Finding Comfort and Escape in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
A. Cerisse Cohen on the Lessons of a Great Bolognese
Before the pandemic hit, I never cooked. So many other demands on my time—getting drinks with friends and colleagues, attending work-related events, going on dates—felt more important than spending hours in my windowless, cockroach nest of a Brooklyn kitchen, making food that probably wouldn’t be as good as whatever I could purchase just down the street.
My attitude changed once restaurants closed and grocery trips began to feel treacherous. Along with so many others, I began cooking, trying to find lightness and some semblance of control as uncertainty, loss, and fears of illness dominated life in lockdown. I moved in with a partner, cooked for two. We broke up, I moved back into my apartment, cooked for one. Meanwhile, I prepared for a major move to Missoula, Montana, where I planned to attend graduate school. Within months, cooking had become the most stable element in my chaotic life.
Missoula, where I landed in August 2020, offered mountains, fresh air, and a new community. But interesting ingredients were hard to come by in this small, Western college town, and I pined for New York’s vibrant culinary scene and for my days roaming the world as an itinerant art writer. So I bought a series of cookbooks, which nourished my burgeoning culinary education, transported me to new places, and fueled my long standing habit of buying printed matter to mitigate uncomfortable feelings (as far as coping mechanisms go, not the worst).
One of my acquisitions, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, proved especially helpful. Originally published in 1991, the book unites two previous volumes of Hazan’s: The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking (both published in the 1970s). These books, as well as Hazan’s mid-century cooking classes in New York City, are widely credited with introducing real, regional Italian cooking to the United States.
This fall, Knopf published a 30th anniversary edition of the cookbook. In a new introductory essay, chef Lidia Bastianich notes Hazan’s origins as a trained biologist and as a teacher—first of science, then of cooking. She writes: “As a scientist at heart, Marcella made it her mission to profess the truth—the real Italian cuisine—in all her recipes, lessons, and cookbooks. Her recipes are simple, delicious, and authentic, but, most important, they work.”
This emphasis on truth and authenticity make Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking more than a simple primer on a particular type of cuisine. Her singular voice rings throughout the text, her evocative anecdotes and personal revelations making the volume feel both personal and literary. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is part visceral travelog, part lyrical field guide: both for cooking and for generating warmth and sensuality at home.
Even the cookbook’s layout offers a sense of comfort. The light green and yellow cover of my older edition features a crosshatched bowl with a floral, embossed design. Another bowl hovers above. Maroon lettering overlays the image, echoing the maroon lettering inside that introduces the title of each recipe. The cover of the 30th anniversary edition eliminates the bowl design, instead featuring colorful drawings of Hazan’s favorite ingredients—an onion, garlic, herbs, a tomato. Across each edition, elegant simplicity reigns.Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is part visceral travelog, part lyrical field guide: both for cooking and for generating warmth and sensuality at home.
The same is true inside the book. Hazan often introduces her recipes with brief, evocative notes about their origins and flavor profiles. For instance, here’s the entry for Sweet and Sour Tuna Steaks, Trapani Style: “Another savory item from Sicilian cooking’s remarkable seafood repertory, this sliced fresh tuna is simple to do and wonderfully appetizing, its sweet and sour flavor a luscious blend that is neither cloying nor bitingly tart.” Of the nine ingredients that follow, it’s quite possible that you already have most in your pantry—you’ll just need to procure fresh tuna from the market. The recipe consists of four steps, devoid of preciousness and requiring no fancy kitchen implements.
Yet while Hazan’s ingredient lists and instructions are spare, lucid, and direct, her recipes themselves can be time-consuming. Layering flavors is integral to Hazan’s methodology, and it can take minutes or hours to move from one step to the next. The cookbook starts with a list of “FUNDAMENTALS,” which begin with the heading, “Where Flavor Starts.” “Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom,” Hazan writes. She describes “battuto,” “a cut-up mixture of ingredients”; “soffritto,” or what the battuto turns into once you sautée it; and “insaporire,” which means “bestowing taste.” This last technique requires the cook to add “principal ingredients” to the soffritto base, combining everything until flavor meaningfully coats all the ingredients.
Hazan believes that bad food is often the result of impatience. “An imperfectly executed soffritto”—in which the onion may be “merely stewed or incompletely sautéed,” will impair flavor. About insaporire, she writes, like a teacher wagging her finger: “One can often trace the unsatisfying taste, the lameness of the dishes purporting to be Italian in style, to the reluctance of some cooks to execute this step thoroughly, to their failure to give it enough time over sufficient heat, or even to their skipping it altogether.”
One chilly winter afternoon in Missoula, I cooked Hazan’s famous bolognese meat sauce. Minimal, introductory information and a few tips precede the recipe. “Ragù, as the Bolognese call their celebrated meat sauce, is characterized by mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor that any cook can achieve by being careful about a few points,” Hazan tells us. She suggests what type of meat to buy, when to add salt to the meat (immediately), what kind of pot works best (“earthenware is preferred in Bologna and by most cooks in Emilia-Romagna”), and—crucially—she instructs us to “cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect it from the acidic bite of the latter.”
Though the recipe itself includes just five simple steps, their order is crucial, and the recipe requires watching the sauce for three to four hours as you allow each layer of flavor to cook down. The bolognese recipe works in the manner of a perfect short story: The writer includes the simplest arrangement of just the right elements, allowing the language to somehow, magically, expand outward and reverberate far past its own contours. I spent hours moving between my couch, where I curled up to read a novel, and the stovetop, where I added elements to the pot, stirred, and tasted.
As the winter sun went down, I poured a glass of wine and further opened myself to the heady aromas filling my apartment. Butter, onion, celery, carrot, meat, milk, nutmeg, wine, and tomatoes blended together slowly, lovingly, playing off each other as they simmered. And when my friends arrived to share the meal with me, my apartment was fragrant, warm, and filled, I hope, with the care I’d put into the dish.
That intimate gathering around food, too, is part of Hazan’s grand plan. “Food, whether simple or elaborate, is cooked in the style of the family,” she writes. “There is no such thing as Italian haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead to the home, to la cucina di casa—the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking.” And meal by meal, kitchen to kitchen (to occasional dive bar), my graduate school friends and their partners became my Missoula family.
Hazan’s celebratory conception of the kitchen, la cucina di casa, embraces the domesticity I’d rejected in New York: I’d been single and career-oriented for most of my twenties, averse to traditional notions of femininity and settling down. I’d lumped cooking into those categories. Yet Hazan helped me see that nourishing oneself, and sharing a family meal, is simply foundational. To privilege invention and labor outside the kitchen, but not inside it, is to play into patriarchal distinctions of value.
Hazan herself was a cook, an educator, and an incredible creative success. She remains influential for many contemporary cooks. Her adoration of the anchovy—“Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produces headier flavor than anchovies. It is an exceptionally adaptable flavor”—foreshadows the long reign of Alison Roman. Her careful ideas about layering flavors and her scientific approach to the kitchen find their echoes in the methodologies of Samin Nosrat (who, in her blurb for the new book, also credits Hazan with beginning her obsession with the bay leaf).
I was wrong, too, to think that cooking and poring over recipes might be confining. Hazan’s writing, like any great book, allows the reader a sense of escape. Flip through her pages, and she’ll transport you to Venice, Florence, Sicily, and back again.
Not long ago, in my kitchen in Los Angeles, where I recently relocated, I made Hazan’s polenta shortcake with raisins, dried figs, and pine nuts. She introduces the recipe with a charming anecdote: “When James Beard sojourned in Venice many years ago, he was fascinated by this local specialty, whose nuts and dried fruits are redolent of imperial Venice’s trading days with the Near East, and he asked me to provide this recipe.”
I offered a slice of this dense, fennel-studded cake to a companion as we prepared another Hazan recipe—eggplant and ricotta sauce, Sicilian style—together. He skinned tomatoes and eggplant as I chopped onions and garlic. I hadn’t read the recipe carefully beforehand, and it turned out we needed to steep the eggplant for an hour, “so that the salt can draw off most of its bitter juices.”
I poured two glasses of the Sicilian wine my cooking partner brought over, and we moved between my couch and the kitchen, letting Hazan’s guidance structure our evening. When it was time, the two of us patiently tenderized the eggplant, browned the onion, and sautéed the tomatoes. We indicated with each careful step how we might, ultimately, take care of each other.