For Marcella Hazan, Italian food wasn't spaghetti and meatballs or pizza buried in cheese, and, in fact, never really existed as a simple meal on a red-checked tablecloth. The food of her native land was really the food of individual regions that through the ages had been independent, sometimes hostile, and certainly not prone to mimicking their enemies' cuisine at the family dinner table.
She made it her life's work to preserve and innovate recipes that reflected the best of regional cooking in Italy and in the process introduced legions of Americans to the true foods of her native land.
A straight-talking cookbook author and teacher, Hazan died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Fla., said her husband, Victor. She was 89 and had been in failing health for several months.
Hazan, who was born in a small Italian fishing village on the Adriatic Sea and moved to New York City in the late 1950s after her marriage, was revered in the food world and beloved by home cooks, who found her earthy advice to be bracing and her recipes to be both doable and delicious.
Julia Child once called Hazan "my mentor in all things Italian." The New York Times' Craig Claiborne, who discovered Hazan when, as she recalled, "my cooking had been simply of the wifely and motherly kind," called her "a national treasure."
In 2000 she was given the James Beard Foundation's lifetime achievement award, one of cooking's highest honors.
Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cook Book," published in 1973, and "More Classic Italian Cooking" (1978) were updated and combined into "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" in 1992. All of them admonished home cooks to start with only the best ingredients: the freshest vegetables, fruits and herbs; the highest-quality meats, poultry and fish.
"Marcella Hazan has been one of the most influential teachers and cookbook writers of her generation," said Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York City. Along with Child and a few other serious cookbook writers, he said, Hazan "helped lead us away from the all-too-frequently slipshod and compromised cut-and-paste foreign cookbooks of the post-World War II period."
Hazan gave detailed instructions — often many illustrated pages long — on how to turn these ingredients into the ravioli al plin, pork loin braised in milk, risotto con funghi e le mandorle and many other dishes that she remembered from growing up in Italy.
Hazan did not believe in masking good food with too much seasoning or heavy sauces, dismissing the latter as "wet food." She decried the overuse of garlic and would walk out of a restaurant that smelled too strongly of it.
In her classes and cookbooks, she urged home cooks to be more daring. She instructed them on the difference between any old olive oil and truly fine olive oil, and taught the fine points of when — and when not — to use such things as an expensive balsamic vinegar.
"What you keep out is as significant as what you put in," she wrote in her 1997 cookbook "Marcella Cucina."
Hazan once wrote that she felt a passion not just for good food but for the hands-on process of preparing it. She once said that "80% of Italian cooking is done in a saute pan." Even cooking in an oven put her "at a distance."
"I need to smell its smells, to hear its sounds, to see food in a pot that simmers, bubbles, sizzles," she wrote in "Marcella Cucina." "I enjoy the physical involvement of stirring, turning, poking, mashing, scraping."
Her recipes had measurements, but she didn't use them when she was the one cooking.
"Taste, texture, time" was her mantra.
Hazan was born Marcella Polini on April 15, 1924, in Cesenatico, Italy. As she grew up, her family of landowners moved about Italy and had a maid who prepared their meals.
Hazan showed no interest in the kitchen; a scientist, she earned two doctorates in biology and natural sciences at the University of Ferrara.
In 1953, she met Victor Hazan, an Italian who had moved to the United States as a boy in 1939. The couple met in Italy, and Hazan soon found herself married and living in New York, where she tried to please a husband who adored good food.
"Victor can cope with many bad things in life, but he cannot cope with a bad meal," Hazan would say.