Sometime in 2018, documentary filmmaker Peter Miller, who lives in Manhattan, purchased some nettles at his local farmers' market and, with his wife, set about making ravioli with them. They were using a recipe written by Marcella Hazan, the legendary Italian cookbook author and instructor who lived on Longboat Key from 1999 until she died in 2013.
In the 1990s, Miller and his wife attended one of Hazan's popular cooking classes, in Connecticut, and for years had been cooking her dishes. Often, when presented with an ingredient, or stumped by a dish, they would ask each other, "What does Marcella say?" Or, "What would Marcella do?"
That day in 2018, while making ravioli, Miller asked a different question.
"An hour or so into this process, rolling dough, stuffing ravioli, I looked at my wife and said, 'Has anyone ever made a documentary about Marcella?'" says Miller.
The answer was no, and that set Miller off on a quest to tell Hazan's story. He contacted Hazan's son, Giuliano Hazan, a celebrated cookbook author in his own right, and her husband, Victor Hazan, who still lives on Longboat Key. Victor sat for an extended interview in New York, and shared hundreds of photographs and video clips of Hazan with the filmmaker, who has made documentaries about subjects as diverse as the lives Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the history of the egg cream.
Three years later, the Hazan project, titled simply Marcella, remains unfinished, but Miller has compiled a 10-minute sample reel that showcases some of the material and is asking for financial help to complete the project.
The story of Hazan's life is extraordinary. Born in 1924 in Cesenatico, a small town on the Adriatic Sea, she was educated as a scientist and wanted to become a teacher. Victor came from the nearby town of Cesena, but spent the years of World War II in New York, with his family. When he returned to Italy after the war, he visited Cesenatico, and a cousin asked him if he would like to meet some girls.
"The first girl he introduced me to was Marcella," says Victor, now 93. "It was a lightning bolt. I could think of no one else afterward."
The two married two years later, and Hazan followed Victor to New York, then Milan, Rome and back to New York. Hazan had always enjoyed food, but didn't cook much until she found herself uprooted from her surroundings and living in an America where even basic Italian products like extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar were tough to come by.
Eventually, Hazan began teaching Italian cooking classes and writing cookbooks that remain standards of the genre today. It's no exaggeration to say that she revolutionized Americans' understanding of Italian cuisine. Her recipes are direct, easy to follow and the opposite of flashy. Her three-ingredient tomato sauce, her "Chicken With Two Lemons" and her pork loin braised in milk are all simple—and magnificent.
"Within a short time, she took possession of the whole Italian culinary canon and recast it," says Victor. "It was nothing less than an act of genius."
In her later years, Hazan taught cooking classes in a Venetian palazzo where she and Victor lived. But as she grew older, her health made it difficult to navigate the alleys, bridges and stairs of Venice. The couple moved to Longboat Key to be closer to Giuliano, who had relocated to the area.
"She's a fascinating person and her story really matters," says Miller. "The way she transformed the way we look at food is a huge and wonderful development for making the world a better place." Miller estimates that he needs roughly $200,000 to complete the film. He is partnering with the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit, to raise money for the project.
"I want people to know what she was like," says Victor. "There will be a living image of Marcella, and I'm hoping that what emerges is the extraordinary achievements of this woman."
You can watch the Marcella sample reel here: