Meeting Marcella & Victor Hazan

Marcella Hazan

It’s funny how a little thing like lunch can be a life changer.

For Marcella Hazan, it was when Craig Claiborne of the NY Times came to lunch in 1970….and shortly thereafter, celebrities, writers, chefs and other-important-people-who-can-make-your-career started coming to Marcella’s classes to learn about authentic Italian cooking. Six best-selling books, Lifetime Achievement awards and changing the way Americans cook, think, enjoy Italian food…that’s Marcella.

My life changing lunch was last week.

It was a bit unexpected – I’ve been friends with Lael and Guiliano Hazan (Marcella’s son) for the past couple of years but never imagined that I’d be meeting Marcella. And it wasn’t until Pamela Sheldon Johns swung by the area on book tour that I had that chance. A few emails, text messages and phone calls with Pamela and it was decided that lunch at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota was the plan, and that Marcella would be joining us.

I really didn’t know what to expect, I had heard Marcella was intense and intimidating, but I would have expected nothing less from the “doyenne of Italian cooking in America“…a fervent force of nature, indeed!

Lunch was pleasant, I was on my best behavior and didn’t slurp my Pork Belly Ramen Noodles like I normally would, for fear that a long slingy noodle would slurp-lash rich broth at my dining companions. Conversation flitted between Pamela’s cooking school in Italy to olive oil to cookbooks to book tour to travel.

No, wait. Pamela and I flitted. Marcella listened, at moments her eyes would gaze away and just when I thought we had bored her to tears, she’d smile and cut our sing-song fluttery conversation with her wisdom, bluntness and staunchy opinions.

And that was our lunch.

But that wasn’t THE LUNCH that I was referring to.

As we were about to leave the Ritz, Marcella wanted to know when I was going to come to her house to cook Chinese food. She has a fondness for Chinese food that has gone unfulfilled here in Sarasota (our Chinese-American restaurants here in town have a bad habit of drowning every dish in the same nasty, goopy brown sauce.) I recalled reading that a Chinese cooking class is what started it all for her in 1969.

Phone numbers were exchanged.

The next day, Marcella called, “Hello, this is Marcella. We met yesterday. Do you remember me? When are you coming over?”

Hmm…Marcella…marcella…name sounds familiar…OF COURSE I REMEMBER!

Lunch at Marcella and Victor’s home was scheduled and I decided to make My Mother’s Famous Chinese Crispy Egg Rolls and Chinese Sausage Fried Rice, both from my book and both are dishes that I could make on the fly without a recipe. Important, because while I couldn’t pretend that cooking for culinary royalty was a normal thing in my daily routine, at least I could stack the odds in my favor that the food would turn out good.

Their condo, overlooking the happy blue sea of Gulf, is elegantly decorated with treasures from around the world. A richly colored, cone-shaped lantern, as large as a satellite dish, hangs mightily at the center of the living room.

“It’s Venetian,” Victor says, “have you ever been to Venice?”

I love Victor. He’s quick, sharp, witty and still a ladies man. He’s dressed in slacks, button down shirt, both perfectly pressed, trimmed goatee and his short, grey hair styled in that messy-tousled way.

He’s still sexy at 81.

Victor Hazan

Marcella is 87 years old (her birthday was last week) and health problems have taken their toll on her body. I can imagine what she was like in her energetic younger years.

But these days, Marcella is comfortable at her dining room table, situated between the kitchen and the view of the Gulf’s peaceful blue.

She sits within fingertips reach of the kitchen, a cigarette in hand, only getting up and shuffling to the walk-in closet converted to a pantry and storage to retrieve items that I needed to cook with.

She senses that I’m reluctant to ask for too much, the shuffling is labored and the cigarette has to be put down, “Tell me what you need. I have many things, just ask. The right tool always makes it easier.”

I break out of my normal blogger routine of capturing everything on camera and film, my friend Shelisa helps me snap a few photos while being respectful of the Hazan’s privacy. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of the hardest things to do. Given my way, I would have mounted five cameras to the ceiling to record it all, especially if I happened to do something silly…like burn down their kitchen.

They live in a strict condo community. No bbq grills, no gas flames. I knew they had an electric stove, so I brought my own portable butane powered gas stove and wok. Marcella looks at me, smiles wickedly and says, “oh, that’s illegal here.” (but we used it anyways….shhhh!)

Making eggrolls

Shelisa and I stood a couple of feet from Marcella’s seat at the dining room and we proceeded to roll a couple dozen egg rolls. Then Marcella wanted to learn and so we brought out a wooden TV tray to her and she put down her cigarette.

The secret to rolling a good egg roll is to keep it tight and even, something that takes a little practice, even for Marcella. The first couple didn’t turn out so good, and I froze for split sec…how do I tell culinary royalty that her egg roll isn’t quite right? Do I quickly re-roll under the table without her seeing? Do I gently scold like my mama does to me!? What if she really knows how to roll and she’s just testing me?

“Marcella, we have to roll tighter, like a cigarette. Like this…”

And boom. She understood.

Making eggrolls

We rolled enough for lunch and enough to store a batch in the freezer for another time.

Eggrolls

There were many things that I learned once the four of us sat down for our lunch of Egg Rolls and Fried Rice. Like most Italians, lunch is Marcella and Victor’s main meal of the day, the most important one, so Victor opened a bottle of wine, the table was set and we sat and dined.

I had forgotten to bring a bottle of Chinese Black Vinegar for the egg rolls. And if you didn’t know how to eat an egg roll properly, let me tell you. You first take a little bite on one of the egg roll. Holding the egg roll upright, spoon just a few drops of Chinese Black Vinegar down into the egg roll, so that it dribbles all the way down on the inside of the roll. That deep, musky tang of the vinegar adds another flavor dimension.

But if you don’t have Chinese Black Vinegar, cheap balsamic vinegar will do. Notice I said “CHEAP” (Chinese Black Vinegar is $3 a bottle).

But how do I ask the Hazan’s if they have cheap balsamic?! So I just asked for balsamic.

Victor brought out a eeety beety tiny bottle of balsamic.

Marcella looks at the bottle, looks at me, then points to the bottle, “You know, this is $85 a bottle, aged 25 years.”

And then a little bickering began, with Marcella telling Victor in Italian something about 25 year old special balsamic, $85 a bottle, our American guests will use too much, they won’t appreciate! And then no more special balsamic for me!

Well, I don’t speak Italian, but that’s exactly what *I* would tell my husband! ;-) They bickered back and forth for a while, and I think Victor won, because the bottle stayed put on the table.

Very carefully, I opened the bottle…Marcella had her eye on me…I looked at the cork and declared, “oh, this balsamic vinegar won’t work well, it’s too thick and sweet!” and sent Victor off to find a more “tart and runny balsamic”…i.e. the CHEAP STUFF.

Among the lessons that I learned that afternoon:

  • Real Italian sausage has no fennel, “Why all sausage have fennel? I don’t understand. Italian sausage just simple salt and pepper.”
  • While we ended our meal with an espresso, Marcella ended hers with a glass of Gentleman Jack whiskey, “I cannot drink wine anymore, I have a reaction. So I drink whiskey.” And from Victor, I learned that a little sugar in the espresso brings out so much flavor.
  • They love a big, thick rare steak. Massage the steak with salt and pepper, place on grill, and when you see 1/4″ of the side cooked and cook the other side 1/4″ inch. In separate frying pan, heat up olive oil, garlic, rosemary. When it’s very very hot, take the grilled steak and place in the olive oil pan. Let it sizzle just a bit, flip and do that a couple of times, but be careful, you’re just coating the steak, not cooking it further.

But the life changing moment for me was not about the food, it was a lesson on fondness.

Some days, my husband and I are so busy that we hardly even have a chance to meet eyes. Even when we’re not busy, our eyes are on our children.

That day, during every story that Victor told of Marcella, and Marcella told of Victor, their eyes would lock for a moment, they’d share a smirk-smile and it was evident that this was more than love. This was 55 years of fondness that they still have for each other.

I can’t quite explain it in words, but this is what growing old together, forever, in love means.

Marcella and Victor Hazan

Victor sent me home with a package of Italian sausage, custom made for them by Paul Bertolli, meat, fat, salt, pepper and absolutely no fennel.

Custom made Italian Sausage

And a few nights later, we grilled the sausages and also made Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter that she’s famous for. What a fine meal it was!

The recipe for her tomato sauce is so simple – just 3 ingredients: butter, onion and tomatoes. Recipe for Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Comments 112

  1. viv

    Wonderful read. What an amazing opportunity. As I told you before, she is one of my favorite cookbook authors and her butter + onion red sauce the basis for every single pasta dish with red sauce that it’s ever cooked at our home. Lucky. lucky girl, Jaden. Marcella is a living treasure. xo

  2. ray

    What a nice story! And you lucky dog with that sausage … and my favorite of Marcella’s three fresh tomato sauces. MMMM.

  3. Amy @ The Bitchin' Wives Club

    What an amazing afternoon!! Marcella’s Bolognese sauce is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and am proud to be able to make. That is a wonderful story and one I can imagine you sharing with your children and friends for years to come. :)

  4. SoireeChef

    Thanks for sharing your amazing experience, Jaden. The pictures of Marcella are beautiful. I travel with her books as I move across the globe; her recipes inspire me.

  5. Shelisa

    Jaden, you did an awesome job on the article. I smiled from start to finish. love the story!

    Always an amazing job!
    Shelisa

  6. Amy Viny

    Jaden-Thanks for such a lovely post. The lesson of fondness such a beautiful gift. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

  7. Louise at Livin Local

    This reads like an ode to the soul of a lovely shared meal. Lessons learned:
    Cooking is about sharing.
    No book can replicate the experience of learning side by side from a master.
    Being polite to a fault (esp with balsamic) is an essential skill.
    Romance CAN linger lovingly for many, many years.

  8. Lynn

    How wonderful! I’m so happy for you that you had such an amazing opportunity to share your lovely food with such lovely people.

  9. KJ

    What a wonderful story. Marcella and Victor sound like great dinning companions. It is a blessing to have your food loved.

  10. Alanna

    No cameras, maybe, but your words paint the pictures that bring us into the kitchen. Lovely storytelling, a dream come true, a memory for a lifetime, one told, ever with fondness.

  11. Lisa

    I love this story, especially when she calls and asks if you remember her, and when you point out that the egg rolls should be tight like a cigarette. What a wonderful experience–and Victor is indeed quite dapper for a man of his age!

  12. Lyndsey

    What a nice post Jaden! I feel like I was there with you….okay I wish I was there with you! I just love how good food and good company go hand in hand!

    So…when are you going to come over and cook some good Chinese food…You know I can’t get any at the Chinese restaurants around here! :D

  13. J Martin

    Loving the contrast of black and white with the color photos- sets the story for a time gone by. Love that you not only capture the soul and spirit of the Hazan family which is a legacy – but that food is always a common thread in our life. We are very blessed to have both the Italian and the Asian influences in our area – bursting with talent!

  14. Diane-The W.H.O.L.E.Gang

    Jaden you have the coolest life! To meet such a culinary legend and then get to cook for her and spend time together. So cool! I love the end of the story. Around our house we are very often moving too fast and not stopping enough. Between running a successful executive coaching firm and me with my blogging and teach people to live gluten free, we spend almost all of our time working. Oh, and we still have a 16 year old at home with no license. It was so nice to see that reminder. I’ve been married only 22 years but we are still very fond of each other but we must nurture that. Thanks for the great story. And next time you’re in the northern Virginia area, I’d love to cook for you!

  15. Giovanna

    What a wonderful story, what a wonderful telling of it. Thanks for sharing–I’ll try to remember to lock eyes and smiles more often with my husband!

  16. cathy

    Longtime lurker, etc… This is so beautiful. Every part of this post spoke to me. I love how you shared the *rhythm* of this lunch — not just what it meant to you. I felt like I was right there with you in your heart as you shared and connected. You are so gifted in writing about how food can make meaningful connections between all kinds of folks.

    Beautiful.

  17. Melinda

    Marcella’s book is a very special recipe book to me. It was given to me by one of my patients in 1980. It was one of the first cook books I had and I have loved everything I have made from it. Thanks for this lovely account of your day with Marcella and Victor. How fun to visit their home and spend time with them cooking! Brilliant.

  18. Deanna

    What a fantastic way to spend the day. I have no idea what I would make for culinary royalty. When I worked in catering we made spring rolls for an event and after 3 I was banished because one of the other girls was kicking my butt at it. The reason for her success? She rolled her own cigarettes.

  19. Katie @ goodLife {eats}

    Love this post! I feel the same way with my husband. Life is about the kids 24/7. I know it’s just because they’re so young, but I definitely want some more “us” time without the kids involved. Beautiful photos!

  20. Tinky

    Totally a great tribute to them–and it looks as hough they loved meeting YOU, too. I am getting into the kitchen NOW to make that tomato sauce.

  21. Angela@spinachtiger

    Oh I am so jealous and happy for your experience. I have a Cooking Italy group and we cook almost exclusively from Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking. Even though I’m Italian, I’ve learned so much from her. I’ve spoken to Lael and Giuliano and interviewed them and have a good understanding of what Marcella is trying to teach us.

    We’ve had a trial trying to find “unfenneled” sausage, so we usually make our own, but it doesn’t look as good as what you got to take home.

  22. Lynne

    Great story! Did not know that about the fennel – I bet that sausage she sent home with you is amazing! Will definitely make that sauce….SOON!!!
    XO

  23. Sandra McKenna

    What a beautiful and touching story Jaden. The Hazan’s sound like an wonderful couple. The more I come to know you my friend the more I am blown away by the depth and breadth of your passion not only for food but for life. You aren’t missing a moment.

  24. Gwenn

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. That is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Is it weird that I want to make egg rolls AND Italian sausage and Marcella’s Tomato Sauce for dinner tomorrow? Your post made my mouth water!

  25. The Italian Dish

    What an honor to meet her. I read “Amacord” and it was a great read. It’s so funny that she loves to sip whiskey and smoke cigarettes and she’s 87 years old!

  26. Dianne Jacob

    Great story, Jaden. The next time you come to Oakland I’ll take you to a Chinatown store where we can buy black vinegar for $1.49 per bottle!

  27. shauna

    Jaden, you amaze me every day. There is so much goodness to this post, so much that astonishes me. But mostly, it’s the tenderness with which you write about this afternoon. And the way you noticed their fondness (what a lovely word). Thank you for sharing this.

  28. Lauren

    Jaden, that was sensational. I never was old enough to notice those exchanges between my grandparents, but every so often I see it in my parents and it’s always a treasure. I truly hope that I find that one day. From the little but inconsequential bickering to the twinkle in our eyes when they meet – perfect. Thank you, this was exactly what I needed today :).

  29. Winnie

    Jaden,
    I am crying. Yes, crying. The lesson in “fondness”. Crying. What a day! Thank you for sharing every bit of it. The egg rolls, the fennel-less sausage, the tomato sauce, and the fondness. You rock.

  30. Nancy (n.o.e.)

    Jaden, I saw your tweets about this and absolutely love how you wrote the post. Beautiful and touching – I have tears in my eyes; thanks for sharing your life changing lunch. You’re inspiring me to spend more time with Marcella’s book.

  31. Fran

    What a marvelous story! It was told with such a calm tone, although you were in the presence of people you looked up to and respected so much. Some people would probably be frazzled and annoying, but look at the smiles on their faces. No stress there.

    I am so happy you wrote about the sausage having no fennel . I bought some sausage at my local market and noticed it was missing fennel. It’s the sausage the store makes in their butcher department — not prepackaged. I couldn’t figure out why the fennel was missing and hadn’t been back since I purchased it so I hadn’t had a chance to ask yet, but you answered the question.

    Thanks!

  32. Chris

    What a lovely post, I felt as if I were right there with you. Loved the photos too; thanks so much for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *