Taste Maker

By staff August 1, 2007

What surprised me was the plastic salad spinner in a lower cupboard of the sleek cook’s kitchen Giuliano Hazan designed for his Sarasota home.

I’d expected the  six-burner Wolf Gourmet gas range under its custom glass hood, the little secrets like the shallow toe-kick drawer for storing serving platters, the easy-on-the-feet (and dropped crockery) cork floor and the wide-open floorplan, ideal for connecting the cook to his dinner guests.

But a salad spinner? It’s useful, certainly. It’s just that it seems too pedestrian to be included in the culinary battery of a best-selling, second-generation Italian cookbook author who was named the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ 2007 Cooking Teacher of the Year.

That’s Giuliano for you, though, a down-to-earth man who happens to know more about Italian food and cooking than most people. Except for his mother, of course. She’s Marcella Hazan, the 83-year-old author and teacher who, beginning in the 1970s, pretty much single-handedly tugged American perception of Italian cooking out of the spaghetti-and-meatballs ghetto and got us thinking instead about extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and pesto.

Marcella and husband Victor, a connoisseur of Italian wines, live on Longboat Key now, but Giuliano grew up on New York City’s Upper East Side and in Italy. His mother taught regularly at her own cooking school in Bologna, which Giuliano one day would run, and he spent summer vacations with his grandmother in Marcella’s hometown of Cesenatico, a low-key resort on the Adriatic with a port designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

We all know the old argument over nature versus nurture: Which counts for more in determining a person’s behavior (or what today might more likely be called lifestyle)? Genes or early environment?

In Giuliano’s case, the famously frenetic pace of his childhood in Manhattan seems to have lost out to a more measured, less hurried approach to life.

Simplify. Savor. Slow down.

These bite-size pieces of advice, let’s call them The Three S’s, make serviceable shorthand for his approach to cooking and to teaching others how to cook. "Satisfying food does not have to be complex or take a long time to prepare,” Giuliano observed in the second of his three cookbooks, Every Night Italian. “Often the simpler it is the better it tastes, and simplicity is what Italian cooking is all about.”

So: Simplify your approach to menus in favor of “simple and delicious” dishes. Savor the pleasures of the kitchen, allowing the smells and sights and textures to delight you. Don’t forget to taste often. Slow down at the table. A meal is neither a race nor a contest to see who can put away the most chow before the buzzer sounds. Italian meals typically include many paced courses, each one relatively small but full of flavor. The goal is satisfaction, not that overstuffed feeling we’ve all experienced too often.

“If Americans would just reduce portion sizes,” Giuliano says, “there would be widespread weight loss.”

Giuliano learned to cook in the same organic, measured way expressed in his Three S’s. Instead of enrolling in one of the culinary world’s four-star pressure-cooker academies, he learned to cook over “a lifetime of slow absorption.”

“I grew up cooking,” he said in a recent conversation at his colorful home on the tranquil banks of Phillippi Creek, “watching my mother cook and teach. I learned to cook by doing it.”

 Students at his own cooking school near Verona are treated to the same method of learning, at least for the week they’re in residence at Villa Giona, the 12-acre Renaissance country estate a few miles from Romeo and Juliet’s city of Verona. Recipes are the last item on the syllabus, not the first. Instead, students get their hands dirty under Giuliano’s tutelage right away. They peel and slice and chop and filet and mix pasta dough with their hands. They observe the teacher’s techniques and try them out immediately.

“I break cooking down for them to its most basic elements, and then I help them to make the skills and techniques I teach them their own,” he says.

But why no recipes right off the bat? Why wait until the end of the course to present them?

“Because cooking is not a chemistry experiment,” Giuliano says with conviction. “I want my students to learn to cook spontaneously and instinctively. We do everything together. We shop and cook and eat and drink together. My goal is for my students to internalize the why as well as the how.”

It’s for that reason that in his influential and widely translated cookbooks—The Classic Pasta Cookbook (1993), Every Night Italian (2000) and How To Cook Italian (2005)—he usually specifies ingredient amounts not by the teaspoon or the cup but as, for example, one medium white onion or two sprigs of parsley.

And unlike many celebrity chefs turned cookbook authors, he does not advise his students to do a mise en place (“everything in place”) sort of prep, with all the raw ingredients chopped and grated and processed and measured into small bowls before firing up the first burner.

Instead, he lets both his readers and his students know when it’s time in the natural flow of cooking to crush the tomatoes.

“After all,” he says, “it’s going to take the onions a few minutes to sauté, so do something else while that happens. It’s a better use of time and less intimidating. It’s more natural.”

Although Giuliano is amazingly accessible—he’s a frequent guest on the Today Show and regularly teaches all around the U.S., including seasonal demonstration- and tasting-style classes at Casa Italia in Sarasota—it’s only during his weeklong immersion classes at Villa Giona that just 12 students are treated to five hours a day in the kitchen and at table with the master.

His partner in the school and an active participant is Marilisa Allegrini of Valpolicella’s celebrated Allegrini winemaking family, whose viticultural roots stretch back at least into the 16th century. She’s on hand not only for tastings and classes at the villa but also conducts a behind-the-scenes tour of her family’s winery exclusively for students.

Sharing the host’s duties at Villa Giona are Lael Hazan, Giuliano’s wife of nearly 10 years and his partner in a business that imports Italian specialties, and the older of his two daughters, eight-year-old Gabriella. (Michela is just three-and-a-half, a bit young for kindergarten, let alone cooking school.) Gabriella is a pasta specialist.

“She keeps an eye on all the students when they’re learning to make pasta,” Giuliano says with a laugh, “and if something’s not being done right she lets me know.”

All instruction at the villa is in English, since the majority of his students are from the U.S., but his conversations with Gabriella are another matter. “I speak only Italian to my children,” he says.

Giuliano’s students are diverse, the common thread among them being, as he says, “a passion for food and wine and for trying new things.” In addition to Americans, the villa has hosted Russian, Spanish, French, Dutch and Australian students. They range from seasoned culinary professionals and aspiring chefs to cultural tourists to sophisticated home cooks. Some are wealthy, while others have saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. They range in age from teenagers to octogenarians.

But here’s another thing many of them have in common: They enjoy themselves so thoroughly the first time that they want to come back for more. There’s been such demand, in fact, that the school has added an annual alumni session to the calendar, with a whole new agenda for repeaters.

And the agenda, for first-timers and alumni alike, is full. You can find out all about the field trips—to dine and shop and see how such specialties as Culatello di Zibello, a ham more prized even than prosciutto di parma or parmigiano reggiano, are made—at his elegant and easy-to-use Web site,, which is itself a sort of testimonial.

It was designed by a couple from Redmond, Wash., employees of Microsoft who spent their honeymoon with Giuliano (and 10 fellow students) at Villa Giona. They were so impressed with the school and their teacher that they offered to help spread the word by lending a virtual hand. Not only that, they returned for the alumni course on their fifth anniversary.

We know how Giuliano learned to cook, by “slow absorption” at his famous mother’s knee, but how did he become such an accomplished and sought-after teacher?

Marcella can take a bow there, too, since she was his model in the classroom as well as in the kitchen. But there’s another important part of the answer: He trained as a stage actor and director as a young man in Providence, R.I., and pursued that craft professionally for a while.

“And I’m still doing theater,” he says. “Teaching is very much a performance.”

Perhaps his fondness for the theatrical has something to do with his choice of restaurant for a regular student dinner outing in Verona. Tre Marchetti, which lies practically in the shadow of the Roman amphitheater known as the Arena, where an annual outdoor opera festival draws thousands, is considered by some to be the best trattoria in Italy (which is saying something) and is known by others as Verona’s version of a stage door canteen. The restaurant has been serving customers since 1291. Its current owner, Roberto Barca, is known around Verona as a personnagio, a character—but in the very best sense of the word.

Giuliano likes Tre Marchetti for the food, too, of course. The cuisine, he says with a fond sigh, epitomizes the Veronese style. The menu is seasonal, with an emphasis on local ingredients as well as local tradition, which makes it typically Italian, too. One dish he mentions is pasta stuffed with celery root, but his students might also be tempted on a given evening by such traditional dishes as baby squid with tomatoes, or clove-and-nutmeg-seasoned Cotechino sausage with polenta, or maybe just something the kitchen whips up with local mushrooms and truffles.

Back at his home in Sarasota, I’m taking one last look around before saying goodbye to my quietly charming host. Giuliano has graciously allowed me more than an hour of his time, even though he’s trying to get himself and his family ready to leave for Verona in a few days. He’s also on deadline for a magazine article he’s writing, and he’s been besieged with interview requests following announcement of his selection as IACP Cooking Teacher of the Year.

I’m invited to enjoy a cool drink before going, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome. On my way to the front door, my eye is caught by the serenely traditional straight-line chandelier over the minimalist glass and steel dining table. (The center glass expansion leaf is no more, he says, having exploded one day for no good reason, fortunately at a time when no one was in the room.) I can’t resist asking him about the fixture, even though I know he must be eager to check another chore off his list.

He shows no sign of impatience, instead joining me in my enthusiasm for the delicate painted silk shades suspended from a long, subtly multicolored, worked-iron bar. It’s from Venice, a city he’s fond of, from the studio of Fortuny, who designed the original in the early 20th century. This one is a reproduction, of course, he says in his self-effacing way. Still, he clearly enjoys taking the time to appreciate it, even if he does have a million other things to do.

I thank Giuliano for his hospitality and finally get out the door. As I walk to my car, parked in the shade of a towering oak, three bite-size nuggets of advice from the maestro revolve in my mind like a mantra for chronically overscheduled Americans: Simplify. Savor. Slow down.

Bradenton’s John Bancroft, food and wine editor of Sarasota Magazine, is a former food and wine editor for Arizona Trend and has reviewed restaurants, books, movies and music for many other magazines and newspapers, most recently the St. Petersburg Times.

Hazan’s Favorite Italian Restaurants

Cavallino Bianco, Polesine Parmense (PR), tel: +39 0524-96136. This is the spot to savor Italy's most prestigious ham, Culatello di Zibello, made by the great-grandson of the man who used to make it for Giuseppe Verdi.  At Cavallino Bianco almost everything served has been raised or grown at their adjacent farm the same way it has been for over 600 years.

Groto de Corgnan, Sant'Ambrogio, (VR), tel: +39 045-7731372. At Giorgio Soave's restaurant you will experience the typical cuisine of Valpolicella at its finest. Accompany it with a bottle of local wine producer Allegrini's luscious Amarone.

Da Fiore, Venice, tel: +39 041-7211308. The fish that owner Maurizio Martin selects each day at the market is always incredibly fresh. His wife, Mara, then expertly and innovatively prepares it for you.

Fiaschetteria Toscana, Venice, tel: +39 041-5285281. Don't be confused by the name. This is where to go for the best authentic Venetian cuisine. The fritto misto is poetic, and owner Mariuccia's desserts are not to be missed.

Ristorante Gallura, Olbia, Sardinia, tel: +39 0789-24648. For an exquisite meal in Sardinia, let the very talented Rita d'Enza guide you through an unforgettable series of Sardinian delicacies.

U Giancu, San Massimo outside Rapallo (GE), tel: +39 0185-260505. This unique restaurant will not only delight your palate with its fantastic genuine Ligurian cuisine, but your eyes as well with an extraordinary collection of original cartoons. If you look carefully you will find Sarasota resident Chris Browne's Hagar the Horrible.

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