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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.