Leaving Venice: A Conversation with Marcella and Victor
Hazan In February, 1955, Marcella Polini and Victor Hazan were married, in the
bride's hometown of Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna. Later that year, they moved to New York
City, and in an apartment in Forest Hills, she cooked for the first time in her life: for
Victor, her husband. Thus began an extraordinary culinary career and an enduring marriage
of interests and tastes.
Today Marcella Hazan is recognized as one of
the world's great cooking teachers and a key influence on the phenomenal popular growth of
Italian cuisine in America and other countries. Together with Victor, an authority on
Italian wines, she conducts week-long classes in their Venice apartment, atop a 16th
century palazzo, which draw students from around the globe. This fall, their mutual
dedication to the pleasures of the table is memorably recorded in a long-awaited new
cookbook, her fifth, entitled MARCELLA CUCINA.
At the same time, the Hazans are writing a new
chapter in their personal and culinary love story. They have announced that in November,
1998, they will end their classes in Venice. They will leave Italy, and will reside
permanently in the United States, at their new home in Long Boat Key, Florida, where they
have spent the past several winters.
In a recent interview, the Hazans reflected on
this new era in their lives. They spoke candidly -- in two voices but with one mind -- of
the changes that face them moving to a different country, in retiring from public
activity, and about the continuity and collaboration that sustains both their work and
Your new book is very personal -- a prominent editor
called it a "love story" -- and it is filled with memories and observations as
well as dishes you have found all over Italy. How did it come to be this way?
VH: Originally this was to have been a book about the regions of Italy,
with interviews of different cooks -- an academic book, a research book. But the book did
not turn out that way. Though there are recipes from all the different places we have
been, they have been recast in Marcella's mind, and on our palates, and in our kitchen.
The versions of authentic dishes are hers. They are genuine, but they are not immutable.
They have become personal and the book became personal.
And that is because our personal life has always been the life from which we drew the
material, the experience and the substance of what Marcella was teaching and writing. Even
when cooking became a professional activity for Marcella, there wasn't a sharp separation,
as there so often is, between the profession and the personal life. There was a fluid
connection. Food for us never stopped being everyday life -- and everything came right out
of her everyday life. MH: And what brings these recipes together, what connects everything
in the new book, is that these are all the ones I like. You should see my notebooks, with
all the recipes I tested that I did not put in the book. The dishes have to please me; I
have to know that they can be done in America; I have to know that they are not very
complicated or mysterious for people. And, they have to satisfy him!
Yet Victor is more than just a taster. You have worked
closely together on all your books, with Victor as translator and editor of Marcella's
recipes into English. Was the collaboration different on this book?
MH:The collaboration has changed over the years as we know more what
to do. We always work together: we go to restaurants together, we go to different markets
together. If I am alone, and hear about a new preparation -- from a woman in a butcher
shop let's say -- I run home and tell him. We teach together in the classes and when we
eat, with the students, Victor is there.
And then we discuss everything: the classes, the questions, the interests of the people.
Sometimes they ask things we never thought about. Is this important? Should we write about
this? And in this book we did it more, talking about what they want to know. But also, we
decided really to do what we like, to make the book about our house, about our way of
cooking. VH: What happened with this book, I think, is that we let
ourselves go more. Before we were more guarded, and perhaps we didn't feel as confident
that people were as interested in who we were as persons. The earlier books were more
straightforward, setting down recipes. But now, we could let go.
Your life in Venice is fabled. People sign up for classes
years in advance, to shop, cook and eat with you there. How can you be giving this up? Why
are you leaving Venice?
VH: Why would anybody in his or her right mind leave Venice? It is perhaps
the most astonishing and most beautiful artifact ever produced by human kind. We live in a
perfect house that took us 14 years to put together. It is blissfully free of traffic and
of mechanical noise. Its Rialto market supplies some of the finest fish and produce in the
world. So why are we leaving? MH:It is beautiful, but it is just too much. VH: Marcella and I have enjoyed all it has to offer for two decades. But
we are now well past middle age, and frankly what we require most is warm winters and
reliable, prompt, reassuring medical care.
Neither of those two things is available in Venice or anywhere else in Italy. So, we are
trading the care that a 500-year-old house requires with the care-freeness of a
meticulously maintained 10-year old condominium. We are trading cold clammy winters for
dry, sunny ones ... MH:And Victor is not mentioning that I am a mother! Our son Giuliano
lives in Sarasota and we want to be near him. Now it's not the main reason, but he's
getting married this fall, and they say they want to have children. We certainly hope so.
Also, our closest friends live not in Italy, but in the States, so we will be closer to
Why have you settled in Florida?
MH:Giuliano is there of course, and another reason is the climate.
But we would not have gone there if we hadn't discovered the Gulf Coast, and its tranquil
waters. Both of us were born on the shores of the Adriatic, in Emilia-Romagna.
So we are tied to the sea. The sea is in our minds, it is part of our world. The changes
of light and weather reflected in the sea are very important to us; walking on the beach
is very important to us. In Long Boat Key we have found our ideal: we are on a beautiful
beach with a very quiet sea like the Adriatic. And in that sense we are not making a
tremendous change: we are going back to our origins.
Won't life be very different though, without classes,
without students in your home?
MH:This is also a return to what was. I will cook only for my husband
again -- without thinking about the book or thinking about the teaching. I can cook
freely, without worrying about measuring, about writing, about what I have to talk about.
That is what I want to do. I did it at the beginning and I will go back to that: just
cooking for us.
In your new book, you recall with great feeling the first
meals that you prepared for Victor, when you were newly married. So you still get pleasure
and reward from this, after four decades?
MH:That is still true! We are the same people -- and the book shows
that. This last book is very personal. It goes back through our life, showing what we
like, how we cook, how we shop. It is not just dry recipes: there's a life in there, our
life. The first page is a photo of our doorbell, downstairs in Venice. Ring the bell and
enter the book. Enter our lives.
But this book shows not only what has been, but also what will be. Because we are the same
people and we live the same life, it will be like this -- a little bit different but also
the same -- in Florida.
But can you transfer your cooking to Florida? Can you
find good food, to cook in your style, so far from your beloved Rialto market?
VH: We are encouraged by how well we can do it! MH:Well, I cannot walk to the market, it is true. But we shop almost
every day -- we don't stock up on food like most Americans do. I shop at a very good
supermarket in Longboat Key -- called Publix -- and we go to the farmer's market to get
our tomatoes and other vegetables. They were picked that morning and that is getting close
to the freshness of the produce we have in Rialto -- though not the variety. VH: And in Florida there is pick-your-own produce, which we like to do,
and that is even fresher than in Venice. MH:Also, I do what I recommend in the books -- I get to know the
people at the supermarket. For instance, the meat is very good but there are not many cuts
on the shelves. So I talk to the manager of the meat department and they help me get what
I want. And I have Angelo at the Publix fish department, and we talk about fish.
And can you then cook in an authentic Italian style?
MH:I can do it but it comes from letting the market tell me what to
cook. You can't be as sure of finding things as in Rialto, but if you don't have a fixed
idea of what you need, you can always find something that is good. For example the other
day in the supermarket, I said to Victor, "Look at the beautiful rapini." It was
fresh and beautiful... VH: ...and she came home and made an extraordinary pasta sauce with the
brocoletti rape, garlic and olive oil, just like in Venice. And recently, we picked okra
ourselves, the little ones that you can cook whole, and Marcella made a wonderful dish
with it, Italian style. MH:Okra is not an Italian vegetable at all, but I could use it. I
combined the okra with some nice chopped fresh tomato, some salt, some lemon juice, some
olive oil -- stir and stick it in the oven and it is baked ... that's all.
You have always insisted that one can't cook well without
good olive oil and good cheese -- and those can't be found in supermarkets. How do you
manage in Florida?
MH:We didn't know it was there, but we found in Sarasota a very good
shop, Casa Italia, for Italian products. There I can get the best dried pasta, very good
olive oil and wonderful cheeses. He even has a very good pecorino -- which is not easy to
find even in New York -- it's as good as, maybe even better than Venice.
Are you exploring some new foods in Florida, foods that
you don't have in Italy?
MH:Of course I am happy to have corn for eating on the cob, and
varieties of sweet potatoes, which we don't have in Italy. And I like mangoes. I am using
mangoes for dessert, the same way I do peaches in Italy -- as I do in the new book. I
slice them and toss the slices with white wine, and with a little bit of sugar.
Now, the fish is completely different. Much of the seafood in Florida is wonderful, like
the shrimp, and I like pompano and grouper. But there isn't the variety as in Venice, and
the fish are huge, so I must always work with big fillets or steaks. With different
textures and taste, you have to adapt your preparations. That's why we rented a house in
the Hamptons on Long Island for two summers, so I could work with the fish that is there,
like bluefish, for new recipes that I put in the book.
And recently I discovered a fish in Florida that I didn't know existed, called yellowtail
red snapper. It's a very nice fish, and I used it in an authentic Neapolitan recipe which
is in the book - - in aqua pazza -- fish in crazy water
... VH: ... and it was very good.
What are the things about Venice you will miss?
MH:Sometimes I get a little depressed about vegetables, because they
are not so fresh and nice as in Venice. For example artichokes, there is only one type
here, not many varieties like in Italy -- and the ones I have found lately in Florida,
they don't call me to be cooked.
But I am hopeful too, because I now see many things that were not here years before -- and
maybe next year or the year after, more varieties will come. One of the reasons we talk
about so many vegetables and ingredients in the book is so people here will become
interested, and ask for them. And maybe if the people ask, they will be in the market. VH: One thing we will miss a lot from Venice is the restaurants, the
possibility of going out and having a variety of dishes. There are so many good
restaurants there, serving real food, well prepared. But in Florida, we can't eat out
often -- we really do't enjoy eating out more than once a week. MH:Yes, the restaurants are what we will miss more than all the
ingredients. Here so many restaurants are just too complicated for me, they serve this
tower of food where you have to look between the floors to find what you have to eat. The
ethnic restaurants in Florida, like Chinese or Japanese are not so good -- and we don't go
to Italian restaurants. There's one small unpretentious restaurant, where we can get very
good fried shrimp, or a piece of fish, simply broiled. That one I like.
It is interesting that you two find eating out
monotonous. Most Americans think that eating at home is boring.
VH: People in America think that cooking at home is monotonous? What do
they do with all the cookbooks they buy?
Looking to the future, you are leaving a legendary
kitchen in Venice, but you have a newly remodeled kitchen awaiting you in Florida. Does it
"call you" to cook in it?
VH: We have made this a kitchen where Marcella can really cook as she
wants. It is in an unusual E-shape, with the cooktop placed on one of the peninsulas. You
know she does not like cooking on a stove facing the wall. It is like being punished, like
being in class and being sent to stand in the corner. Why should you spend so many hours
looking at the wall? MH: And this stove, I can go around it, with a counter on either
side. I can chop here, cook here, go around and look at something else. And there are some
other things that are new: at one end of the cooktop is a steel counter that I can fold
down and out of the way. Under the cooktop I have spaces with steel shelves so I can take
a hot pan off the stove when I am done with it and it's out of the way. VH: We took one of the features from our Venice apartment, a glass hood
over the stove. Most Americans don't know it, but when you cook all the time, you need a
vent to exhaust the cooking fumes. In Venice we are on the top floor of an old building,
with beautiful roof line and ceiling lines that we didn't want to obscure. The glass hood
allows you to see everything.
In Florida, we did the same. We have a hood constructed of clear plate glass held together
with stainless steel brackets. It is very beautiful, like a crystal crown over the
cooktop. It sparkles when the lights are on.
Also, we want to use all the space for the production of what is most important to us --
the everyday meal. And so we got rid of an enormous side-by-side refrigerator-freezer. Now
this also runs counter to what most Americans do. They are attached to this idea of
storing food. We do not store food. We buy foods and we cook them. So we put in a new
refrigerator, with only a small freezer drawer. It has ice cream, it has vodka -- what
else do you need? MH:Now when I prep, I don't like to stand if possible. In this
kitchen in Florida, I can sit and prep. I have the cabinet with the a pullout counter. I
have the garbage can on wheels I can roll to where I need it. Then I place my stool where
I want it -- and I do all my preparation sitting down facing the sea.