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Marcella Hazan changed the way American cook Italian food

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Macella Hazan, a chef and cookbook author, at her home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Marcella Hazan, chef and cookbook author, at her home in Longboat Key in 2008. (Melissa Lyttle/The New York Times)

In his early days as a rising star chef, Mario Batali received a letter from Marcella Hazan after he had made risotto in a sauté pan on his television show, “Molto Mario.”

In it, 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.”

Mrs. Hazan, a chain-smoking, determined former biology scholar who reluctantly moved to America and went on to teach a nation to cook Italian food, died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Fla. She was 89.

She had been suffering from emphysema for many years, and had severe circulation problems, her husband, Victor, said.

The impact Mrs. Hazan had on the way America cooks Italian food is impossible to overstate. Even people who have never heard of Marcella Hazan cook and shop differently because of her, and the six cookbooks she wrote, starting in 1973 with “The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating.”

“She was the first mother of Italian cooking in America,” said Lidia Bastianich, the New York restaurateur and television cooking personality.

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.

The culture shock nearly crushed her. She was appalled by canned peas, hamburgers and coffee she once described as tasting no better than the water she used to wash out her own coffeepot at home. At her first Thanksgiving meal, she nearly gagged on the cranberry sauce.

What was worse, she had no cooking skills herself.

Mrs. Hazan’s training had been in the classroom, not the kitchen. She had a doctorate in natural sciences and biology from the University of Ferrara.

But she was determined to cook for her new husband, a dapper man from a family of Manhattan furriers, who had been born in Italy. He moved back there from New York in his 20s.

After returning to New York, Mr. Hazan worked at his family’s business, and Mrs. Hazan began navigating a bewildering city that shopped and cooked in ways that were completely foreign.

“I never saw a supermarket in Italy,” she told Linda Wertheimer in an interview with National Public Radio in 2010. “The chicken, they were arriving from the farmer and they were alive. And at the supermarket they were very dead. They were wrapped. It was like a coffin. Everything was not natural.”

Marcella Hazan (pronounced mar-CHELL-ah huh-ZAHN), born Marcella Polini on April 15, 1924, was also dealing with a physical handicap. When she was 7, she fell while running on a beach in Alexandria, Egypt, where her family was living. She broke her right arm and endured several operations. Her arm remained undersize and bent, but still able to hold a knife. Throughout her life, her arm would make her cringe when she saw herself on television.

In the couple’s tiny apartment in Forest Hills, Queens, Mrs. Hazan began to learn English by watching television and following the Brooklyn Dodgers. And she began to learn to cook, relying on her memory and Mr. Hazan’s copy of a cookbook by Ada Boni.

“Cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed; it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.” The couple eventually moved to Manhattan, and had a son, Giuliano Hazan, who would go on to become a noted cooking teacher himself.

They returned to Italy for a time, where Mr. Hazan pursued a career in advertising and Mrs. Hazan became enamored of the food in Milan and Rome, which was much different from the regional cooking she had grown up with in the village of Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna, about 120 miles south of Venice.

By the 1970s, the family was back in New York. Mr. Hazan would come home to share lunch every day — a tradition the couple continued until her death.

On Saturday, the day before she died, they shared a meal he made of trofie, the twisted Ligurian pasta, sauced with some pesto made with basil from the terrace garden.

Mrs. Hazan’s career as a cooking teacher was accidental. Inspired by the food she had eaten at Pearl’s Chinese Restaurant in Midtown New York, she signed up for a Chinese cooking class. The instructor announced at the end of the first class that she was going on sabbatical to China.

Mrs. Hazan’s classmates suggested she take over, so in October 1969 she began teaching Italian cooking classes that were as much about Italian culture and history as about food.

She taught students that Italian cooking was really regional cooking, from the handmade noodles and meat sauce of Bologna to the fish and risotto of Venice and the linguine and clams of Naples.

Her classes, held in her Manhattan apartment, caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, then the food editor of The New York Times, who in 1970 came to one of the Hazans’ daily lunches. It was a multicourse feast designed to impress.

“I have never since then had to be concerned about how to occupy my time,” she wrote in her memoir.

She published her first book three years later. Her last cookbook appeared in 2004.

All of her work was translated through Mr. Hazan, and the collaboration would come to be one of the greatest in the history of cookbook writing and instruction, if not also one of the most formidable for editors.

Mrs. Hazan was never able to write in English, so all her work ultimately flowed through Mr. Hazan, an erudite and precise man who has published two wine books.

“She matched his demands with her erudition,” said Dorothy Kalins, a magazine editor who founded Saveur and who had cooked with the couple for years, in an earlier interview. “Her rigor matched his exactitude.”

Both editors and students in the classes the couple taught here and at their school in Italy could be rocked on their heels by Mrs. Hazan’s sometimes brusque manner.

“A lot of people had encounters with her because she knew in her mind, in her heart, exactly how things were supposed to be,” Mr. Hazan said on Sunday. “That is what made her cooking great. Marcella wasn’t easy, but she was true. She made no compromises with herself with her work or with her people.”

Mrs. Hazan’s last years were spent in a condo near the powder-soft white sand of Florida’s Gulf Coast, occasionally entertaining fans, students and food writers.

Besides her husband and her son, survivors include two granddaughters.

Mr. Hazan said the family plans to take her ashes back to her beloved village of Cesenatico for a simple ceremony.

“Marcella was always very distressed when she would read complicated chefs’ recipes,” Mr. Hazan said. “She would just say, ‘Why not make it simple?’ So the sentiment holds. We will make it simple.”

Last modified: October 2, 2013
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