Marcella Hazan, My Mentor

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Marcella Hazan died this past weekend.  She was a monumental, irresistible force, a cultural crusader of the best kind.  Opinionated, severe if provoked – the whistle she brandished in classes became legendary.  And yet, for a generation of home cooks she became the Italian aunt we wished we had.

The first Marcella Hazan book I ever owned.

You know how people talk about being hit by a lightening bolt of love at first sight? That’s what happened to me at 17, the first time I went to Italy.  It was the 1970s and I was geeking out on a place and a culture that no one around me understood. When my mother gave me Marcella’s Classic Italian Cooking, I felt as if I found someone who not only understood my passion but who could feed it. I pored over that book as if it were the gospel, which in a way, it was for me.  Marcella managed to communicate her no nonsense style of cooking all the while embroidering the recipes with stories of an Italy that had already stolen my heart. During the 1970s when “Classic” was released, Italy was still very much a rural country. Food culture was so tightly woven into daily life that there was no separation between living and eating. It was all a seamless experience, and a huge contrast with Los Angeles of the same period. Italy rooted me the way LA never did and Marcella thoroughly watered those roots, allowing me to blossom in the kitchen. When I make one of her recipes, like the Bolognese or her stunning osso buco I always hear that voice, rough from cigarettes, down to earth but full of care and encouragement.

I recently laid my copy of Classic Italian Cooking to rest, its spine broken, pages spilling out, marks everywhere. I didn’t need it anymore. It is a part of me. When news of Marcella’s death reached twitter, people responded quickly. My favorite tweet was from @Suebob “May she rest in peace. They’ll be glad to have her tomato sauce with butter in heaven.”  So right. This sauce is emblematic of the genius and simplicity which with she shared the canon of the Italian kitchen. Over the years I’ve adapted the recipe, choosing to dice the onion small, start it in cold oil as she suggests in other recipes and cook it until it is soft and sweet. Then I add the tomato and butter. But the recipe below is the original, unadorned and perfect.