The Essence of Italian

By staff April 1, 2006

Marcella Polini and Victor Hazan were married in February 1955, a union that sparked an extraordinary culinary career-and dynasty. Son Giuliano came on the scene while the couple was living in America and learned to cook alongside his mother. The three ultimately conducted a transcontinental lifestyle, anchored in both the United States and Italy, conducting weeklong classes in their Venice apartment that drew students from across the world.

The Hazans moved to Longboat Key permanently in the late 1990s. Giuliano settled in Sarasota as well. Altogether, the trio has published close to a dozen books about food and wine. Although Marcella and Victor no longer teach on a regular basis, Giuliano inaugurated a cooking school outside of Verona, Italy, at the Villa Giona, where with Italian wine expert Marilisa Allegrini, he and wife Lael conduct a weeklong cooking school several times a year.

With such Italian culinary expertise at our doorstep, we decided to ask the Hazans about the essence of real Italian cooking-and to choose three classic dishes that best exemplify it (recipes below).

It was a Sunday morning in Marcella and Victor's condominium. The view of the water at the kitchen window was stunning, prompting Marcella to comment, "This is why we moved here."

Let's start with the key question. What is the essence of the Italian table?

Marcella: There are a few things-fresh ingredients, simplicity.

Victor: The essence is emotional and cultural. The Italian table is the place that's the central activity of an Italian day. In Italy when strangers happen to meet and talk to each other, say, in a train compartment or in a line for something, the most likely subject of conversation is food. So the Italian table forms a fundamental part of Italian life. It isn't the restaurant, it isn't the chef, it is the cooking of the family, and it has the purpose of keeping the family together.

Marcella: They have a word in Italy for the table where you eat. They call it desco. It means sacred.

Giuliano: I have two small children, a two-year-old and a six-year-old, and so there's two ways to go about our table. On the one hand, it would be nice to spend more time at the table with my wife, relaxed; and on the other hand, I don't want to miss out a portion of the children growing up with us. We want the children to eat with us. So we give them a snack to hold them over until dinner, which is very Italian.

Marcella: That is how the children learn what tastes good. Here there are many children who don't want to eat vegetables. But if they start when they're very small the Italian way of eating, it's not only one dish but a sequence of dishes, each with a different taste and value.

Giuliano: In Italy, when you do go out to restaurants, you never see a children's menu. A children's menu is just smaller portions of the same things.

Marcella: If you go to a restaurant in Italy and you like the food, you say, "It's just like home food." We don't expect the food to impress us. I don't want food that you want to have a camera because it looks so good, I want that it tastes good. That's very important.

Giuliano: It's comforting to eat what your mother and your grandmother made. It's not necessary to make something different all the time.

Victor: In this country during the past decade or so, the media has created this phenomenon of the star chef who represents the ultimate level to which cooking can be performed or perfected. That intimidates everyday cooks, everyday people. People think, "I can't cook at that level. So I must get something at Morton's or Publix and bring it home. Or if I really have to cook at home, I'll make a sandwich or a salad because I'm not a chef." In Italy, cooking is about the family. Traditionally in Italy we don't even have chefs, they are just cooks.

Giuliano: In Italian, the word chef means chief, which means the manager of the restaurant.

Victor: (Laughing) That's what you were once, Giuliano, so now you have graduated to a cook.

Giuliano: Italy is not just one country, but made up of very distinct regions. It is a collection of cuisines. What might be a dish in Apulia isn't even heard of in the Veneto. Tuscans don't know how to cook Venetian dishes. It's like if you're here, you go to Tampa and they don't know how to cook your food.

Victor: If you are in Venice, it's likely to be a dish with seafood. If you are in Tuscany, the essential dish would be a soup. If you're in Naples, it would have to be some type of pasta with a very light tomato sauce. Not anything heavy or garlicky like they make in this country, but very light. In the Riviera, it would be a dish with a lot of herbs. Pesto is an example of that, dishes that are fragrant, that smell of an herb garden. And in Bologna, it would be pasta made by hand-egg pasta rather than flour pasta.

You might be the most famous culinary family in the world.

Marcella: Now we have the grandchildren. Gabriella started to make pasta when she was four. Another generation.

Giuliano: She loves the white truffle, too!

Have you thought about the influence of the three of you on how Americans view Italian cuisine?

Victor: If anything, I think about how little influence we've had. What people understand to be Italian cooking is not what we understand to be Italian cooking.

Marcella: Garlic is so misused here. Everyone says if you smell garlic, you smell Italian food-which is not true.

Victor: Or serving big bowls of pasta with the meat course.

Marcella: That is more German.

Giuliano: Or enormous portions. It's enough for two or three people.

Victor: I do think Marcella was very influential in kicking this whole thing off back in 1973, when she published her first book. At that time no one was paying attention to Italian food as we understand it.

How did this impression of huge portions and lots of garlic and heavy sauces come to represent Italian food?

Marcella: I have an idea. Most Italian cooking here was coming from immigrants, and most of them were coming from the southern part of Italy, which was and is the poorer part. When they arrived here, it was "mangia, mangia"-eat, eat. They think the large portion was representative of this new abundance. When you make pasta, the pasta is the less expensive and the sauce is more expensive, especially if it has meat. So they put a lot of sauce on top. The sauce is not really the seasoning for the pasta. I keep saying you are eating pasta with the sauce, not the sauce with the pasta. They invented dishes that you don't have in Italy, like manicotti. You can travel all over Italy and never find manicotti.

Giuliano: This was the creation of a new cuisine, the Italian-American cuisine. And the large portions and abundance endure because it's really an American concept. It's what Americans expect. If they don't get it, it's not value for their money. And now people expect to take food home. In Italy, the concept of taking food home from a restaurant is unknown.

Marcella: In Italy they say to me, "They take food home from the restaurant?" They're very surprised about that. Also, I hate when they bring me a plate done. How do they know if I like string beans? That's another part of essential Italian food-serve yourself!

Giuliano: In my new book, How to Cook Italian, I gave recipes that are not necessarily classic recipes that are cooked in Italy, but are things I cook here with ingredients I have here. It comes out Italian because it has the qualities of an Italian dish: simple ingredients, not over-spiced, and genuine flavors.

Marcella: Not too many ingredients. Some of these recipes you see have 21 ingredients!

Giuliano: I think of flavor, taste, memories that I grew up enjoying and continue to cook for myself, the rituals my parents have been talking about. Have respect for food. Someone put themselves into making the food. Take the time to experience what someone has cooked for you.

We asked the Hazans to choose three recipes that capture the essence of Italian cuisine. "Simplicity is it," declared Marcella. "That, and very, very fresh ingredients. That's all you need, really." The recipes they gave us-for rapini, pasta with tomato sauce and roasted chicken with lemon-are only fresh, simple and simply delicious; they're an unassuming backdrop for great conversation and conviviality with family and friends. And that's what Italian cooking-and this Italian family-are all about.

Giuliano's Rapini Sautéed with Olive Oil and Garlic

This classic Italian recipe for rapini (sometimes also known as broccoli rabe) can also be made with broccoli or broccolini. When using broccoli you'll need to pare away the tough outer part of the stalk. Broccolini only needs to have the stem bottom trimmed. This recipe serves six as a side dish.

1 bunch rapini, about 1 pound

1 medium garlic clove


3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Fill a pot with at least 4 quarts of water, place over high heat and bring to a boil. Trim the bottom of the rapini stalks and wash in cold water. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Add a tablespoon of salt to the boiling water and put in the rapini. Cook until the stems are tender, usually no more than 5 minutes. Drain well in a colander.

Put the olive oil and garlic in a 12-inch skillet and place over medium-high heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the rapini. Season with salt and pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes until the rapini are fully flavored with the olive oil and garlic. Serve at once.

Marcella's Pasta with Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes, or 2 cups of canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice

5 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half


1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for the table

Marcella recommends potato gnocchi (homemade, if possible) but says the sauce is also delicious with factory-made pasta in such shapes as spaghetti, penne or rigatoni.

To prepare, put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion and salt and cook uncovered at a very slow but steady simmer for 45 minutes or until the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir from time to time, mashing any large piece of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

Note: may be frozen when done. Discard the onion before freezing.

Marcella's Roast Chicken with Lemons

One whole chicken, 3-4 pounds


2 small lemons

black pepper, ground fresh from the pepper mill

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash the chicken in cold water, inside and out. Remove all the bits of hanging fat. Let the bird sit for 10 minutes on a tilted plate to let all the water drain out. Pat dry. Sprinkle a generous amount of salt and pepper on the bird and rub some into the inside cavity.

Wash the lemons, dry and roll on the countertop to soften. Puncture the lemons at least 20 times in different places, using a sturdy round toothpick, a trussing needle or something similar. Place both lemons in the chicken cavity. Close up the opening and truss closed with needle and string or toothpicks. Don't make it airtight, but reasonably closed. Run kitchen string between the legs, tying at the knuckle of the leg. Leave the legs in their natural position.

Place the chicken into a roasting pan, breast side down. Place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over so the breast side is face up. Try not to puncture the skin. If kept intact, the chicken will swell like a balloon, which makes for an arresting presentation at the table. (If it doesn't swell, it doesn't affect the taste.)

Cook for another 30 to 35 minutes, then turn the oven up to 400 degrees and cook for an additional 20 minutes. There is no need to turn the chicken again. Bring it to the table whole and leave the lemons inside until it is carved and open. The juices will be delicious; spoon them over the slices of chicken (but don't squeeze the lemons).

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