Like a lot of people I know, I returned from my first trip to Italy in 1993 determined to teach myself how to cook. The eating in Florence, where Andy was “studying” art for the summer, was so revelatory that I didn’t waste a whole lot of time once the wheels touched down Stateside. On the way home from the airport, I stopped by our local bookstore and found my friend Matt behind the counter. I asked if he could recommend a good Italian cookbook that might offer even just a hint of what I had just experienced across the Atlantic. As far as I know, Matt never cooked a thing in his life, but he will forever hold a special place in my heart because he handed me The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan, and, with the understatement of the decade, told me, “People seem to really like her.”
The name was familiar — Andy’s Aunt Patty had already introduced us to Marcella’s milk-braised pork loin — so I plunked down my five bucks for the mass market-y looking paperback, started flipping through it, and for almost twenty years have not stopped. That’s probably why the book, held together by masking tape, now looks like this:
It’s sort of like looking at Luca Bear, my daughter’s dingy teddy-bear lovey with the frayed bowtie that she has been sleeping with since she was 13 months. One look at him and you know that thing has been on the receiving end of some serious love.
The summer I first bought CIC, I tried out a few of the recognizable recipes — Tomato Sauce 1, Tomato Cream Sauce, Blender Pesto — making some real knucklehead comments in the margin as I went along. “Too garlicky” I wrote after adding three cloves of garlic to a tomato sauce that didn’t call for any garlic at all. Improvising with a Marcella recipe, I’ve since learned, is not something one does, unless one does not want to learn how to cook. You make the dish exactly the way she tells you to. In a nod to her shortcut-obsessed American audience, her headnotes are studded with phrases like “if you insist” and “if you are so inclined” (Fettucine with Gorgonzola Sauce: “You can try substituting domestic gorgonzola or other blue cheeses, if you are so inclined, but you will never achieve the perfectly balanced texture and flavor of this sauce with any cheese but choice Italian gorgonzola”), but the effect is the opposite of liberating. It makes you desperate to not disappoint her. (There are also many less passive instructions such as this one, under Mayonnaise: “I can’t imagine anyone with a serious interest in food using anything but homemade mayonnaise.”) The ingredients she uses in her recipes are all basic staples of any kitchen — butter, ground beef, salt, onions — which means that in order to yield the kinds of dishes that have earned her exalted status in the food world, it is absolutely imperative that you do not deviate from what’s written. For Hazan, who was trained as a biologist and went on to teach cooking classes in her New York apartment, it’s all about technique. When I do what I am told (literally leveling off two tablespoons of chopped onions), not only do I find myself with insanely delicious dinners I’d be proud to serve to Grandmas Turano and Catrino, but I find myself a little smarter in the kitchen. Her bolognese, which you are looking at above, was the first Hazan recipe that we fell in love with for this reason. “It must be cooked in milk before the tomatoes are added,” she wrote. “This keeps the meat creamier and sweeter tasting.” And then: “It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; 5 is better.” We, of course, always do five. (more…)