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.


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! πŸ˜‰ 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

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Comments 112

  1. Viviane Bauquet Farre / food & style

    Jaden! You are just wonderful. Having read Marcella’s books and admired her tenacity, talent and pure joy for good food and cooking, I enjoyed reading our post, more than you could imagine. I bet she just adored you… How could she not? Another of those all-important “love” moments… The photos and your words reflect the feelings beautifully.

  2. Sasa

    Isn’t that the kind of love we’d all love to have? Thank you (and Marcella!) for reminding me I’ve got to take my eyes off everything else and look at my partner with love more often.

  3. Couscous & Consciousness

    What a wonderful experience and a delightful post. I am a big fan of Marcella’s, so I am extremely envious that you had the opportunity to meet her and even better to cook with her. But most of all what a thrill to be able to connect with and share such intimate moments with Marcella and Victor – it is such a privilege to experience that no matter who it is with.

  4. Stephanie

    Oh, Jaden, how cool! What a wonderful entry. I am so jealous (and my husband will be, too, when I tell him!). BTW, he’s been making me that tomato sauce (we just call it “Marcella sauce”) for years and it continues to amaze. And for the record, I’ve always considered Victor a pretty sexy guy. πŸ™‚

  5. Kim in MD

    Sweet post, Jaden! What an adorable couple Victor and Marcella are, and your photos and commentary really express their love for each other. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! πŸ™‚

  6. Deborah Horn

    I read in Marcella’s facebook post just how much she enjoyed your visit, Jaden. Your blog post is a delightful account of the day. (I also want to thank you for following our group on facebook as we cook our way through Essentials.)

  7. Lulu

    Great post! πŸ™‚ Sounds like you had a lovely time. The bit about rolling the eggrolls like a cigarette made me smile.
    btw, that portable butane stove (sounds handy). The link… did you mean maybe appears to point to a restaurant.

  8. Alta

    Oh wow, you are one lucky gal. I would have died and gone to heaven to meet Marcella Hazan. But to cook for her and her husband? Were you nervous? I mean, being on TV is one thing, but cooking for someone so revered? Eeeek! I would’ve sweated all over those eggrolls! Those sausages make my mouth water. yum.


    Thank you so much for sharing this story – not just about the experience of cooking in their home, but for understanding and sharing the love they share after 55 years of marriage. That moment makes me weep and grateful for my own husband. Bravo Jaden

  10. Maryann

    What a nice story as I love Marcella and her wonderful cooking. So happy you got to experience cooking for her. The sausage with no fennel, hmmmm ya learn something new every day! Oh and thanks for the recipe, gonna try very soon.

  11. DessertForTwo

    What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing! I’m reading The United States of Arugula and it talks about the rise to fame of Ms. Hazan. It’s so great to see a current photo and hear about their life! Thanks a million!

  12. Chelsea Britt

    I loved this post… absolutely wonderful story! I pulled out my copy of Marcella’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book” after reading it, and couldn’t help notice her adoring dedication to her husband in there as well! She ends her dedication by saying “His name really belongs on the title page.” What a great story of food and love! Thank you for sharing such an incredible opportunity!

  13. claire

    I’ve read this post twice, and twice, tears just rolled down my cheeks. This is the kind of love that I’ve always wish for my parents. They are in their late 70s and still together, though dad still bathe and takes good care of my wheel-chair bound mom, they seem to bicker everyday of their lives. If only my parents were like them…. but I wish to grow old and stay in love with my jaan just like Victor and Marcella.

  14. Alejandra

    Oh wow! This is such an amazing story. What a gift to spend a day with them–to experience that love and wisdom. And you shared the story with us absolutely beautifully. Thank you!

  15. sal

    I adore her books and read and reread them like they are novels. Tomato sauce with butter and onion is bubbling on my stove at this moment!

  16. san

    what a lovely and touching story of food, life and love …. on and from my favorite authors….I have been cooking Italian dishes from Marcella’s cookbooks for years…it’s hard to think that she is already in her 80’s…..thank you for sharing.

  17. Sara

    What an WONDERFUL experience of a lifetime! Beautifully captured into photographs and words!!! πŸ™‚ You Rock! πŸ™‚

  18. Linda

    This is such a lovely post…
    You are a lucky girl!
    I have been in love with Marcella and her recipes for over 30 years…her older books are yellowed and stained and well used in my kitchen…
    Thank you for the wonderful pics!

  19. Kelsey

    What a wonderful story jaden! I love marcella and have always cooked from her books and enjoyed her work. How wonderful to meet them and document your visit
    So lovingly and professionally.

  20. claire

    thank you jaden, last night, i cooked pasta with tomato, butter and onions, fried some chorizos and finish it off with panna cotta. sure enough, i got compliments and i was thinking of you and your wonderful experience with victor and marcella. i really love that post. i can read and read and read…..and never seem to get tired of it. i can always imagine the expression…..the feelings of everything you wrote and really thanks a lot, can’t be more happier, you are a part of me now (SMILE)

  21. Carole

    What a wonderful recounting of a remarkable afternoon. Your post tells of love of food and love of each other. Brava.

  22. Γ₯ngel

    I thought the name “Giuliano Hazan” sounded familiar… As it turns out, his cookbook “Every Night Italian” is the very first cookbook I ever owned. My sister got it for me, in part as a gag gift when I got married. “Now that you’re out of college and married, you’d better learn how to actually cook!” It took us a few years to crack it open, but once we did we regretted waiting so long. I love how simple and yet delicious everything is.

    It’s thanks to Giuliano, and Marcella by extension, that I now know there’s so much more to Italian cooking than Sunday gravy. My grandmother is a wonderful cook, but our family get-togethers were huge β€” she has ten kids and fifteen grandchildren β€” and so we almost always had some form of pasta with her homemade sauce.

    I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know more about Marcella herself. I’m definitely going to have to find some of her own cookbooks to check out.

  23. Vicki

    I love Marcella Hazen! Thank you for sharing your incredibly special day.
    I’ve been reading her books cover to cover since the first one was published. And what an astute guest chef you were. Italians are very possisive about Balsamic vinegar. This I know. But the best part was hearing about their love for each other. Some women are just beyond fortunate to spend their lives with such a man in this day and age.

  24. Helen

    squeeeeeee! Awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

    I hope both Hazans enjoy many, many more years of good health and good food.

    (That’s also how my grandfather taught us to make sausages… just salt and pepper, no fennel.)

  25. Tampa Cheryl

    Thank you for this post. What a great story. I may have to give that tomato sauce a try real soon.

  26. Wookie

    Wowwee. This was an awesome post! Not just because of who you were with (Marcella!Hazan!), but how perfect you were in the whole situation. Very classy Jaden. And really wonderful how connected they are to each other. Nicely done, sister.

  27. Steve Wang

    Great story.

    But why would you pair fried rice with fried spring rolls? Wouldn’t a bowl of wonton noodle soup with lots of leafy green vegetables have been a more appropriate match?

  28. Eleanor Hoh (WokStar)

    Jaden, I just LOVE your writing, always so personal and hilarious esp. about slurp-lash noodle or mounting 5 cameras as us bloggers tend to want to do! Really ‘fondness’ is so important in a relationship. Thank YOU for link and using my ‘traveling kitchen’ i.e. Wok Star Kit to use at Marcella’s, so handy! You are truly a Wok Star, need to post this on my site! Incredible it was a Chinese cooking class that started her off!?

  29. Julie

    What an amazing culinary adventure! I read your post with anticipation and admiration. Kudos to you for managing to cook, eat, learn, teach and share.

  30. Jean

    Hazan’s book, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is my main “go-to”–how neat to have met them.

  31. Lizzie Longenecker

    Holy moly! You met a living legend. Her bolognese is my favorite thing to eat in the world!!

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