Falling in love with Venice

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Sometimes falling in love with a person or a place takes time. When I first visited Venice I had mixed feelings, as many people do. Obviously the place is a cultural treasure and certain features of the city are unspeakably beautiful. But like many people, after 24 to 48 hours I was ready to go. Maybe it was the excessive crowds. Maybe it was the overtly touristy nature of the place, the theme-park character that many have written of and mourned.

My second visit was the same. I had a remarkable meal at my favorite restaurant, but the next day I was ready to go. It just felt like a place that where I didn’t want to spend too much time. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: the average visitor to Venice spends one day or less.

But I had a feeling that the problem was me, not the place. I had an instinct that if I pushed myself to get beyond the tourist veneer, there were great treasures waiting to be discovered; that if I somehow settled in, I’d be rewarded. I decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel on my next visit. I decided to visit the same coffee bars and bakeries for a few days in a row to get to know the proprietors. I decided to shop at the markets instead of just eating in restaurants.

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And slowly I began to fall in love with Venice. Some loves are immediate and lasting. Others are sudden but ephemeral. Still others grow slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one wakes up one day and realizes that he or she thinks of the newly beloved person or place every day, that the person or place has become an inseparable part of their own identity. This is how it has been with me and Venice.

I love visiting Italy, and I love taking clients to Italy. I love Rome and Bologna and sharing those two cities with others. But I’ve never seriously considered living in either of those cities. They are places I love to visit, but they’re not home. On my last visit to Venice in September, I was caught off guard and surprised to find myself feeling deeply at home there, particularly the neighborhoods of San Polo and Santa Croce, where I was staying and spending most of my time. I found myself thinking a thought that I’d never experienced before: maybe I would like to live in Venice.

I began wondering what was drawing me. What made the place feel like home? Even more than the sheer beauty of the place, the magical fact that the city is built on water, I realized that a few things in particular were drawing me.

I realized how relaxing it was to be in a car-free city. Despite the human congestion of mid-day, early in the morning and late at night, or even mid-day in certain neighborhoods, Venice is a quiet city, too quiet for some. It’s not plagued with exhaust and speed. Venice moves at a slower pace than the rest of the world, a human pace.

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I realized that in addition to the low-quality restaurants and trinkets and “Vivaldi” concerts with guys in wigs, Venice was home to the very best human culture had to offer. My favorite restaurant is in Venice, and it’s part of a restaurant association dedicated to quality ingredients and traditional cooking. Rome and Bologna have fine restaurants, of course, but no such association, no such community of shared purpose and values. Venice is home to traditional craftsmanship of the highest quality, whether true Murano glass or handmade gondolas. Venice is also home to La Fenice, one of the most famous and historically significant opera houses in the world.

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I realized that all around me were people who shared my values: proprietors operating natural wine bars, merchants selling the freshest fish and vegetables, restaurants putting quality above profit, restaurants with something to say.

I realized that while I love our farm, we spend a lot of time feeling like we don’t quite fit in in our rural area. We love the community of small towns but the culture of cities. In Venice, I found both. I found people who were easier to get to know and friendlier than in other Italian cities. I found a place which supported and nourished the values I wish to live by.

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Venice, of course, is not perfect. Don’t misunderstand me. Like most of Italy, corruption is a real problem (Venice’s last mayor was arrested in 2014). The economy is a mess. And no doubt my experience of Venice is still that of a tourist, of a visitor. But for the first time in my life, I’ve connected to an Italian city which I feel like I could experience not as a visitor but as a resident. One which I’ve fallen in love with, which I think about every single day, and which feels like it could become home.

 

Rigatoni with chicken liver and tomatoes

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I know… you can’t really see the chicken livers, but they’re there!

My last published recipe was for chicken liver pâté. It’s a great way to use up a good number of chicken livers, but not so useful for just one or two.

I’m a big advocate of buying local, pasture-raised chickens, the kind that actually live outside (not in a barn with the door open). Not only is raising animals in such a way more humane, it is also more agriculturally sustainable and more delicious to eat. It’s a pleasure to work in the kitchen with chickens that look healthy and that are fresh enough to have no odor. Buying whole chickens is the most economical, and whole chickens almost always include the heart, liver, and gizzards.

If you find yourself with a single chicken or maybe two, you’ll have a single liver or maybe two to cook. You can always freeze them and wait until you have enough to make pate, but if you’d like to cook them right away, here is a recipe for you.

Rigatoni with chicken livers and tomatoes (for one or two people)

I’ve written this recipe in the most casual style, not only because I’ve never written down exact quantities but also to make the point that cooking is improvisational, rarely exact. A little more of this or that, while making a different dish, rarely makes a dish better or worse, just different.

While the pasta water is heating up, sauté a little onion and/or garlic in a little olive oil. When the onion/garlic has taken on a little color and softened (garlic is much quicker than onion), add a chicken liver or two, roughly chopped with a knife or a pair of scissors.

Sauté the liver until it has lost its raw color, and add a little chopped rosemary and/or sage. When the herbs are aromatic, add some high-quality imported canned tomatoes and crush by hand or with a fork. Season with salt and lower the heat to simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in abundantly salted water until al dente. Just before the pasta is ready, add a little benediction of olive oil or perhaps a pat of butter along with a little chopped parsley. If the sauce is too dry, add a little water, either plain or the salty, starchy pasta water.

Drain the pasta and toss in the pan for 30 seconds or less. Serve at once.

Interview with Meredith Kurtzman

Brent Herrig © 2012

Meredith Kurtzman is a gelato maker and pastry chef based in New York City. She is the former head of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and Otto. More recently she has worked at Al di La and Milkmade, both in Brooklyn.

To learn more about Meredith, you can read this profile at Eater.com or this lovely piece on her tiny apartment in Soho.

In this interview, we talk about her love of strong flavors, how to make better gelato at home, and how New York has changed in her more than 50 year love affair with the city.

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JN: Good morning, Meredith! Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’d like to begin by having you define gelato. I know you’re probably sick of this question, but for those readers who aren’t familiar with true gelato, how do you distinguish it from American-style ice cream?

MK: Well, basically, gelato has less fat – more milk than cream – sometimes eggs, or sometimes no eggs. It’s held for service at a higher temperature, so it’s softer. It has less air pumped into it than American ice cream, and the good machines, which go very fast, and the nature of the mixture of gelato prevent it from taking on a lot of air. But in Italy the definition of gelato has very strict paramaters. In America, there aren’t any parameters.

JN: So, in this country, gelato could be anything. But, as you say, in Italy gelato has less fat, less air, and is served at a warmer temperature. What affect do those factors have on the final result, as experienced by someone eating gelato?

MK: Fat coats your tongue when you eat it, so if there’s less fat the flavors should be coming through stronger. And the ideal way to make gelato (which is rarely done) is to make each flavor separately, so you can infuse stronger flavor. The texture should be softer – a little stretchy maybe.

JN: Everyone who has ever had gelato in Italy speaks of how special it is. Why do you think it makes such a strong and immediate impression?

MK: Well, even in Italy gelato varies widely – I mean, there’s a lot of bad gelato. But I think it’s the texture. The texture is somewhere between American ice cream and soft serve. I think Americans love soft serve. I think it’s that and I think it’s the quality of the flavors in a good gelateria. The flavors are just stronger, and because it’s served warmer, that also increases your ability to taste the flavors.

JN: How did you first discover and then fall in love with gelato?

MK: I’ve been making ice cream in restaurants since the mid 1990s. At the first restaurant I worked at, the chef’s formulas had a lot more milk than cream. Five years later, my first job in an Italian restaurant was Esca. The chef liked ice cream a lot, so we made a lot of gelato. While I was working there, I went to Naples and the Amalfi coast and had my first really good gelato. I had been to Italy once or twice before, but this was the gelato experience. I came back wanting to learn more about making gelato, and I took a few little courses out in New Jersey. They were always trying to sell you their base. I knew I didn’t want to do it that way. I was like, “I want to use real vanilla beans!” They kind of looked at me like, “Spoil sport.”

I was at Esca for two and a half years and then Mario [Batali] approached me with the Otto idea, that they wanted me to come be there and the center of their dessert program was going to be gelato, big time. We bought a huge machine and had a real gelato case. Before Otto opened, I spent a week with an ice cream maker in Italy. It was really crazy, because he didn’t speak any English, and there was one other man in the class from the Canary Islands. He was also using a base, but he taught me the way you break down a gelato base into sugars, fats – you had a chart, like, Milk is 60% water and 40% fat, so you had parameters to work within to make gelato. Like, It should be 22% sugar, using different sugars in proportions, you put together a formula. I did my initial formulas that way, but after that I just made gelato and paid less attention. But I did stay within those parameters once I got back to Otto. Also, he had a lot of Italian gelato professional magazines and I took them back to my hotel room. As much as I could figure out in Italian, I took a lot of notes.

JN: Where was he from, that gelato maker?

MK: Sansepolcro. It’s where Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche meet. He was very generous; we went out to wonderful dinners. I knew I didn’t quite want to make [gelato] his way, but I still learned a lot. It was very inspiring.

JN: As important as that week in Italy was, it sounds like your approach clearly has your own personality. Even though this training was important, your results are clearly the result of a lot of experimentation and self-teaching. What inspired you to go beyond the experience in Italy?

MK: Well, I like really strong flavors. Especially with dessert, what’s the point of eating it if it’s not really delicious? Restaurant ice cream can be really good, and that’s because they do spend more time making smaller batches. So, I bought the small batch approach. I also am a big believer in shopping, careful shopping.  I’ve always gone to the Greenmarket on my own. I don’t let anyone else buy the fruit for me, I buy it myself. Actually, I just enjoy it. I really liked what Victor Hazan said at a talk recently about his wife [and cookbook author] Marcella Hazan choosing each bean at the market individually!

JN: As important as shopping and ingredients have become, especially in the last ten years in great restaurants in the US, do you feel like ingredient shopping for dessert has received the same attention?

MK: Well, there’s less involved. I mean, you’re still using Domino sugar. Some people are going beyond that nowadays, milling their own flour and all that, which I admire. The pastry chefs I admired always were very fussy about the fruit. I’ve been like that all my life. I know some people deride shopping, and they say you should be able to make something great out of supermarket stuff, but I feel lucky that I don’t have to.

JN: Right, absolutely. Are there any other factors in great gelato-making that we haven’t talked about? 

MK: I learned about using stabilizer and dextrose within flexible parameters in Italy. I formulated our gelato using a percentage on the low end of those parameters, obtaining their benefits, but not so you’d notice their presence too much, i.e. a stretchy, gooey texture. When used judiciously, they add something wonderful to gelato. And they’re not artificial. Stabilizers are made out of starches. I think the original ice cream in Sicily, which was made without yolks – I suspect they probably used a lot of carob flour, because that grew there.

JN: That’s exactly what I’ve read as well. I think a lot of people just think sugar is sugar, but obviously it’s not. In addition to dextrose there’s regular white table sugar, raw sugar, honey, and others. You mentioned that dextrose can have a beneficial effect on texture – what are some other ways that sugars differ?

MK: Dextrose is less sweet than sugar; that’s one of the reasons you can use a little and you’re actually making things a little less sweet. It has other abilities which affect the texture. Honey is more sweet than sugar, and also it’s almost like using corn syrup, it will make everything softer, and it has a pronounced flavor.

JN: Have you used much raw sugar?

MK: No, and that’s partly because of expense. There are some choices at some point that you have to make if you’re making larger quantities of things. If you’re making two quarts at home, it’s no problem, but since I was spending heavily in some areas, like hazelnuts and chocolate, I had to skimp in others.

JN: Of course. You mentioned at the beginning that not all gelato in Italy is equal. How would you describe the state of gelato-making in Italy at the moment? Do you feel like the standard is pretty high, or is it actually quite difficult to find good gelato, even in Italy today?

MK: I think most towns have, if you’re lucky, one or two good places. It’s financial  necessity that makes people have to use a base. It’s not because they’re skimping. It’s just very difficult, especially the more flavors you have. It’s crazy to make every flavor separately, and the places that are good usually don’t have a lot of flavors, because it’s too much labor. It’s also skilled labor. I had a fellowship and worked at a good bakery in Sicily; their baked goods were wonderful, but the gelato was made from formulas. It was good, but I know it could have been better.

JN: When you say that the best places wouldn’t have too many flavors, how many are you talking about?

MK: A dozen.

JN: When I take clients to Italy, I always tell them the first thing to do is to look at the color of the gelato. Most that are low-quality have colors that are clearly unnatural, clearly synthetic. It’s also super fluffed up. How is that gelato made?

MK: Well, it’s fake flavoring, like fake strawberry, just like here. It’s expensive to use real fruit, and it’s also difficult. And to be honest, most people don’t really give a damn or don’t know any better. It’s nothing real, and people can replicate flavors nowadays – chemists in the cooking industry – but it’s not the same.

JN: We’ve been talking mostly of gelato so far. Speaking of fruit, could we talk about sorbet? Since in Italy, fruit is used for water-based sorbet rather than milk-based gelato.

MK: It’s best to use fruit for sorbet because the flavor comes through stronger, and you’re not dealing with the water content that’s going to come from the fruit and go into the gelato. If you go to the farmer’s market and buy things, strawberries are $50 a flat, and they’ve gone up every year. People are buying Driscoll’s for $20 a flat – which I hate with a passion. Not in my kitchen! For sorbets, you’re best getting something that’s at peak ripeness and using it very quickly, not letting it sit around. We used to go to the market, bring it back to the restaurant, and then make something that day.

JN: Moving to a different subject, many readers of this interview will be home cooks, and so could you discuss some of the challenges and limitations of making gelato and sorbet at home rather than with commercial equipment in a restaurant kitchen?

MK: Well, any home machine will churn more slowly, which will affect the texture, but you can get the same flavor. One tip is not putting too much into the machine. One mistake people make is they fill it up all the way, and that’s going to take longer to churn.

JN: For example, only churning 1 quart in a 2-quart model?

MK: Exactly. I did a book with Mario Batali called Molto Gusto, and I did the gelato recipes. I tested them with a Cuisinart home model and a Kitchen Aid with a bowl attachment. And, you know, they worked nicely. I’ve heard that the old-fashioned machines with rock salt are supposed to be some of the best, but I’ve never used one.

JN: What is the result of the home machine’s taking too long? Mostly an icier texture?

MK: Well, the whole point of ice cream is you’re making an emulsion, and there’s a lot of water and a lot of fat, and you’re bringing those two things together as quickly as possible so that the water molecules get coated in fat and don’t separate. I think a mistake people make at home is not chilling the mixture enough, and it’s really better if you age it overnight in the refrigerator. It’s good if you chill it down fast after you’ve made a base. It’s just doing the details correctly, and it should be fine.

JN: For a home cook making gelato or sorbet, because of the risk of an icier texture because of longer churning time, how could they use things like powdered milk or a stabilizer such as tapioca flour?

MK: Yes, that’s a very important ingredient, dehydrated milk powder.

JN: I find that when most people publish recipes for gelato, they leave out certain ingredients that could really make a difference for home cooks.

MK: That’s actually changing. Dana Cree recently wrote a book called Hello, My Name is Ice Cream, which does tell you about stabilizers and milk powders and how to use them. You need to know the proportions. And don’t be scared by the word “stabilizer” – that was in Dana’s book, she made it clear that they’re not bad. I work for someone now who had a wheat allergy, and she saw wheat on the label of this very good stabilizer, so now we can’t use them anymore, which is a very big mistake. Every pastry chef I know who has converted to using stabilizer loves them. I think it’s more a matter of principle – misguided principle – that leads people not to use them. Home cooks – you have to know the proportion to use. Some of the better things to use at home are tapioca or guar gum, which you certainly can get through mail order now. And you really don’t need much.

JN: I think it’s just the word “stabilizer.” It makes people think of some industrial product, which it’s not. What does the dehydrated milk powder do?

MK: It absorbs the water in regular milk. Milk has a lot of water in it, so what the milk powder does is absorb some of that water, which then results in smoother texture. Basically, you just don’t want too much water content in your gelato. You don’t want too little – it’s sort of what makes it work – but you don’t want too much.

JN: I was inspired by a British chap who runs a website called icecreamscience.com. He says that he feels like recipes are about 70% of quality and the machine is 30%. So that’s pretty encouraging for someone who can’t spend $10,000 on a machine. Do you agree with that?

MK: Yes, because some of the things we tested [for the cookbook Molto Gusto] came out fine for me. They might not keep as well, but otherwise the flavor is strong, as long as you follow the instructions. It’s hard when you write cookbooks – I tend to want to write a lot of details, because you want people’s attempts to be successful, but in many cases they have to edit for space. You have to leave a lot of details out.

JN: You mentioned freshness. I always tell people that the best places to have gelato really are making it every day. It is literally fresh. Is that naive, or do you think that the best gelaterias in Italy are making their twelve flavors every day?

MK: Yes. Obviously, it’s hard – especially if you make thirty flavors, there’s no way you’re going to churn those every day. And you don’t know how much you’re going to go through. I guess at a busy gelateria they have a pretty good idea, but I’m sure they have leftover and I’m sure they don’t just throw it out. I think making it every day is good for texture.

JN: Since you want to open your gelateria by 11 am or so, it’s also an early start to the day, if you’re making things every day.

MK: After you spin the gelato, it needs a few hours in a freezer to really get right. Ours at Otto needed more time because we did it in a real glass freezer. When we did it, we needed four hours after churning it for it to really set up correctly. And then you’re taking it out and putting it in a gelato case, so then it has to temper.

JN: I think it has been written about you, Meredith, that you certainly weren’t the first person in New York City to be making gelato, but you really kicked off a pretty serious renaissance, so to speak. You were really the first person to bring gelato of an exceptional quality to New York. I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with that description or not, but that’s certainly what a lot of people think. When did this happen, and why do you think nobody before that was making gelato of an exceptionally high quality?

MK: 2003 was when we opened Otto. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, I don’t know. There was this kind of food explosion anyway in those years, of all kinds of things. There was one good place, it was a man from Syracuse [in Sicily] who had a little stand on 4th Avenue, part of a restaurant. He made good gelato; he was very old-school. And there was John Snyder from il laboratorio del gelato. He was the first person to get mass attention. With me it was being at the right place at the right time. Otto itself was unique. It was a huge wine bar, it was casual. Gelato was a big part of the program. Other people had been making olive oil ice cream in New York before me; I didn’t steal their recipes. But people went gaga. Otto was a big deal at first. They would do 900 covers on a Saturday, and it just was a matter of bringing something sophisticated to a larger customer base than a fancy restaurant that might be making olive oil ice cream.

JN: It’s easy to forget that even though it was only 20 years ago, in general the New York dining scene was so different. If you were interested in eating food that was more authentically Italian, there weren’t that many choices, which is hard to even imagine today.

MK: Well, there were very small places that never got much attention. The whole publicity machine, the Internet didn’t exist – the food press turned into a much different thing. Now it’s all about Instagram. It’s not even about the quality of the food, it’s about photographs and publicity, and all that. Most of the chefs I’ve stayed friends with are those who have been around since the mid-90s or before, because we’re not on to the next new thing in just five minutes.

JN: I think it’s what Victor [Hazan] described in his interview with me as “image” versus “identity.” In the world of Instagram – I’m all for beautiful food photography, but ultimately it can look as beautiful as ever, but if it doesn’t have character and soul and flavor, who cares?

MK: Yes. And you know, I’m not Italian; we say we love something of a place, but a lot of people making the best things of a place are not from that place. They may have spent time in that place, but they’re not of the place. But their food still tells a story, and to me the story is really important. I like people who are cooking with a story behind them, not a concept.

JN: Could you give some examples of restaurants or chefs that inspire you in that way?

MK: Well, you have to give credit to Mario Batali. He became something more commercial, but in the beginning he spent time in a place and brought that place [to New York], and I think he was one of the first. Jody Williams, who works with her partner Rita Sodi at Via Carota and Buvette, is doing two different things, and she’s spent time in those places, she’s paid her dues and does a beautiful job. I like Alex Raij, who does La Vara with her husband Eder; they’ve both spent time in Spain and are of that origin, and their food is definitely of a place, with some modern things added. Those are two places I’m loyal to. What I admire about these people is their knowledge of place, to which they add their own soul in the cooking. I don’t go out a lot; a lot of the people I like are not in the scene anymore. I honestly don’t go out to eat a lot because I can’t afford it. I love going to some little hole-in-the-wall places out in Brooklyn.

JN: Who are some of the chefs from the ’90s that you mentioned?

MK: There are people who are doing different things now, like Patti Jackson who was a great pastry chef and now has a “Pennsylvania” restaurant [in Brooklyn], Delaware and Hudson. She spent a lot of time in Italy, and she’s old-school.

JN: What was it like working for Mario? On the one hand, I’m deeply grateful that here’s a guy who put in his time in Italy – he was there for a few years – in a very, serious small place where they’re rolling out pasta by hand. When he came back, there weren’t that many people doing that in New York. But on the other hand, there’s the phenomenon of the restaurant empire. I’m not sure why you have to open six restaurants.

MK: Money.

JN: Do you think it’s that simple?

MK: Yes, you can’t make money nowadays [any other way]. Even the people I told you that I admired have three or four restaurants, and they may open more. If you have children and a family, you can’t do that on one restaurant. I just spent a year working at Al Di La. I like the people there a lot, and they started out as pioneers in that neighborhood. There was nobody else in 1998 besides Mario serving rabbit, and tripe. They were really one of the first, and it was a destination to go there. As time went on, they had children. It runs like it did, it doesn’t change that much. I like places like that. Maybe they need a kick in the butt to modernize a little. But you know how things are going to be, and hopefully it’s consistently made. But Otto became less fun for me because, yes, everything became very corporate, and that’s not who I am. Even as a pastry chef, that’s the only way you can make a good salary – either to work at a really big place, or to run between three different restaurants. At some point, they wanted me to do that, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the energy to do that, or the desire, to be honest. I started at Otto when I was in my fifties and retired at 65. If you’re not a good corporate soldier, at some point you get relegated to the outside of things. My time there was over.

JN: Sure, I understand.

MK: But I miss the money and the traveling. I can’t afford to go to Italy anymore. You know who I really admire, who is not in New York? Le Vertu in Philadelphia. They get it, they really get it.

JN: Absolutely! And they picked a region, the Abruzzo, which is not as hot as Tuscany or Sicily or Rome right now.

MK: Yes, it’s a part of Italy I’ve always wanted to go to. When I grew up, one of my best friend’s family was from Abruzzo, and that was one of my first impressions of Italian food, eating with her family. The grandmother was roasting peppers in the cellar, and her grandfather was growing grapes and corn in this tiny bit of yard they had. They were very generous, and that impressed me. It was my first impression of Italian food.

JN: You’ve always worked at a restaurant for someone else, including the ten years at Otto. Why have you made the decision to always work for someone else, as opposed to, say, opening a gelateria of the highest quality?

MK: Financially, it’s a huge responsibility to have your own business. Ice cream is one of the least successful businesses, unless you’re on a boardwalk somewhere, and then you have to have cheap ice cream that kids are going to like. Or, you’re in somewhere that’s so cheap that you could be open half the year. Some people are encouraging me to move upstate and buy an old soft-serve place. I don’t come from a family with money; I need to have a salary. Maybe I’m just lazy and scared; I don’t know.

JN: I don’t think people understand how much of an undertaking it is, the capital investment, and so on.

MK: All of these places that are opening, a lot of them will be gone in a few years. You put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in a small business. A lot of my first jobs were at small restaurants, and I saw what the owners went through. That’s why I admire someone like Jody Williams so much. She works her butt off. She’s always in her place, she’s always making sure things are good. I saw other chefs who I just knew were tired of that – you know, of fixing the toilet at 2 in the morning, and all those little things. So, either you find really good people to manage things for you, or you do it yourself. It ain’t easy.

JN: You’ve spent pretty much your whole professional career in New York. You’ve been in the same neighborhood in SoHo, in the same apartment even, for forty years – is that right?

MK: Yes.

JN: So you have seen many sides of New York, many changes in New York, both in your neighborhood and in different boroughs over those forty years. Could you talk a little bit about New York as you knew it as a child, then as a young woman?

MK: I think the working class has been driven out of Manhattan, for sure. That’s what I used to like about the city, that it was a combination of all kinds of people. I liked the gritty part. I mean, you can romanticize the past, but I loved the street life that used to exist. It was much more exciting. I think everything is getting homogenized. There are tons of apartments where no one even lives, they are some kind of money-laundering I-don’t-even-know-what. Sullivan Street is still a great block, but on my block there used to be a cheesemaker, a butcher, a fish store, a candy store, a bakery. We still have the butcher, and everything else is gone. There are way too many restaurants in New York now. Nobody cooks at home. I love to cook at home; I go up to the Greenmarket. You see the proliferation of delivery food, and all that. It’s a different existence. I walked down by river and saw the park they built, and it’s beautiful. Some of the money isn’t entirely bad. There are also way more tourists than there used to be, and I wish they could go home and leave us alone a little bit. Especially SoHo; it just became a joke. SoHo [now] is a just place for flagship stores for rich European companies. I don’t know if anybody buys anything in those stores, but they’re full of tourists wandering around with their bored children. There’s nowhere to shop [for food]; you have to walk fourteen blocks if you want to get ingredients.

JN: What drove out those small businesses, like the cheesemaker? I think in most places, what drove them out was the supermarket opening in the suburbs that you can drive to easily — the Walmart, the Hope Depot. But in Manhattan, you don’t just hop in your car and drive two miles to Walmart; you would think that if those local businesses existed anywhere, it would be in these boroughs in New York. But even there, they’ve been driven out.

MK: It’s partly the rents going cuckoo. In the building I live in, there used to be working-class families, and now it’s a very transient population of people who come from, say, Brazil and work here for a few years and then go home, or younger students. The building I live in has a lot of really tiny apartments, and those have always been full of NYU students who stay for a few years and then leave. And they don’t cook! They just don’t cook, so there’s no demand. Also, the owners got older and they got tired. The guy at Joe’s Cheese, he took his mozzarella-making to New Jersey, and he couldn’t be happier. He does mainly a wholesale businesss, which is really where the money is now. It’s like ice cream, honestly: if you don’t develop a wholesale client, you’re not going to succeed. If you just rely on retail, unless you’re on the Jersey shore or something, you will not succeed, period. There’s more and more competition, there are new ice cream places opening every year.

JN: What part of New York did you grow up in?

MK: I grew up about 20 miles outside of New York, in a town called Mount Vernon. I was born in Washington Heights, but once my parents had me my mother got tired of climbing up four flights of steps with a baby. My parents were Bronx kids. Mount Vernon is really a working-class suburb, it’s not fancy, but to them it was something they aspired to.

JN: I imagine you visited Manhattan as a child; what were your first memories of it?

MK: I loved it. My father was an artist; he worked various jobs in Manhattan, so I used to go in town with him to his offices. I remember very vividly – I probably was 13 – we went to McDougal Street. That was 1963, and I thought, This is where I want to be.

JN: So it was love at first sight – you knew it?

MK: Yes, it was love at first sight. It was just the cusp of music becoming huge, and you just felt it. I started cutting school and going into New York as much as I could!

JN: This is a kind of hard question, maybe unanswerable: what you said about SoHo being kind of destroyed by tourism – I spent a lot of time in Italy, and even though I’m a tourist too –

MK: You can’t help it.

JN: You can’t help it – so you go to a place like Venice, which for probably nine months out of the year feels more like a theme park than a real place – it’s also been almost destroyed by tourism. What decisions can be made by a place that is interested in fighting that kind of destruction?

MK: I don’t know how it’s going to happen. Honestly, I think in somewhere like Italy it may be immigrants coming there who are doing very small, working-class things; it’s probably not going to be Italian anymore. It’s kind of a tragedy, but the town I lived in in Sicily was kind of a UNESCO town, and it was still really traditional and really nice. The church was a huge thing. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity. There are all those deserted towns in Italy; because they’re on top of a hill or something, it made them impractical places to be. You hear about the poverty people grew up with; it’s easy for us to romanticize it. People left because it was grinding poverty. Unless you have hungry people coming into those places, for whom it’s maybe better than the sub-Sahara, who may make something of that place – otherwise, everything else will become a theme park. I was lucky to be in Venice in January; it was quiet.

JN: I’m going to be in Venice in January as well, with some customers. We picked January for this very reason. What was it like then?

MK: Very mysterious. I used to – there’s a gelato trade show in Rimini. When I worked for Otto, I got them to let me go, and I would always go to other places within a train ride. It was great. I decided to go to Venice one time; I went to the fair and then took a train up to Venice and stayed for a few days. Like everybody else, I got lost and wandered around, stayed away from St. Mark’s square – somehow by luck avoided all that [tourism].

JN: Did you find any good gelato?

MK: I was actually more interested in the cicchetti bars; I was more interested in eating fish and drinking wine. Honestly, I don’t eat a lot of sweets. If I do, I’d rather make something like a good crostata – it’s my idea of heaven. I only went to one gelato place and it was nothing special; but it was also January.

JN: Are there other cities in Italy that you’re especially fond of?

MK: Well, because I lived in Sicily, we traveled to Catania and Syracusa. The market in Catania was just incredible. The man who ran our fellowship grew up around there; going to the market with him and actually buying food that we were going to cook is my idea of heaven. Whenever I travel now, I try and rent [a property], because as much as I like to go out to eat, I also always used to be frustrated by being in markets and not being able to buy things and cook them. So, that’s my happy place. I love Naples; I’ve traveled much more in southern Italy. I went to Lecce and worked at a cooking school for a week teaching the owner gelato. Lecce had some good gelaterias.

JN: Did Naples remind you a little of New York in its grittier days?

MK: Yes! I stayed in a gritty part where I would round a corner and think, I really shouldn’t be here, but I really loved it. That was what I always thought Italy would be like – Naples. It wasn’t really touristy, that much.

JN: Well, I think our time is up, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your time and insights.

MK: Thank you!

Going deeper with ice cream

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IMG_1064My introduction to making ice cream came from Mark Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything. It really is a good book, never amazing but always solid and an excellent resource for beginning cooks. I learned from Bittman the difference between traditional custard based European ice cream and eggless “Philadelphia style”. The latter sounded good to me and I quickly whipped up a batch. Sadly, the result was memorable, but not in a good way — a mixture of icy and buttery. Ugh. I next turned to Marcella Hazan, who had been such a reliable guide in so many ways. But, likewise, the ice cream I made from her recipes was disappointing, not so much in flavor as in texture. I began to wonder what I was doing wrong.

I tried other books. David Lebovitz is a highly respected writer, but his book on ice cream offered no help and offended me with ridiculous flavors to boot (parsley ice cream anyone?). Torrance Kopfer’s Making Artisan Gelato was more help; he stressed the importance of processing the mix in a blender and allowing an overnight cure to improve texture. He was honest about the challenges of making ice cream at home, but ultimately his approaches were limited as well.

Eventually, I discovered some information that would have been very helpful to have from the start: home ice cream machines are at a disadvantage in producing high-quality ice cream because they churn and freeze the mixture too slowly, 25 to 30 minutes compared to less than 10 minutes for commercial machines. This slow churn time gives an opportunity for large ice crystals to form in the mixture, producing a result with inadequate smoothness and texture, icy instead of creamy. It turns out that my guides’ closing instructions in their recipes – freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions – was the most important part, and one doomed to fail. Thanks a lot!

So, for years I consoled myself with making sorbet instead of ice cream or gelato. Being water-based rather than dairy-based, an icy sorbet isn’t the abomination that icy gelato is. But being a lover of gelato, I never entirely gave up. Occasionally I would try, tweaking a recipe here or there, trying to reduce the churning time in any way possible. I found two recipes that worked well, hazelnut and chocolate. I opined that the extra solids in these mixtures somehow improved the textures, but I really didn’t understand how or why.

Then I came upon the website icecreamscience.com, run by a British chap with a lot of knowledge and experience making ice cream. He suggested that the result was 70% recipe and 30% machine. He agreed that a professional machine could produce the ice cream faster, but he suggested that with the right recipe, even a humble machine such as I had could produce very excellent results. Part of his solution was to reduce the water content of the mixture (more water = more icy) by simmering it gently for quite a long time, something like 20 to 60 minutes. This amount of time was a bit intimidating, but I would have tried it had I not run into Meredith Kurtzman in the meantime.

Meredith was in charge of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and then Otto. During her time there, she was considered by most to be the finest gelato maker in New York City. I learned from Meredith that using a little bit of the sugar dextrose can have a beneficial effect on gelato texture, as can the use of milk powders and a stabilizer such as guar or xantham gum. To those who care about using quality, natural ingredients, the term stabilizer might raise eyebrows. But it shouldn’t. Stabilizers are natural products derived from such plants as cassava root.

Just around the same time, I came across two new books which discussed these very things. For the first time in any book I had seen, there was a frank discussion of the limits of home ice cream machines and how different sugars and thickeners could play a role in improving ice cream texture, especially at home where the churning time was longer. Morgan Morano of Morano Gelato published The Art of Making Gelato, in which she discussed the value of using milk powder to soak up extra water in the mix. She also recommends a small amount of light corn syrup and tapioca flour in the mix, all in service of producing a less icy, smoother textured gelato. Dana Cree’s new book Hello, My Name is Ice Cream also discusses these issues. She gives more detailed information on choosing which stabilizer to use and she recommends the use of glucose syrup to improve texture as well. There is deep but understandable science in her book, which is invaluable for making gelato.

In the meantime, I had upgraded my machine from a $50 Cuisinart to a $700 Italian-made Lello machine, which is overkill for home use but perfect for our little restaurant. I was assured that the Lello machine could reduce freezing time to 15 minutes or less, but I was also encouraged by Morano’s and Cree’s assurance that the judicious use of milk powder, alternative sugars, and stabilizer could dramatically improve the results of ice cream, even using a slow-churn machine. If you do use an inexpensive machine such as the Cuisinart, the kind with the insert that lives in the freezer, it is imperative that the freezer be set to its coldest temperature. Freezer temperatures can vary considerably. Mine can be anywhere from -10 degrees F to 15 degrees F. If your insert is 15 degrees as opposed to -10, it will not be capable of freezing your ice cream mixture quickly. Once the ice cream is made, however, the freezer temp should be adjusted to around 10 degrees to prevent the ice cream from becoming rock hard. It’s a little extra work, but worth it.

I’m currently in the early stages of experimentation to find a personal expression of how I’d like my gelato to be, but I am encouraged by the results. Using Morano’s formula as a guide, I produced my first-ever successful fior di latte or sweetened milk, the most exposed and simple gelato flavor there is. On a recent trip to Venice, I was encouraged to see dextrose and vegetable fiber (a kind of stabilizer) in the ingredient list in one of the best and most natural gelaterie in town. Most gelaterie in Italy don’t proudly display their ingredients, and for a reason. Artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and oils abound. Even in Italy, the search for quality takes effort.

I’m delighted to finally have the knowledge to produce excellent gelato at home. I wish it hadn’t taken 15 years and that I hadn’t received so much bad advice from certain writers along the way, but it’s better late than never. Sometimes success, when it finally comes, is all the sweeter for having been delayed.

On being a guide

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It would have been nice to stand amid these ruins [of Ephesus] reading Paul, or to talk about how to reconcile material happiness with spiritual joy as we were on the very spot where Paul preached, where the ethos of Athens met the ethos of Jerusalem. But our guide never really told us Paul’s story. He spent most of his time instead taking us through the royal palaces, with the grand chambers, frescoes and meeting halls. He gave us those material facts about the place that tour guides specialize in (who built what when), but which no one remembers because they don’t really have anything to do with us emotionally. The Ephesus visit was an occasion to have a good discussion about how to live and what really lasts. But if anybody was thinking such thoughts, they went unexpressed.

David Brooks

When we encounter a great book or work of art, I think it makes certain demands of us if we’re paying attention and approaching it with sensitivity. Because life is a mystery – an ultimately unanswerable riddle of incomparable richness – the best books and works of art reflect that richness. This doesn’t mean that we live our life without convictions, adopting a cynical and nihilistic relativism that lets us off the hook from responsibility of choosing how to live. But it does mean that whatever convictions we choose to hold – whether faith in God, or inalienable rights, or reason, or something else – must be recognized as expressions of faith or choice and not as articles of dogma.

This is an approach to living which was deepened and solidified in me at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a college that eschews the typical lecture approach of education – a kind of dispensing of information – in exchange for a pedagogy of engagement and inquiry. According to this approach, education is not the passive result of receiving information but the active process of synthesizing information through thoughtful reflection and discussion.

This approach has served me well, both in life generally and in my former teaching career. It has also served me well on my culinary trips to Italy, particularly in Rome where we take daily cultural excursions in addition to our work in the kitchen. We visit museums and go on walking tours, and so we study not only cooking but also the history, art, and culture of Rome.

Although there are legions of guides in Rome with better credentials to lead tours of the city and its museums, I like to do most of the tours myself because the experience David Brooks describes above is also my experience. Because our society has embraced an educational model based on passive receiving of information, the almost universal temptation of guides is to take on the role of authority, dispensing for two or three or four hours a litany of facts and technical details which, although they certainly have value, miss the forest for the trees. Those who study art history, for example, are often interested in the technical aspects of the painting (which are certainly important) but they rarely use the painting as an opporunity to engage in reflection, and they rarely ask their clients to engage much in the process either. The tour becomes a one-way street of information instead of a commual effort of inquiry.

Discussions on history tours are full of names and dates which are easily forgotten five minutes later because they’re not connected to anything that matters to anyone. I’ve been on tours of the forum in Rome which give the names and dates of various ruins, but I’ve rarely been asked to reflect on the fragility of civilization (including our own!) —  which seems to me the greatest value of visiting the ruins of the Roman forum. Which consul or emperor did this or that is not going to be remembered ten years later, but having thought about the ways in which our own civilization reflects the blessings and defects of Ancient Rome certainly will.

Knowing that the Colosseum’s proper name is the Flavian Amphitheater because it was built by a father and son of the Flavian dynasty – Vespasian and Titus – will be forgotten by most people before dinner. But discussing the addictive nature of the ancient gladiatorial games and the ways in which people today still struggle with addiction, and pondering whether human combat to the death might one day come again to our own culture… I hope these questions stay with clients long after the tour is finished.

One of the most profound questions I’ve ever heard about Bernini’s miraculous sculpture Apollo and Daphne came not from a professional guide but from another amateur, Sister Wendy. The sculpture depicts the story of Daphne being turned into a tree to save her from the unwanted sexual advances of the god Apollo. But after she becomes the tree — a laurel – Apollo continues to revere it and adopts the laurel tree as his symbol. In speaking of the pagan myth, Sr. Wendy asks us to ponder it from a slightly more Christian perspective. She speculates that the myth represents Apollo getting exactly what his heart desired, but not in the way he thought he desired it. We can agree or disagree with Sr. Wendy’s speculation. That’s not the point. The point is to engage with a work of art not as a series of facts to be absorbed but as a series of questions to be encountered.

At the end of the day, we can study history, art, and literature in order to become more thoughtful people with a more nuanced and mature understanding of life and both its enigmas and truths, not to become “experts” or to prop up our own preconceived notions. When we go on tours, we should seek the same approach. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Perhaps some would just prefer the ease of receiving information. But I enjoy a different approach, one which invites engagement and reflection.

On being a responsible tourist

enjoy-copertinaI think a lot about tourism. Not only am I a frequent tourist in Italy, but I take groups of clients to Italy as well. I’m also currently in Venice as I write, at the tail end of high-tourist season in late September. With international flights having become so relatively cheap during the past 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to believe that before that, mass tourism didn’t exist as it does today. When Marcella Hazan started offering cooking classes in Bologna in the 1970s, some thought the idea of Americans flying to Italy to study cooking was crazy. At the time, hers was the only such program available to foreigners. Today,  there are hundreds.

Oh, how times have changed! It’s a wonderful thing that international travel is now accessible to those without great financial resources. But mass tourism has created a lot of problems, and has recently enjoyed some pretty bad press. Initiatives in both Florence and Venice have been in the news recently, with the local population of those noble cities upset and disgusted by the effects of tourism on their cities.

In many cities, the demands of tourism have priced out locals from the housing and rental markets. It’s a lot more profitable to buy an apartment and rent it to tourists on Airbnb than to rent it to a local.

Most serious of all, perhaps, mass tourism has the potential to change the nature of a place. Venice, for example, has begun to resemble a sort of theme park rather than a real place where people live and work. A theme park is a place which exists only for the pleasure of its visitors. Disney World doesn’t have an identity separate from its tourist identity because no one actually lives there. It is merely a tourist destination designed for entertainment and enjoyment,  as opposed to real living and working. Venice isn’t there yet, but with more than 20 million visitors a year and fewer than 60,000 residents, it can certainly feel like it, particularly in the summer months. For example, when you go to the fish market in Venice and see more tourists taking photographs than actual shoppers, it creates the danger of the market becoming a mere “attraction” rather than a source of sustenance.

This raises the significant issue of what the purpose of tourism is in the first place. In the past, the “grand tour” of Europe which was so common and almost required for the affluent, was meant to round out their education by offering a first-hand experience of differences in tastes, mores, and culture. Such travel was concerned with expanding one’s horizons and deepening one’s experience of the world. For those who had an influence in shaping national and global policy, experiencing Europe first-hand was nearly essential. The experience was not as much personal self-enrichment as much as personal expansion and growth.

Today, of course, there is no such motivation for most tourism. Instead, ordinary people wish to enrich their lives by experiencing something grander and richer than their ordinary lives. So far, so good. But unfortunately, too often this takes the shape of a sort of checklist tourism. People arrive in Rome and have a list of things they’d like to see and  do: tour the Colliseum, see the Sistine Chapel, eat a pizza, etc. But because of the brevity of their stay and a dearth of preparation, they often lack the experience or context to give those experiences depth. The experiences become shallow and skin-deep. It is merely “sight-seeing”, not engagement. They see the Sistine Chapel, they take a selfie at the Colliseum, maybe they learn a thing or two about both, but they don’t leave with a significantly deeper understanding of ancient Rome or the fragility of civilization. Some might come to Venice for a week and leave not realizing that fish is the heart of Venetian cuisine or that Venice alone kept ancient Republican ideals alive during centuries of darkness and ignorance. They don’t understand that Italians eat in courses and that simply ordering pasta at a good restaurant is a bit offensive. They try to enter churches dressed immodestly, or they eat food outside sitting on public momuments.

The very worst kind of tourist doesn’t really want to experience anything unfamiliar at all. Instead of adapting to local customs and traditions, they demand the experiences they are accustomed to. Perhaps they demand coffee to-go from a bar, something which doesn’t exist in Italy. Or maybe they seek out pizza which resembles what they are used to at home rather than pushing themselves to expand their concept of what pizza is. Perhaps they have no desire to adopt the Italian habit of drinking wine with meals and would prefer to drink Coke. Saddest of all, some might prefer the comforts of McDonalds to the treasures of genuine Italian cooking. Some come to Italy and see all the sights, but they haven’t really been affected by their travel at all. Such a trip represents not enrichment but mere diversion.

This kind of tourism tends to change a place to accommodate such tourism. Why buy the most expensive and high-quality ingredients if tourists are just as happy with lower quality fare? Why serve risotto and risk being misunderstood when a poorly-made pizza with cheap ingredients will be received even better? If tourists are just as happy with a caricatured stereotype of a gondolier, why engage in that profession with seriousness and dignity? Why sell high-quality authentic Murano glass when cheap Chinese knock-offs are more profitable?

So what is one to do? How can one be a responsible tourist, one who respects the nature of a place but wishes to experience and be enriched by it?

I think the most common problem with most tourists is a lack of preparation for their trip, and so perhaps the single greatest thing tourists can do to have a more meaningful experience is to really prepare for the trip. Such preparation might include reading a book on the history of the place they’re going. Watching videos or documentaries to orient themselves to the city, reading guidebooks to understand the local customs and habits. A guidebook is a pretty basic and simple way to prepare, but the fact that one sees at the Vatican a mile-long line to buy tickets wrapping around the walls when every guidebook makes clear you can skip the line by buying tickets online, suggests to me a complete lack of preparation. Small details matter. Knowing that at most coffee bars you order and pay at the register first, or knowing that most Italians drink only cappuccino in the morning, or that (except for gelato) Italians don’t eat on the street… these sorts of things show a basic respect that go a long way. What does it say to an Italian if a tourist can’t even make the basic effort to learn that thank you in Italian is grazie, not the Spanish gracias. I’m not suggesting that tourists need to study Italian seriously or be able to even utter a complete sentence in Italian. But learning basic key words and phrases goes a long way toward expressing respect. Above all, remember that you are a guest in the place you’re visiting. Just as you would defer to the customs, traditions, and rules when a guest in someone’s home, just as you would politely engage your host and defer to them, so to in a place you’re visiting.

To take an even more significant example, the Sistine Chapel is pretty incomprehensible without advance preparation. The entire room is covered in paintings, and the ceiling is far away and hard to look at for long without straining your neck. It’s also completely mobbed. But knowing the circumstances of the ceiling’s painting, knowing that Michelangelo is the artist responsible for the ceiling and altar wall but not the paintings on the side walls. Knowing that Michelangelo painting in fresco, with little prior experience. Knowing what a fresco is. Knowing that the Last Judgment was painted decades after the ceiling and that the figure of Christ more resembles the god Apollo than the more common Byzantine bearded Christ. Knowing these sorts of things allows one to have a deeper and more meaningful experience in the Sistine Chapel. Just walking through without any knowledge of what you’re seeing will allow you to check the Sistine Chapel off your bucket list, but it won’t really enrich your life.

A second way to be a responsible tourist is to spend more time in each place you visit. It’s very common for tourists to choose breadth over depth. A typical itinerary includes something like two days in Rome, 1 day in florence, one day in Siena, a day in the Cinque Terre and 2 days in Venice. It’s a whirlwind tour that doesn’t give opportunities to really get to know a place. According to official data, in Venice the average tourist spends one day in the city and often doesn’t even spend the night! A one night stand with a place is just as unsatisfying as a one night stand of the more well-known type! This kind of itinerary tends to allow you to see much but experience little. By contrast, spending a week in one place gives the opportunity to do more than simply scratch the surface of a place. It allows an opportunity to slow down and settle into a place. No one is going to be an expert after a week, of course, but it’s long enough to have a proper introduction and to feel like you’ve made the acquaintance of a place, hopefully an acquaintance which will someday be deepened by one or more repeat visits.

This might all sound just a bit snobbish and elitist for some. But really it’s not. Snobbery implies the use of knowledge to separate oneself from others, to put others down for one’s own benefit. Snobbery is an awful weapon to wield. My aim isn’t to be a snob, not to exclude or put down others. Rather, my aim is to encourage and inspire, not to exclude but to include others. Not to put others down but to lift them up by helping them lift their vision to a higher standard.

This is why I offer my culinary tours of Italy. My aim is to offer my clients meaningful and rich experiences of places I know well and love. By sharing my passion for a place and sharing what I have come to know about it, I hope to enrich their lives by showing them the best that a place has to offer. We go to Bologna in order to see parmigiano-reggiano cheese made, so that we understand why this cheese is the most famous in the world, worth every cent of its high price, and why there is no acceptable alternative. We go to Venice to experience fish of the very freshest and highest quality and to experience first-hand just how spell-binding carefully cooking of first-rate ingredients can be. We go to Rome to understand that the ancient world continues to inform our own and that we ignore the lessons of ancient Rome at our peril.

In many ways, traveling with a guide is a great option. Although the sort of preparation I’ve recommended is ideal in any case, traveling with a guide you trust takes a lot of pressure off. They can orient you to the city, to its customs and traditions. They can provide meaningful context for the experiences you’ll enjoy, and help you reflect on their significance.

Travel can be so life-enriching, but it can also be destructive of a place. By making the right choices, you too can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Esca

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A simple but successful amuse-bouche at Esca: crostino with cannellini beans and parsley.

When I go out for a serious meal, especially at a restaurant serving exquisitely fresh and carefully-chosen fish with a pricetag to match, I don’t expect to hear Teenager in Love on the playlist.

I had been looking forward to a meal at Esca for a long time. Though I respectfully disagree with Mario Batali’s “restaurant empire” approach to his business, it’s clear he has excellent taste, at least in food. A meal that I had at Babbo was one of the highlights of the past few years, and Mario deserves a lot of credit for promoting authentic Italian cooking in a city with deep traditions of red-sauce Italian-American joints. He not only popularized authentic Italian cooking in his New York restaurants, he introduced the US to the Italian tradition of raw fish, or crudo, at his fish restaurant Esca.

It was the pesce crudo which had brought me to Esca. Although raw fish in the Italian style has now made its way onto menus throughout the country, back in 2000 when the New York Times first reviewed Esca, William Grimes rightfully called the crudo appetizers at Esca “the freshest, most exciting thing to happen to Italian food in recent memory.”

I had read several profiles of Esca executive chef Dave Pasternack, a rare breed who is both a chef and literally a fisherman, who sometimes serves his own catch alongside fish flown in from around the globe. From the little I know of him, I admire him. He seems humble. He has been content not to open eight other restaurants or become a celebrity chef. In the short-term-relationship culture of American restaurants, he has stayed committed to Esca for 17 years now. And he’s actually there — cooking in the kitchen, answering the phone — having chosen to stay actively engaged rather than delegating that most hallowed duty of cooking to a team of anonymous and poorly-paid line cooks.

So I arrived with high expectations, which were completely satisfied in some ways, but greatly disappointed in others. The highlight was indeed the pesce crudo. I selected a mixed sampler of six types of fish, each one treated individually to its own proper olive oil and sea salt, chosen to complement the type of fish it accompanied. This appetizer was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time — everything I expected and more.

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Unfortunately, not much else impressed me about Esca. My horror at encountering 1950s doo-wop continued. “Teenager in Love” was followed by any number of hackneyed hits from what is certainly a valid musical genre, but one which seemed completely and utterly out of place in a fine-dining establishment dedicated to exquisite fish cookery. The music contributed greatly to the feeling that the restaurant, located in the touristy theater district, was indeed a tourist trap, an engineered product meant more to sell than to enlighten.

The service was also concerning. Given that I was listening to “Earth Angel” in the background, the service was surprisingly stiff. I love elegance and formality, but not stiffness. I was clearly excited about being there, but my server reciprocated no such warmth, nor did he sense or feed off of my enthusiasm. I sensed no passion or commitment, just a guy doing a job in the stilted way he’d been trained to do it. It made me a little sad.

Equally concerning was the wine list. There were many wonderful bottles on the list, even some high-value ones alongside a disturbingly high percentage of $100+ bottles and a $1200 bottle of Barolo (rich bankers, anyone?). But I also saw a lot of red wines which might be well-known (Barbera, Chianti, Barolo), but which seemed totally out of place with a fish-driven menu. Why did their list include a $550 bottle of rich and jam-like Amarone but no example of the light and refreshing wine Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda? One thing I love about all Batali restaurants is their use of the coravin device to extract a glass of wine from a bottle without removing the cork, which is a great way for a restaurant to offer, by the glass, an expensive wine which might go to waste if whole bottles were opened. I have drunk some memorable Barolo in this way. But did I really need to spend $82 on a 6 ounce glass of 10 year old Barolo from Oddero? Really? Overall, it was one of the most disappointing wine experiences I’ve had in a good restaurant.

My pasta was disappointing as well: trofie with pesto, mussels, and cherry tomatoes.

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This is a classic dish from Liguria, but it was oversauced with pesto which was muddy rather than bright, and neither the mussels nor cherry tomatoes contributed any clear, memorable flavor, shocking given the laser-precise flavors which characterized my appetizer.

I lost a little confidence in the kitchen and was having childhood flashbacks of Top Gun, owing to the refrain of “You’ve got that loving feeling” clearly emanating from the sound system. I decided to skip a secondo course and move to dessert.

I can think of no better way to end a meal, especially of fish, than with sorbet. I really only wanted one little scoop of something, but in the contemporary American restaurant fashion I was permitted no less than three scoops when one would have been better.

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They were very successful, if perhaps lacking just a bit in personality or character.

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I gave Esca one last chance to wow me, ordering a macchiato to conclude. It was decent, in a standard sort of way, but if only more restaurants and coffee bars would master the art of frothing milk properly! What one wants is frothed milk not reminiscent of soap suds but thick cream.

Having made no real connection to my server, I didn’t regret not seeing him on my way out. It took a few blocks to shake the soundtrack from my head. It has taken longer to shake my disappointment in a restaurant that is doing some things so well, and others with mediocrity. It’s been that way a long time, if one is to believe William Grimes’s first review of Esca, 17 years ago. I certainly haven’t given up on Esca, and it is cruel to make any conclusions about a place based on one visit. But maybe next time I’ll just sit at the bar, enjoy my crudi, and have appropriate expectations.

Please note that this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to Esca.

Chicken Liver Pâté, My Way

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Crostini

There aren’t many foods I won’t eat. Tripe is one, despite my best efforts. Another is liver. In my early days of cooking, I was assured that what turns most people off about liver is its flavor and texture when overcooked. Cook a nice, high-quality piece of liver to a nice pink medium, I was told, and it would be a revelation. I tried. I really tried. But every time I couldn’t get it down. It always ended up in the trash.

Then, about 11 years ago, during a very brief stage at Osteria Pane e Salute, I was given crostini with chicken liver pâté, prepared in the classic Tuscan manner. They were wonderful, flavorful but mild and smooth in texture. This was liver I could eat gladly.

Somehow, once I got home from Pane, my efforts couldn’t quite recreate the flavor of Caleb’s. The liver flavor was too strong. Something wasn’t right. I put it aside for years.

But this year I was tired of my wasteful practice of discarding the gorgeous livers from the whole chickens I buy from Forks Farm. I was tired of my lazy habit of freezing them — always planning to use them some day, which never came — and I resolved to master the art of chicken liver pâté.

Most recipes call for capers and/or anchovies, aiming for what Samin Nosrat would call a “layering of salt.” Usually I have both capers and anchovies on hand, but that day I had neither. And so, once again I learned the wonderful principle that mistakes or shortcuts often lead to better results. Since I didn’t have capers or anchovies, I just increased the proportion of onions — the sweet onions I grow on the farm — and crossed my fingers.

The results were great, exactly the taste memory I possessed. I still can’t eat a piece of liver straight, but this pâté is one of my very favorite foods. We serve it whenever possible as an amuse-bouche at the restaurant, a gentle and mild introduction to liver for the skeptical. I love the simplicity of this recipe, untraditional but good, and I hope it encourages you too to give chicken liver pâté a try!

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Crostini with Chicken Liver Pâté

Factory-farmed meat is always immoral and very unappetizing, but for organ meats it seems especially sad. The livers of a conventionally raised bird just look unhealthy. Pastured birds by contrast have nice looking livers, fresh and plump. This is a dish I would rather not make than make with factory-raised meat.

Begin by heating a large pan to high heat with a generous bit of olive oil, and when the oil just begins to send up faint wisps of smoke, add about 12 ounces of chicken livers (rinsed and dried) along with 4 to 6 ounces of coarsely chopped or sliced sweet onion. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, some fresh sage if you have it around, and saute for just a few minutes until everything has lost much of its raw color.

Deglaze the pan with broth, water, or wine (or a mix), adding enough to come up at least a half-inch or so up the side of the pan.

Simmer in the oven at 325 degrees F° for about 20 minutes, then return to high heat and cook over all but a little bit of liquid. Add a pat or two of butter if possible.

Process in a food processor, adding generous grinds of hot pepper, along with broth and/or olive oil to create a smooth pâté. It should be smooth, but still have some texture. It might look very runny, but it will firm up after resting in the fridge.

Add a little freshly grated parmigiano and freshly minced parsley. Taste for salt, keeping in mind that a bland or mild pâté is an abomination. It needs to be aggressively seasoned. Allow to rest in the fridge for at least an hour or two until firmed up.

To make the crostini, lightly toast little cubes of high-quality bread. I do this in a pan with a little olive oil. Top each piece of toast with a little dollop of pâté and bake in an oven for about 5 minutes at 350 or 400 degrees F°.

Just before serving, garnish with additional parmigiano, pepper, and fresh parsley.

Justin Naylor (chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm)

An Interview with Victor Hazan

 

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Victor and Marcella at home in Florida in 2008.

This is the second interview in our new monthly series of interviews with prominent voices in the field of food and wine. You can read last month’s interview with Samin Nosrat here.

Victor Hazan is a hero and role model of mine. His wife, the late Marcella Hazan, is widely considered the godmother of Italian cooking in America, and it is her books that have formed the foundation of my own understanding and practice of Italian cooking. For more information on Victor before delving into the interview, you can read my profile of him here.

In this interview, we discuss his rich life in food and wine, from his earliest boyhood days in Italy, to collaborating with Marcella on her cookbooks, to his own book on Italian wine, and his everlasting affection for Venice. Enjoy!

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July 19, 2017

Justin Naylor: Thanks so much for making the time for this interview today. Your writings and Marcella’s have influenced me tremendously, so it’s very meaningful for me to speak with you.

I learned quite a bit about Marcella’s childhood in Italy from her wonderful memoir Amarcord, but I’d like to hear your story of growing up in Italy in the 1930s.

Victor Hazan: It was fairly close to most Italian boys’ childhoods. I was born in a small town called Cesena, only about eight miles away from where Marcella was born. Her town was called Cesenatico. My mother and father had a fur store in Cesena. My father was always a furrier from the beginning, and we had a house with a nice courtyard and fruit trees. I have one dramatic memory of that. I must have been about five, perhaps. I had a little lamb. I thought it was my pet. But it wasn’t my pet. It was a lamb my parents had bought, and were feeding, and planned to have slaughtered. When the man came to kill it, he took this little lamb by the hind legs – he was a strong man – and brought it very hard down on the pavement, smashing its head. Unfortunately, I saw all of that. It’s very vivid. Odd, isn’t it, how certain memories get planted and never eradicated?

JN: Did that memory affect how you thought of eating meat, later in life?

VH: No, not at all. It didn’t connect. I’m very sorry about animal suffering; I feel sorry, for example, when I’ve gone fishing and I see what happens to fish when they are hooked and caught and brought up and allowed to flop their way to death on the deck of the boat. I feel very sorry for them, but I don’t connect that with the food on the table. I don’t know whether you have that problem or not. I think we are just wired to disconnect at that point.

JN: How aware were you of the political events unfolding in Europe during your childhood?

VH: More than aware; they were a part of my life. We were all Fascists at that time, we were all very proud of what Mussolini was telling us from his balcony. My father had lots of customers who were very highly placed in the Fascist hierarchy. Everybody was in favor of everything.

Then in 1938, Mussolini and Hitler made a pact and suddenly everything changed. [Being Jewish,] I was no longer going to look forward to going to middle school, not to speak of university. I could not plan to enter any of the professions. That was in the mild beginning of the racial trauma. However, my father, who was an exceptionally far-seeing and astute man, said, “This is not going to get better, and there is no point in our staying here.” So, he took a year to divest himself of everything he had, even at a great loss. He bought tickets to the United States. My father left everything behind: all his property, all his stores; he had five at that time. We had moved to Bologna. I did my elementary school in Bologna, and I stayed until the spring of 1939, so I completed grammar school in Italy.

Then we came to America. It certainly was a shock. I didn’t speak any English. We had no connection with any family here. My father had business connections in the fur business, because it was an international business, but it was summer, so I didn’t even have school friends. Then in the fall I was entered in school. My father had gotten someone to teach me English, but more than the person that I was having conversations with, I was reading. I read an immense amount in English. I had a dictionary, but I very quickly picked up most of the vocabulary – to the extent that when I went to school, I had a spelling competition, and of all people, I was the one who won it.

JN: I love it. During your teenage years, did you always have a return to Italy on your mind?

VH: Oh, very much so. This is really how the rest of my life came to be, from the beginning. First of all, I was very attached to my grandmother, and I suffered tremendously not to be with her. Both my mother and my father were very busy businesspeople, so I was mostly in the care of my grandmother and of the housekeeper. It was my grandmother that I missed, very much.

I also missed the food. Food became almost agonizing to me. I could not adapt to the kind of food that was easily available. On weekends, my mother would cook. But, you know, she hadn’t been a cook; she had been a businesswoman. She cooked; she made meat sauce, meatballs, veal scaloppine, so there was a semblance of Italian food coming to the table at one point during the week. But basically I was cut off from that. I had none of my old friends from school, and I was having difficulty making friends with American kids. It didn’t come easy.

So, I thought about when we would go back to Italy. But by that time, the war had broken out. It went on and on for years; there was no contact with Italy. I never heard my grandmother’s voice again, and I never saw her again, because sometime during the war she died. But all the time, I kept thinking about the food I had been eating when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven.

I wrote a piece about this for a magazine once: one of my earliest memories was going to Venice at the age of eight. We were living in Bologna and going to Venice was a snap then; there wasn’t much traffic. We went to Venice for lunch, and I remember the gamberetti – tiny, tiny, sweet shrimp from the lagoon. I have a very, very vivid memory of that when I was only eight. Of course, we lived in Bologna, and we would occasionally go out to a restaurant, or the housekeeper would make pasta at home. We ate extraordinarily well. Suddenly, all of that was subtracted from my life. I never adapted completely to American life. In the back of my mind was when I would go back to Italy. I started going to college – the war was still on when I went to college, but I became ill. I developed tuberculosis and spent two years in bed up in New York state – all the time, thinking. And there the food was unspeakable. Two years of that.

JN: Probably worse than the illness!

VH: Worse than the illness. I was lucky because at the end of the two years, it coincided with the discovery of streptomycin, and massive doses of streptomycin wiped out the tuberculosis. It also wiped out my hearing, because large doses of antibiotics do that. I recovered, and I didn’t feel like going back to school. All I was thinking about was: how do I get back to Italy? It was in 1948, and I went to work for my father so that I could save some money. I went to The New School in my time off, and I discovered art history along with an extraordinary teacher. I saved money until 1952, and bought myself a ticket to go to Europe.

JN: Based on your love of food from a young age, many people might think – wrongly – that that was what drew you to Marcella. But of course, when you met Marcella, she didn’t cook at all, so it wasn’t that.

VH: She didn’t cook at all, but she didn’t have to. First of all, she was very beautiful, very attractive. We felt an immediate mutual attraction. We were young and we had hormones flying around. But, the food – that was the great, wonderful discovery. It was like being accepted into Heaven again. The seafood I had in Cesenatico – this was in 1950 – it was only the seafood being caught every night out in the Adriatic by the boats. That was it. It was everything that I had been thinking about coming to. Very few experiences in life are like it, but this was. It happened to coincide with a romance that was growing between me and Marcella. You couldn’t have a better combination of sensual pleasures.

JN: And what was it about Marcella’s personality or character that drew you so strongly to her?

VH: It was something that, in retrospect, I realize was the key to who she was, to who she became. Marcella was very direct, very straightforward. She had no euphemisms. Everything was plain talking. In fact, the people of Romagna are very much like that. In Italy, if you made the mistake of asking someone how they were, they would give you the particulars of their health. That’s how it was. Anyway, Marcella didn’t have the forms of kindness. It was very difficult for Marcella to come up with an expression that could be described as kind, because that didn’t enter into normal relationships. She was direct. She wasn’t unkind or cruel. This was the way she talked. This was her relationship with students. There were many students who thought Marcella was hard. She wasn’t hard. This was just the way she was.

JN: You’ve described her elsewhere as “not easy, but true,” which I think is a very descriptive way to get at it. After you met Marcella, you were back in Italy – it was sort of a dream come true, but a few years later you find yourself back in New York again, this time married.

VH: Well, a couple of things happened first. I cashed in my return Pan American airplane ticket, because I didn’t have any money. Then I wrote to my father, who, in the end was a very patient and understanding man. I wrote to him and I said, “What I really want to do is to write. I don’t want to come back and get into the fur business. I don’t see that as my future, but I’m here in a place where I finally feel at home.” My father said, “Okay, I’ll give you a small allowance.” It really was very small. I didn’t say anything about having met Marcella. You know, she was Catholic. What happened to my parents was, when they were living in Italy before, [Judaism] didn’t really mean very much to them. They ate pork, sausages, and crustaceans, and they didn’t particularly observe the holidays. Once the laws went into effect and they had to change their life because of them, they came to be very religious Jews. They had a very unaccommodating attitude toward mixed marriages. So I didn’t say anything about Marcella.

They gave me some money, I got a beautifully-located apartment on a hill outside Florence, and of course I didn’t do any writing. I kept going back and forth to Cesenatico to be with Marcella. I told my parents, “I found this woman, I love her very much, and I would like to get married.” They were very, very upset, and they no longer sent me any money. My father came over and tried to talk Marcella’s father into withholding his approval from the marriage. My father told him I was completely irresponsible, extravagant, and could never make a proper husband for anybody. But Marcella’s father said, “Well, she loves him, and he loves her, and I think we have to leave it up to them.” And so, we got married. But at a certain point – I don’t remember the exact way this worked – I was on my way back to New York. I think my father had been ill, I think I had been ill – but, there was a reconciliation and they said, “Come home.”

JN: This was long before Marcella’s teaching and writing career. You were working for your father in his business, which you did not want to do. Were these difficult days for you, back in New York?

VH: Very difficult, Justin. Very difficult. I did it as well as I could, because part of my character is, whatever I’m involved in I do it conscientiously, whether I enjoy it or not. I did it as well as I could, but I was not happy. Marcella – you know about her education and her science background – she found a job with Bellevue Guggenheim dental research institute. She worked there in the laboratory as a laboratory technician.

This would have been between 1955 and 1960. In 1958, our son Giuliano was born, and Marcella stopped working. I had gradually become more intolerant of the business I was involved in, and in 1962 I told Marcella, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. We’re going back to Italy.” She was not all that happy about it. Marcella was a very practical woman. She said, “Where is the money going to be coming from? What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know what I can do, but I don’t want to live here. I want to go back to Italy.” And that’s how it happened, we flew back to Italy in 1962. We went to Cesenatico. I started looking at the newspaper classified ads, never finding anything suitable until one day I saw an ad for copy chief in Milan for BBD&O. I got a letter from a friend who has a good advertising agency, telling a few lies about me, and I went to Milan and got the job. I just had to fake it the first year or so. I did work hard at it and had a talent for communication, and I did well.

JN: Moving ahead a little bit, by the late 1960s, you’re back in New York.

VH: We got back in 1967, and Marcella didn’t look for laboratory work again because she didn’t feel like it. She had started taking a class in Japanese flower arrangement. I had always been very interested in Oriental art from my first year in college, and we decided to go to Japan for a month. In the meantime, she had enrolled in a Chinese cooking class. The Chinese teacher decided to go to China for a sabbatical, and the women in the class were at a loss as to what to enroll in next, and they asked Marcella. This was 1969. She started teaching this group of women, and they came every week for a year, until she got fed up and said, “I don’t want to see you again.” She told me, “I guess I’m not going to teach again.” I said, “No, wait a second, I’m going to write to the Times, and see if you can give cooking classes.” And of course, that’s what happened. Craig Claibourne came over, and he gave Marcella a big page, and it never stopped after that.

JN: Could you describe a little bit about what it was like to collaborate with Marcella in writing the books? She, of course, would write in Italian, and you then would take her Italian text and turn it into English, so it’s a combination of your voice and her voice.

VH: One of the aspects of that is that Marcella wrote a perfectly functional recipe based on the dishes she had cooked. I hadn’t been doing any cooking. None, period. I hadn’t even been watching her in the kitchen because at that time I was working with my father again. So she would give me that notebook, and I would look at it and try to imagine how the recipe would develop in the kitchen. I would ask her a lot of questions, and she would be very impatient – because to Marcella, everything was obvious, common sense. We’d have arguments about that. I suppose my questions led to a re-editing of the recipes, very often. Sometimes I would ask a question about what she did with an ingredient. She said, “Isn’t it obvious?” “Well,” I said, “it’s not obvious to me.” So, she would go back and describe it. That was the hard part of it. When it came to the actual writing, it wasn’t that difficult. I tried to imagine Marcella as an English speaker, and I tried to recreate. The actual English version isn’t always a 100% transposed version of what Marcella wrote. It’s what Marcella intended, recreated for an English-speaking reader. This was 1971; I wrote everything on a portable Smith Corona. I typed everything at night when I came home. I would work probably at 2 or 3 in the morning. It was agonizing.

JN: Today, especially in the last ten or fifteen years, Italian cooking in America has changed so much and become so much more authentic. Can you describe what Italian cooking in America was like in the 1970s when Marcella’s first book was published?

VH: Well, we ate out as seldom as possible in Italian restaurants. It just was unrecognizable to us as Italian food. It was a caricature of it. There was an Italian family that had emigrated from the same place where my parents had emigrated, and they would have us over for Thanksgiving. They would have what they called an “Italian” Thanksgiving dinner, of which I understood nothing. But aside from that, you know, the pasta with meatballs: I couldn’t understand pasta with meatballs. And the special sauces. And lots and lots of vegetables without any special flavors to them. It was very painful to me. That was one restaurant on 47th Street called Del Pezzo. My father had become friends with them, and they were genuine. They were better than any Italian restaurant I’ve eaten in in America since. They were really cooking the way I remember the food was at home, or at a restaurant in Bologna.

JN: Why do you think your friends, who were from Italy – why do you think their cooking changed so much and became so unrecognizable once they were here in the US?

VH: You know, this is a mystery, but it’s a classic Italian fault. Italians, unlike the French — and unlike Italians this very day — Italians generally are always ready to modify their traditions to show that they can do what other people expect them to do. For example, Italians have always had the best clothes: the best fabric and the best tailoring. But for a long time, all the good Italian clothes manufacturers would use English labels. Clothing had to be merchandised as English. The food was the same. A lot of Italians who came here and became intimate with Italians who had immigrated here and had created Italian-American cuisine assumed that was the kind of cuisine that was expected from them, and that’s what they cooked. It’s still a lot like that. There are very few dishes made at Italian restaurants here in Sarasota that I enjoy eating. When I go to New York – and I have rarely gone to New York since Marcella died – when she was teaching her seminars at the French Culinary Institute, we would go out to Chinese and Japanese restaurants. We would have very little experience of what Italian restaurants were making. So I think we were ignorant of that. I have eaten in a couple of well-reviewed places. They’re not – you know – if you lifted them and dumped them in the middle of Rome, or Bologna, or Florence, you wouldn’t recognize them as Italian restaurants. They wouldn’t survive a weekend.

JN: What about them isn’t quite right?

VH: Well, it’s no longer a question of people being unfamiliar with Italian cooking. I think the familiarity with Italian cooking is astonishing. It’s astonishing the number of ingredients, and the number of dishes, and the awareness of regional tradition that are now being used in this country. But what happens is, they always have to put a spin – something has to be modified. It’s not like Marcella. As I said, Marcella was direct and she made no compromises. This is how it was, you know, and you either liked it or you didn’t like it, but this was the truth. The Italian cooking that I’ve experienced in New York and in San Francisco and lately, when I went on a tour, in Marin County, is not the truth. It’s a little bit of a white lie to ingratiate yourself with a public that may be looking for something different. I think it’s possible to have absolutely genuine, sterling Italian food in this country. I’m sure there are places like that. When the Culinary Institute had a event for Marcella, a dinner, a man called Mark Ladner, who had been cooking at an Italian restaurant called Del Posto cooked. He cooked beautifully, there were close to one hundred people. He cooked a beautiful lunch. It could have been served anywhere in Milano, successfully.

JN: I would like to ask a little bit more about Marcella’s cooking. You have said that her cooking was simply spellbinding – magical – and that even though she was a great teacher, others couldn’t quite reproduce the magic of her cooking. What was so spellbinding about her cooking?

VH: You would like me to disclose the secret of magic? Isn’t that a lot to ask?

JN: (Laughter) Yes, it is!

VH: You just would have to see it or taste it, just like a ballet performance or a particular recital or a painting. I don’t know. Some of them work, and some of them are just everyday stuff. You have to take this into consideration too. It was not extraordinary 100% of the time. It was always very good, but there’s a certain line she crossed sometimes that put it in a different territory. What Marcella had, among her many qualities, was the quality of observation, which she got in part from her father. Her father was extremely observant. He wouldn’t talk much. But he would remember afterwards everything a guest might have worn, the clothing, the way they did their hair, the sound of their voice, the way they moved across the room. He would notice everything, and Marcella was the same way. There’s a photo taken near the end of her life. She’s evidently very old. She hasn’t gotten dressed yet. She’s still wearing her night clothes: her nightshirt and her robe. And she’s cooking. She’s cooking something in a skillet and she’s bending over, almost as though her gaze were to get inside the nature of the food that she was cooking. That was her observation: she was checking everything. Something was either cooking too fast or too slow, or needed to be turned over. I think that’s one of the things that contributed to those instances when what she brought to the table was extraordinary.

JN: It really makes the point that to learn to cook you need to see and smell and observe at the side of a master.

VH: I think it’s paying attention, using your senses. She had a very acute sense of smell. She always said she didn’t have to taste whether something was salted or not, she could smell it. She was smelling, she was touching, she was moving things around. She was hearing the sound of whatever it was she was cooking. This is one of the reasons she didn’t like ovens. There were some things that had to be cooked in an oven, but basically, to her, cooking was something that had to be done on a stove. It was a live act. Of course, she had this intuition that could not be quantified about how things should be. It isn’t enough just to look at something, if you don’t know how it should be. And she had that. Instantly. That’s as far as I think I can go on the topic.

JN: Sure. What are some dishes, Victor, that Marcella used to cook for you that you especially miss?

VH: Well, the jewel of them all was her lasagne. I’m not even going to attempt it. That was really a combination of various moments of paying attention to an infinitude of details and knowing the right decisions to make at every step. Her lasagne was something that I’ve never had anywhere. The people who were lucky enough to have tasted them were all but paralyzed by the flavor. They had never known that could be a dish of lasagne.

I also miss her stews. She would make a lamb stew or a beef stew. She didn’t use pork very much. The flavors of the vegetables that were in it, of the oil, the butter, the flavor of the basic component of the meat. Her stews had this extraordinary flavor, a beautiful flavor. It wasn’t just tasty. It just had an expressive flavor. When you see a performance on a stage, someone dancing or performing, it isn’t just competent or proficient. It goes beyond that to something extremely expressive of feeling, and this is how Marcella’s stews used to be.

Frying is something I’m really clumsy at. I don’t even like to do it at all. She would fry zucchini or finocchio. You know, some of those things people don’t even fry. I don’t hear anyone talking about fried finocchio. She would slice and blanch and bread the finocchio and fry it, and it was marvelous. Just as her fried zucchini flowers were. People are doing all kinds of funny things with zucchini flowers. They can’t leave them alone. They open them up and put in ricotta or some other kind of cheese, or who knows what else. They have to be stuffed with something. Marcella didn’t stuff them at all.

JN: Yes. I also prefer them unstuffed, because they’re so delicate.

VH: When you fry them, you convey the fragility of their texture, which is very moving. So, those are the things I don’t make because I know I will not be able to do it, and I don’t know anybody who can. I can go to a Japanese restaurant and have tempura, you know, and it can be very very good, but it doesn’t taste like Marcella’s.

JN: If I had to pick one thing – the most important thing I learned from Marcella’s books – it would be that I learned from her the importance of salting food correctly. Every time she published a book, it seems like her opinion on this subject was expressed more strongly. In her last book, Ingredienti, as you know, she gave her strongest statement yet: “Learning to salt correctly is the most important skill a cook can learn.” Could you discuss this concept?

VH: Well, it is, Justin, because without it there is very little flavor. As time went on – and this was one of her disappointments – she found that people wouldn’t use enough salt, or wouldn’t use any salt. We’ve run into people who said, “I don’t have any salt in the house. What do I need salt for?”

JN: That’s awful!

VH: People who don’t put salt in the pasta water. To Marcella, the ultimate goal – the object of all of this business of shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving – was taste. How does it taste? Not how does it look, not how healthy it is, not how new it is, not how creative it is. But, how does it taste? If you make a practice of not reaching for the salt, it’s not going to have any taste. Period. And then you get accustomed. She would say there are people she had met whose palates were atrophied because their palates had not been exercised. They had never been exposed to food that had taste. So when they were confronted with a dish that somebody else had made that had taste, they didn’t even enjoy it. They were put off by it.

JN: Yes, I always compare it to someone who spends all their time indoors. When you finally go outside, the sun is completely overwhelming.

VH: Yes.

JN: Did Marcella convince her students of the importance of salt, or did they leave the classes still skeptical?

VH: I don’t know. Marcella, of course, when she was demonstrating to her students, used salt. When the food came to the table, they said it was delicious. She explained what the role of the salt was that she had used, and how they wouldn’t be able to duplicate that flavor without salt. But once they went back home, who knows what they did? I don’t really trust people. My gut sensation is that maybe 90% of the people in this country who are cooking – and I’m only talking about the ones who are cooking – do not use enough salt in their food.

JN: Yes, I agree.

VH: And so, 90% of the people in this country who are cooking are eating food that doesn’t have the full expression of flavor that it could be capable of. However, to them, this is what it’s supposed to be like, because they’ve accustomed themselves. Habit.

JN: Let me ask about one of Marcella’s most famous recipes, her lovely pasta sauce with tomatoes, onion, and butter. Could you tell the story of how she developed that dish?

VH: Well, Justin, it’s an instance of intuition. There is a sauce in which you cook some onion and butter and you add tomatoes. It was basic in her family and in many families in Emilia Romagna who make tomato sauce. They’re as likely to make it with butter as they are with olive oil. Which, you know, enrages the self-appointed defenders of Southern Italian cooking. It does. Marcella used to get letters all the time. “This is not the way my grandmother did it.” But in Emilia Romagna, you do use butter. You didn’t make a tomato sauce to have with pasta. You see, that is where the thing takes a different road. Because the tradition – I’m not talking about late 20th century, but early 20th and late 19th century – the tradition in Emilia Romagna was handmade egg pasta. You don’t use tomato sauce with handmade egg pasta.You either use butter and sage, you use just plain butter, you use meat sauce, you use some other kind of sauce, but not tomato sauce. Or you may use a patch of tomato to give color to something else. There is no such thing as pasta with tomato sauce in the lexicon of Emilia-Romagnan cooking. Marcella’s mother made this very good sauce – absolutely delicious – that she used with veal involtini. She made stuffed zucchini using it. She used it a few other dishes that were vegetable or meat dishes, but not with pasta.

Then we stroll forward to 1955 or 1960, and we’re living in America. Marcella didn’t always make meat sauce; sometimes she made her mother’s tomato sauce. She looked at, she tasted it; suddenly, one day she said, “Well, yes, I’ll use the butter and onion, but I’ll just put everything in the pan [without chopping the onion].” How did this intuition come to her? You answer that. You know, that’s magic. Where does that come from? Somewhere out there. If you have a direct line to out there, maybe you can get the answer, but I don’t.

JN: I’d like to transition to wine and talk a little about your wonderful book on wine. By the 1970s, you and Marcella are running a cooking school in Bologna. You are preparing courses in that school on wine, and that leads to the publication of your book, Italian Wine, in 1982. It was a very important time, because so much was changing in Italian wine in the late 70s and early 80s, for better and worse.

VH: Yes, it was a fortunate time, in fact. I had, of course, never expected to write a book on wine. I had to select the wine for Marcella’s classes, and I wrote descriptions of them because I was still working in the fur business. I wrote descriptions which I left with Marcella on cards, and I went back to New York, and Marcella’s editor at Knopf, a woman by the name of Judith Jones, visited Marcella’s school and she read the wine descriptions. She came back to New York and called me. She said, “Victor, you must do a book on Italian wine. We don’t have a very good book on Italian wine. I read your descriptions and it sounds as though there is something interesting going on.” I said, “Well, okay, I’ll try it, but it will take time; I just don’t know that much.”

This was in 1977 that she asked me. Marcella started the school in 1976. When she came back to New York, we talked and I signed a contract in 1977. At that point I had disengaged myself from the fur business. I told my parents, “Look, this is developing into a career that I think is suitable to me.” I went back to Italy and I traveled. I traveled from 1978 to 1981. I think I probably visited every respectable wine producer in Italy at that time. I sensed that a great new world in Italian wine was developing. I met people who had been doing wine as it had been done forever. Sometimes the wine was good, many times the wine was not good. Then I met people who believed in their grapes, believed in their territory, but said, “What we’ve been doing up to now is not worthy of the wine that we can make. So we are looking for improvements.”

At that time I met Antonio Mastroberardino, the most inspiring of all. Because whereas Angelo Gaja and others were very sophisticated, very well-acquainted with the international wine trade, and what they were looking for was to produce a wine that would have international acceptance, Antonio Mastroberardino simply was a man of his territory. He loved the aglianico grape. He recognized in the aglianico grape the potential to make as good red wine as you could make on the planet, and he set himself to doing that, without thinking where in the world he was going to sell it. And he produced in 1968 a single vineyard examples of three select locations on his property of an extraordinary wine. I’ve had that over the years – he gave me a case of it – and I still have one bottle. It’s an amazing wine.

So that was the world of wine that I was being introduced to. I was being introduced to wine being made in smelly, old Slavonian oak barrels that hadn’t been cleaned in 25 years, and wine that was being painfully, carefully brought up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, that had great promise. I thought, In a few years, nobody is going to be able to surpass what Italy will be able to do. That was where I left it.

JN: Is it sad to you that it seems that many producers couldn’t stop with making the good improvements that they needed, and maybe went a little too far in many wines that lost the sense of place?

VH: Yes, that is correct. You read my piece in Town & Country on that?

JN: Yes, I have.

VH: Yes, I found that all over. This is a situation that I describe in the following terms: a great many people in fashion, in business, in personal relationships, and in making wine, you know, are concerned with image. What Marcella and I, and many other people that I’ve met, were concerned with was identity. There’s a difference between identity and image. Image you prepare, image you polish. Identity you inherit.

JN: And winemaking in Italy shifted so much toward image that you no longer recognized many Italian wines by the mid-90s, and declined to write a second book?

VH: Yes, there were too many wines that were being produced to capture the attention of people who are used to drinking wine from California, or maybe from Australia. Italian producers who were very intelligent, very competent, technologically as advanced as any in the world said, We can make wines to suit their palate. We’ll buy our barrels in France. Italian wine shouldn’t have been tasting like that. That’s not every Italian wine, but there is an enormous number of Italian wines that are like that.

I’ve become very friendly with Angelo Gaja. We visited him many times, he came to Venice many times. We had many frank conversations about his objectives. I once questioned him about his ripping out a Nebbiolo vineyard. He said, “When I bring a wine to the international market and I put it down on the table, I tell them it’s Nebbiolo. They look at me, they taste it, they don’t recognize it. It doesn’t register. If I put a Cabernet Sauvignon on the table, they say it’s very good.” So, Italian wine became recognizable to people not accustomed to drinking Italian wine. That was his big objective. I said, “Why are you planting all these different reds?” He was planting Sauvignon-blanc and Syrah. He said, “I don’t see why I have to be stuck in the ghetto of Italian grapes.” I remember that phrase. It really poured out of him. But, of course, he is still stuck in part of that ghetto. And he is making Barbaresco and Barolo, and they’re very, very beautifully-made wines. Who can take exception to wines which are so harmonious, so well-balanced? I don’t know what you think about them, Justin. I’ve had a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, and I don’t drink Gaja’s Barbaresco with the expectation that I’m drinking something from Italy. I drink them knowing they’ll be very good wines made by a master. If I want a Barolo that tastes like a Barolo, there are half a dozen other producers whom I enjoy better. They have soul. You know what is missing from the Gaja wine? Soul. S-O-U-L.

JN: As a result, are we better off or worse off than we were in 1980?

VH: I think we’re better off. You know, we have to be realistic. It would be difficult to pick up a bottle of Italian wine today and not find some merit in it. In 1980, I drank many glasses of very mediocre wine. I think that is becoming less and less probable.

JN: Can I ask you about a few particular wines, and can you say a little about what you think the soul of that particular wine is? I would actually like to start with Barolo. You just mentioned Barolo from producers who have some soul, as opposed to the polished, international variety. What should we look for in a Barolo with identity and soul?

VH: It’s personality. Look for the kind of impression you would get from meeting someone like Marcella. It’s a vague term – truth – you look for truth, not technique. It may have a slight defect – but it does something to you. It fills you with what it is, but not how it is made. You’re not impressed by how it is made. You’re impressed by what it is, by who it is, by where it may be coming from. It just gives you a sense of satisfaction that you get from having spent an evening with someone who is terribly compatible, not someone who is flashy and entertaining or witty and smart, but someone who is perhaps kind of plain around the edges, but who is thoroughly compatible and enjoyable. I get that from Barolo.

The aroma would have to be very deeply layered. You get a successive wave of things from a really great and well-aged Barolo. Keep in mind that I’m drinking Barolos from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m not drinking Barolos from this century at all. If I’m lucky to get some ’89s, I drink ’89s, because that’s a terrific year. You know Vietti?

JN: Yes.

VH: Or Cavollotto. Even Burlotto. These people are making wines. The wines they’ve made in the past, because I’m drinking their old wines: the aromas have different stages. I remember many years ago, when I first started traveling, I met a man in Piedmont who was working in a territory where the recognized wine name was Gattinara. But he didn’t bottle his wine as Gattinara, he bottled it under another local name, Spanna. I remember tasting them with him. He said, “When you’re tasting wines from this grape” – from the Nebbiolo grape, obviously – “you begin by holding the glass at the level of your belly button.” You just hold it there, and you breathe in. And you begin to get these wonderful, ethereal odors. You don’t know whether they’re coming from dried flowers, from undergrowth; a combination of musky and delicate perfumed odors, and very light. You take the glass close to your nose, you move it around a little bit, and you get some heavier odors: odors of asphalt, of tar, rubber, of very heavy substances. Powerful. But these are not in conflict at all with the lighter, more flowery odors. Odors of jam and licorice are a very common component of those aromas. Then you swirl the glass, and then the whole panoply of odors bounces out of the glass. However, what I see here when I go to a formal wine tasting and they want to show me how well they know wine, they pick up a glass and they swirl it with a velocity that just shocks me. Wait a second, wine is not supposed to be beaten about like that, to be whipped around a glass like that! If you really want to know what the wine is saying to you, sniff it. Then you whip it gently, and all of it – if it’s a Barolo, it has about seventy components of aroma – each one of those components then begins to come out in harmony. If you just whip it around quickly, you lose half of the most delicate and ethereal aromas that just hover at the top surface of the wine.

So, Barolo has those aromas. It also takes possession of your palate. You take a sip of Barolo and hold it in your mouth, press it with the top of your tongue against the bottom of your upper palate, and you feel a roundness, a fatness, a thickness, a muscularity. Then you swallow it, and it is so kind to the back of your throat, but it’s not insignificant. Gulping wines are very delicious wines to have on a casual meal. But if you’re paying a lot of attention to the wine, both the strength and gentleness of the movement of Barolo through the mouth, down into the throat, is almost unique. Then you get that length. And the length of that swallowed wine seems never to give up. If you’re really paying attention, it almost never gives up. It tapers to an infinitude.

JN: That’s a very beautiful description, and I’d love to talk another hour about Barolo, but I need to move on. Could I ask next about carefully-made Chianti?

VH: Well, I don’t know that you can find it very easily. Look for Chianti that describes itself as being made from all Sangiovese. They can do that today. There are a few Chiantis that still respect the old Chianti taste sensation. Paolo di Marchi’s Ceparello, for example. He makes a genuine Sangiovese. Castello di Ama is a very good producer. Except that all of these are making wines that are very much designed to make an impression. I can’t help it that I am old enough to have experienced the Chianti of another era – Chianti that was young, that was fresh, that even may have been very slightly spritzy. Some were acidic, but some were very flowery – very, very flowery, and very enjoyable. You could go to a trattoria in Tuscany then – I’m talking about the 1950s and 1960s – and you could order a wine, a litro or half litro, or a quartino. You would order the house Chianti, they would bring you a flask with maybe two liters in it, you would pour whatever you would need during the meal. They would bring the flask back, they would give a tenth of a second of a look, and they would charge you what they would think you drank, which was an insignificant amount. I can’t help it that I remember that, and I enjoyed that so much, and I wish that I could find that again.

JN: That Chianti doesn’t seem to exist anymore, that style.

VH: No.

JN: Let me ask about one more wine, a favorite of mine, a wine that is very misunderstood in this country: true, well-made Lambrusco. Of course, it is not profound like Barolo, but it is a wine of fellowship, and happiness, and laughter, and so on.

VH: Exactly. What you look for in a wine! It’s pure pleasure. It’s the company of someone whose company is pure pleasure. You’re not looking for profound, philosophical insight. You’re just enjoying the vibration between body and body. I think a good Lambrusco – and unfortunately, that has been ill-served by its introduction to the American market – I think a good, well-made Lambrusco, that’s delicious. What else can you expect from a few hours in the middle of the day with a well-cooked, simple meal? I mean, there is no better happiness.

JN: Could you explain why Lambrusco is such a good match for the cooking of Emilia Romagna?

VH: It’s the acid, Justin. It’s what the Chianti used to have. It’s that quickness, that sharpness. It’s the reason you cook with a little bit of vinegar, or a little bit of white wine. Acid is a very great component of taste, in good measure. Lambrusco has a lot of fruit in it, it’s really a crushed bunch of grapes in the glass.

JN: And the acid helps to balance the rich cuisine of the region?

VH: Oh, sure.

JN: One term that is very popular today, but that you never used in your book, is the term minerality. I feel that thirty years ago, people didn’t use the term, while today people use it all the time.

VH: It puzzles me, too. I don’t think it ever appeared in my book.

JN: Back then, did anyone use the term minerality?

VH: Nobody. I talked to squadrons of winemakers up and down Italy. They talked about everything in the world. Minerality? Boh! No. People may be right. I don’t know what it is exactly. I’m sure there is something there; everybody can’t be wrong.

JN: But it’s certainly not a term the producers themselves were using back in the 1970s?

VH: No. They probably described that sensation, but with different terms.

JN: Such as?

VH: The flavor, the odor, the texture of the wine. They no doubt described it with different terms and tried to interpret those terms. But the decision to use minerality to cover that is something that happened very late. I would say the first time I heard minerality was around 1980, and I can even remember where it was. It was with a producer of Soave, a producer who used only single-vineyard Soave – made an excellent Soave. His name is Pieropan. A very high-end producer.

JN: Oh yes.

VH: He talked about the minerality of his wines in passing. It was so unexpected, I just ignored it. I said, “I don’t know what that is,” and then we went on. But I remember very clearly hearing it for the first time in that context. I never got anybody down and said, “Now, tell me exactly – what is minerality?” Do you know what it is exactly?

JN: Well, I think it means different things to different people. Sometimes people mean “salty” or “saline.” I think sometimes people mean the sensation of wet stones after a rain, especially in white wines, of course. I think the term has absolute value and validity, but it interests me that it is clearly a new term in the lexicon and one which people seem very fuzzy about.

VH: Yes.

JN: I’d like to end our interview by talking about Venice, a city which is very dear to both of us. You mentioned visiting Venice as a young boy, and of course you and Marcella lived in Venice for about twenty years. What led you to suggest to Marcella that you move full-time to Venice?

VH: When I was eight years old, my family took a day off from work, from the business, to go to Venice and have a seafood meal. The excitement that I experienced when we got off at Piazzale Roma – because they had driven there – and I got into a vaporetto, and we went into the Grand Canal: I can feel that excitement today. And then when we sat down and we had those gamberetti – those gamberetti olio e limone, which we had as an appetizer – I had never tasted anything so sweet, so delicious. And then we had time to walk around a little. I said, This is like – this is like – some place out of my dreams. When Marcel Proust went to Venice, he wrote back to someone a postcard saying, “I’m in Venice, and I’m living in my dreams.” It is dream-like, and I had that dream all my life. The moment came when we had the opportunity to do that. We had the wherewithal, we had the kind of business that we could move to a place in Venice. In Bologna we had a big kitchen, and a big class, and it was really exhausting. There was no reason why we couldn’t go back to the format of Marcella’s original classes – six people in a kitchen. We charged them a lot of money to make it worth our while, and we had waiting lists up to three years. We could still be teaching there if we wanted to.

You’ve been to Venice. It’s like no other place. It has to affect you, though, in that way. A lot of people say, It’s like no other place, and I don’t want to spend another minute here.

People complain about the smell – and, of course, Venice today is not the Venice that I knew originally. It’s the Venice of 15 million tourists a year. But if you know the city, you know where to go. Even in the middle of August, you can escape 90% of the people visiting there. So I wanted to go back. I loved the market at the Rialto that I was acquainted with. When I had visited Venice as a little boy with my parents, something went through my mind. I looked up at the windows, and thought, Is it possible for someone to come here from outside and go behind one of those windows and open the window and look outside, and see that he’s living in Venice? Is that possible? This was going through my mind at age eight. By the time that I said, “Let’s go to Venice,” – we bought our apartment in 1978 – I was fifty years old then. It was exactly that same feeling: of wanting, of dreaming, of having a place there where you could go up, open the window, look outside, and say, This is where I live. This is the street I live on. This is my canal.

JN: And I guess that when you left, in 1999, you probably still felt that same magic. It must have been excruciating to leave.

VH: It’s excruciating even now. I’m almost 90, and I’m having trouble getting about, and I still need to go back. To go back for three weeks is OK, it’s a gift, but it’s not like having our own house. The house we had was a home of my dreams. There were two traumatic experiences in my life: one was when my mother was killed in an automobile accident, and the other was when I left Venice. Marcella’s death was very sad, and I have missed her a lot, but she had been dying. It was natural. It came in a very natural and irreversible way. But leaving Venice didn’t have to be. It had to be only because Marcella couldn’t walk.

JN: People often talk about the magical affect of light in the city of Venice, the way that light in that city seems different from any other place.

VH: Of course, because it is a compound of the light in the air, the light in the atmosphere, and the light that is received by the water and bounced back. It’s that kind of light. There are so many components. There are all those reflections in the water, Justin: the reflection of the Istrian marble of the buildings, the reflections of the peeling facades that once were pink or green; the reflections of the shapes of the volumes of the buildings that sit upon the water. That is in the water. The light of the atmosphere is in the water, and it is all blended by some master painter like Monet, and bounced back at you. It’s unlike any other place.

JN: Do you find a ride in a gondola to be meaningful, or an empty tourist experience?

VH: If you can get a gondolier to cut away from his fellows and take you separately through Venice, that is still an extraordinary experience, because that is the way that Venice was meant to be experienced. It was meant to be experienced from the surface of the canals. Not by walking up and down the bridges; those were merely a necessity.

It must have been mentioned in Marcella’s memoir, I don’t remember, about the time we got married [to renew our vows] in San Giovanni Paolo. At night we took a gondola and we set a dining table in it, and one of the restaurants piled this table with wonderful food and wine. Our gondolier set off in the dark, down canals that have never seen a tourist, and that was wonderful.

JN: You and I share a love for the tiny restaurant Osteria alle Testiere, in Venice. Could you say something about what makes that place so special to you, what makes the cooking so magical?

VH: Well, I’m hoping that it continues to be, because it’s very hard now that it’s become so well-known, and it has so many customers that are not from Venice. Again, we pull up one of the words that we bandied about this morning: truth. The truth of those ingredients, the identity of those ingredients that are served to you not to deliver an image, not so you look at them arrive at the table and say, Wow, isn’t that gorgeous! They’re not even meant to look gorgeous. They’re meant to taste pure.

JN: I think the grilled radicchio tardivo of Venice is the best example of this.

VH: It’s not beautiful when it’s grilled; it’s very beautiful, though, when it’s raw.

JN: That’s true. I think many people wouldn’t think to order it, but it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten in Venice.

VH: It’s one of the greatest dishes of Italy, I would say, grilled radicchio tardivo. One of the very great dishes. A restaurant is entitled to charge as much as what you might pay here for a prime ribeye steak.

JN: One reason I find the cooking at Testiere to be so magical is that the only person doing the cooking is Bruno [Gavagnin]. In other words, he has not hired a team of people that he has trained and is overseeing. He is doing the cooking, always, all the time. I feel that his personality, his standards, and his taste are communicated in every dish – in a way that when you have two, or three, or six assistants, no matter how hard they work, it is very difficult to replicate the taste and the sense of the master. I wonder if that makes sense to you.

VH: That is correct, yes. Absolutely. When we lived in Italy, that is the way it was. Well, of course, I’ve always wondered about the system of chefs. So many times I’ve encountered chefs where basically what they do is, they sit in an office and talk on the telephone. Somebody else is doing the cooking. No, Bruno is doing the cooking, but he also knows that he has to satisfy Luca [di Vita, his business partner, who manages the dining room]. If Bruno’s cooking didn’t measure up to Luca’s expectations, it wouldn’t go far. We have a lot of executive chefs. That’s true in my experience of the French restaurants in New York. I’ve been to a couple, and I know some of the men. Some of them are wonderful men, working very hard, but they’re no longer active chefs. They’re CEO chefs. That’s what it is.

JN: Victor, we should end there, I think. Thank you so much for so generously giving of your time and wisdom.

VH: Thanks for taking an interest in this old relic.

JN: Not a relic at all. More like a priceless treasure. Thanks again.

A tribute to Victor Hazan

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victorBehind every successful man, as they say, is a great woman. In the case of the late, great Marcella Hazan, however, it is her husband Victor who played a quiet but instrumental role in her long and impactful career as a cooking teacher and writer.

Marcella and Victor met in the early 1950s in Marcella’s hometown of Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The match wasn’t necessarily preordained to succeed. Victor was jobless, hoping to become a writer, and his father actually flew to Italy from America to talk Marcella’s parents out of giving their consent. Victor was obsessed with food. Marcella didn’t think about food much. She was just finishing up her PhD in biology and natural science. Victor had decided to return to Italy instead of finishing his college degree in the US.

And yet, it ended up being a match for the ages. The Tuscan winemaker Paolo de Marchi recalled to me recently that though their visit to his estate had been more than 30 years previous, he clearly recalled Marcella and Victor as a striking and memorable couple. They always made an impression. Marcella died in 2013, after 58 years of marriage to Victor.

After their wedding in 1955, they relocated to New York and Victor became resigned to work for his father’s business, an undertaking that never truly fulfilled him. Marcella spent time working at a lab and for the first time learning to cook. As she recalled later in life:

There I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most of life’s ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal.

Despite her lack of experience, cooking came naturally to Marcella. More than a decade later, her passion for and mastery of her native cooking led to a career first as a cooking teacher, and later as an author of cookbooks.

It is no exaggeration to say that Marcella introduced an American audience to Italian cooking just as Julia Child did for French cooking.

But Marcella didn’t like to write in English, even though she was completely fluent. And so she would write her books in her native Italian. Victor would then take her Italian text and translate it into English as he imagined Marcella speaking or writing it. Thus began one of the great collaborations in cooking in the 20th century.

Even more grueling than the translation was the editing of the recipes. Victor himself didn’t cook much, and so he offered Marcella the perspective of a beginner, a novice, as so many of her readers and students would be. When she omitted a detail she found obvious, Victor would counter, “Well, it’s not obvious to me!”

Later, Marcella taught week-long courses in Bologna, and then later still in Venice. Victor was more interested in wine than Marcella was, and because he was still working for the family business in New York, he would leave with her written descriptions of the wines that would accompany the dishes Marcella was cooking for her classes. Her editor Judith Jones was impressed by these descriptions and suggested to Victor that he write a book on Italian wine, which was at that time (the late 1970s) finally starting to make inroads in America.

Victor agreed. He finally ended his work for the family business and spent several years traveling throughout Italy, tasting wines, meeting with winemakers, and deepening his understanding of Italian viticulture. The resulting book, Italian Wine, published in 1982, remains my single favorite book on Italian wine written in English. For sure it is dated in many respects – so much has changed in the last 35 years – but its foundation and principles are amazing sound and relevant.

And because Victor is a talented writer, it reads far more compellingly than most books on wine. How could one, for example, not wish to explore the rich world of dessert wines after reading this:

[Dessert wines] disclose to us, as no dry wine is capable of doing, the sensuous power of this miraculous drink, a transubstantiation of fruit and sun into honeyed liquid.

Or perhaps this description of Bardolino, one of my very favorite wines:

There is no prettier landscape anywhere than the sweet hills of Bardolino facing lake Garda and the sunset, a serene pattern of vineyards, olive trees, cypresses, castles, and Veronese villas in pale pink stone, arranged on gently inclined slopes, lit by the cheerful shimmer of the lake-reflected light. It deserves to be called charming as well as any place on earth, probably more so than most, and produces a wine to match.

Or this description of another favorite:

No wine is so reviving to a toiling palate or flagging spirits as [Lambrusco]. Whenever I reach Bologna after a long, taxing drive on the high-speed Italian turnpikes, there is no other drink I want at the table.

And finally this depressing but important insight about appreciating the aroma of wine:

Another problem is our impoverished store of remembered smells. The fragrances of honestly ripened fruit of wild berries and mushrooms, of field flowers, of wood have been edited out of everyday experience and replaced by those of plastic film, metal foil, polymers, and acetate.

For many of us, it will be necessary to replenish the depleted stores of our olfactory memory, conducting our noses through produce markets, gardens, fields, woods, wherever it can assemble the most varied collection of well-identified impressions. Most of what a wine has to tell is spoken by its odors. Smelling is the most intimate contact we have with wine, when we draw close to, as it were, its very breath.

Such evocative and powerful writing about wine is rare, and for this reason Italian Wine remains relevant 35 years after publication.

Many of us hoped that Victor would update his book or write a new one. He nearly did. But when he revisited the topic 15 years later, he found a changed Italian wine world: too many producers who had sacrificed an emphasis on terroir and place with an emphasis on style and international grape varieties. He had never found so many well-made wines in Italy, but he had never tasted so few that truly spoke with an Italian character.

Instead he continued to collaborate with Marcella on cookbooks and with her classes in Venice. As she got older and it became harder for her to get around, Victor would walk to Marcella’s beloved Rialto market to shop for meat, vegetables, and especially fish.

Marcella had rightfully earned respect, fame, and adoration. But Victor remained in his quiet but essential role as adoring husband, thoughtful interlocutor, helpful collaborator, and companion at table. Almost every dish Marcella ever cooked or published first passed through the table she had prepared for lunch or dinner with Victor. Their enjoyment of food, their conversations about food, made Marcella’s teaching and writing so much better.

After Marcella died in 2013, Victor decided to maintain her Facebook page as a vehicle for people to continue to share the influence which Marcella had on them and also to update her fans with his own projects and travels. He completed a manuscript on ingredients that she was working on when she died, and had it published in 2016 as Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market.

Victor is role-model and powerful influence of mine. I raise my glass to him for a life well-lived and for sharing so much of himself in pursuit of his and Marcella’s mission to promote a deeper of understanding of Italian food and wine. Their work changed the course of my life and of many others’ lives as well.

For more on Victor Hazan, read my long-form interview with him here.