I was introduced to Italian cuisine by my parent’s maid in Rome when I was six years old . My mother carried a few of Maria’s recipes back to the U.S. and those became the extent of my repertoire until I bought a copy of Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook in the early 1980s. Marcella taught me the fundamentals of Northern Italian cuisine and I became a cook by striving to emulate her exacting, pedantic, and often hectoring descriptions of how archetypal dishes should look, smell, and taste. It was the functional equivalent of moving from comi to the line under the relentless and painful tutelage of a great chef de cuisine in a classical Escoffier-style restaurant in Lyon.
Photographer’s note: This photo was taken of young Morgan on the SS Rotterdam on his way back from Italy with his parents in the early 60s. He won an on-board talent contest singing “Arrivederci Roma” in his newly acquired Italian.
Once I had mastered the art of making fresh pasta, learned the ropes of stove-top braising, and how to cook fish and vegetables in a cuisine where ingredients take pride of place over technical virtuosity, I began to feel confined as any pupil eventually does with respect to one’s first mentor. My bifurcated rebellion took me both north and south of Marcella’s culinary sweet spot centered on Emilia-Romagna. I spent a decade learning techniques and tools of high-end French cooking, then moved to Italy and began a gastronomic journey into the Mezzogiorno that ended up thirty seven miles off the cost of Tunisia awash in the ancient culinary cross currents of the Mediterranean. Finally, I learned how to cook every bit of everything my wife Patti caught or shot in off the grid Montuckey.
To this day, however, of all the things I cook, from scorpion fish soup to huckleberry catsup, the most requested dishes are invariably Marcella’s. I can bone out a whole suckling pig, stuff it with antelope sausage, and roast it to perfection, but my guests rave about and beg for Marcella’s lasagna verde. When I travel to Europe, the only cookbook on my iPad is her comprehensive The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
This summer and fall I had the opportunity to prepare two tribute meals to Marcella. This first was the Auction Dinner that featured not only two of her lasagnas, but also her recipe for fried zucchini flowers (the best by far of any that I have ever tried) as well as a riff on her versions of fritedda and saor. At the time of the Auction Dinner I had no idea that Marcella was only a month away from joining the choir invisible.
The second dinner was last Saturday night and I cooked it in the immediate aftermath of Marcella’s death at age 89. I had cooked her pasta dishes for the Auction Dinner so I wanted to work with some of her other recipies that I have enjoyed innumerable times over the years. I started in classic Marcella fashion: don’t decide on a dish and go looking for ingredients, look at the ingredients and then decide on a dish. Perhaps the biggest culinary debt I and so many others owe to Marcella is that she taught us how to shop for food as well as cook it.
Our Montana love shack is sixty miles from the nearest supermarket to say nothing of a traditional Italian market such as Marcella’s beloved Rialto market, but we do have two gardens and green house that are still producing even as the snow line creeps down the face of the Continental Divide in early October. I found Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and a couple pounds of perfectly ripe San Marzano tomatoes in the green house, which had been grown with seeds smuggled from Italy. In the freezer, I located six gorgeous chunks of veal shank and in the larder my game stock collection yielded multiple quarts of big horn sheep stock (2008 vintage).
Using the potatoes and herbs from the green house I made Marcella’s Patate Maritate (married potatoes, see Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, page 266), one of my all time tater faves.
I made a fresh tomato sauce from the San Marzanos using her technique of cooking them rapidly in a covered pan and then passing them through a folding mill before finishing them with onions, hot pepper, and fresh basil from the green house (somehow I suspect that she would have thrown a wooden spoon at me if she had caught me sullying the sauce’s purity with some Pantescan oregano, oh well). I combined the sauce with some blanched and shocked green beans in a fusion of Marcella’s fagiolini con pomodoro, aglio e basilica (see Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, page 259) and Julia Child’s haricot vert Provencal.
The carrots, onions, and big horn sheep stock combined with the veal shanks to make a fantastic ossobuco (see The Classic Italian Cook Book, page 256).
By this point, having hued to Marcella’s precise recipes for the better part of a day, I was feeling a touch rebellious. I quickly improvised a dish of Brussels sprouts sprinkled liberally with Bad Byron’s Butt Rub and then roasted in a hot oven.
For the evening’s wine I chose a 1989 Chateau Palmer (Mago tasting note: UFB!!) with apologies to Marcella’s husband Victor, who introduced me to the glories of Italian wine with his under-appreciated books on the subject.
Patti completed the revolt by preparing gluten free chocolate chip brownies and homemade peach ice cream for dessert. But inevitably the most fulsome complements concerned Marcella’s dishes.
Speaking of rebellious tendencies, I do have a couple nits to pick with the adoring obits that have graced the American media since Marcella’s passing. I do not think that it diminishes her role or stature in the pantheon of great cookbook authors and culinary teachers (Marcella was never a chef and I always got the impression that she was proud of the fact), to point out that the farther she strayed from her Emilia-Romagna roots, the less compelling her recipes became. Once you reach Rome and then head south, Marcella’s tendencies to under-season and fierce resistance to cooking without butter become pronounced. I have to admit, however, that Marcella midwifed my understanding of southern regional Italian and Sicilian cuisine because she provided the template against which I could experiment and improve such dishes in situ.
In the end the greatest tribute that I can offer to Marcella is both silent as well as salient: look at my copies of her works. Unique amongst my cookbooks they all suffer from broken backs and loose pages covered with spatters and spills. I have cooked my way through the Hazan corpus with more diligence and loyalty than I have shown to any other author or chef. As Mago would have it, “Marcella, we who are about to dine salute you.”