s, which is a bit off the beaten path on 186th and Hughes.”

She smiled and said, “That is the ONLY place to eat on Arthur Avenue. The place has gone downhill lately.”

She was right. There were dozens of restaurants but Roberto’s was true Italian food and I have never ceased to go there when I visit my Alma Mater. It’s tiny, but wonderful. The food literally falls off the bone. The risotto is to die for. Everything there is simple but precise.

“I kind of like Dominick’s too, for the experience…”

Dominick’s is a hoot. You walk in and there are long communal tables, so you eat with people you don’t necessarily know. There are also NO menus. The waiter asks “Whattya want?” You ask, “Whattya got?” Those that aren’t a pain in the butt to the waiter and order well are the ones who get charged a lower amount. “Let’s see you had the chicken and the fresh vegetables…eh..$12.”

Marcella said, “It is no Roberto’s, but yes, good. It is not what it once was, but still very good and it is good to eat with people, if they even talk to you these days.”

I said to Marcella, “Let me tell you a quick story! I took a date there once and she said that the food was too fresh! She said it was like they just killed the chicken in the back yard. I looked at her like she was crazy and said, ‘That’s exactly what they SHOULD do! THIS is food! Not whatever processed crap you’ve been eating.'”

She smiled and said, “Arturo has taught you well. And you should break up with that girl…she know nothing about the food.”

I said, “I did and that was a big reason why.”

“Your bill at Dominick’s must have been $500 with that one!”

I laughed and told her it was something like that.

We had Marcella on the show with her husband Victor. Marcella didn’t speak English when she came to the United States and Victor served as her translator often. He was very precise. He translated all of her books. He would come to the radio show and talk with his beloved wife who he came home to for lunch every day of their marriage.

Marcella, died this week at the age of 89. I simply remember her as a brusque woman who had strong opinions. For instance, Mario Batali told this story in today’s NY Times:

…the exacting and sometimes prickly Italian-born cook told Mr. Batali he was all wrong. In no uncertain terms, Mrs. Hazan told him the only proper way to make risotto was in a saucepan. He did not agree, but the two became friends anyway, sitting down over glasses of Jack Daniel’s whenever their paths crossed.

“I didn’t pay attention to Julia Child like everyone else said they did,” Mr. Batali recalled. “I paid attention to Marcella Hazan.”

He’d better, or he’d get an earful and some of it in Italian.

I was simply blessed to share a moment or two with her. Rest in peace, Marcella.

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