cookbook club: essentials of classic Italian cooking

Welcome to the second book of the Spring 2022 season! 

When I started considering legendary women cookbook authors, Marcella Hazan was on top of the list. Maybe it was the fact that, for me, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was the equivalent of the previous generation’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was the first “real” cookbook I purchased on my own. From Kitchen Arts & Letters, nonetheless. It’s been back and forth across this country several times. It’s been in my kitchen through phases when most of my other books were in storage. The spine of my book is broken at the page for asparagus risotto, where I also found a Gourmet Magazine subscription card from 1992.

I knew nothing about Marcella Hazan, but I knew I wanted to cook and learn about “real” Italian food. I looked in the giant Manhattan phone book for a cooking school . I found a listing for the School of Classic Italian Cooking. It was blocks from my apartment. I called the number. Marcella answered herself. She gruffly informed me that classes were held in her home kitchen and no space was available. Her abrupt dismissal scared the heck out of me, and I lost my nerve to pursue the conversation any further. 

I write that with a twinge of regret.

About a dozen years later, I was teaching at the French Culinary Institute. Marcella was a regular guest instructor for our nascent Italian program. Turns out, she intimidated the heck out of me then too…. I guess that says as much about me as it does her!

Another dozen years later, I’m happy to learn that I wasn’t the only one. She was like that. It was part of her charm. It was part of what made her legendary, actually. Marcella was strong, deeply and adamantly opinionated, brilliant, inspiring. She was also a tireless advocate of “real” Italian cooking. And, in her world, that meant northern Italian cooking. 

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the legendary Marcella Hazan

Marcella was born in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and moved to the United States when she married Victor Hazan in 1955. She did not know how to cook at that time. She had to teach herself based on memories of tastes of dishes from home using techniques “idiosyncratically [her]own.” 

To make it more challenging, she had to do it with the ingredients found in New York grocery shops. In the mid-20th century that meant hard pink tomatoes in cellophane wrappers, canned or frozen vegetables, and other atrocities.

Hazan began giving cooking lessons in her apartment in 1969 using the name the School of Classic Italian Cooking. One of her most notable students was the New York Times food editor and restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne. We can thank him for introducing her to the world and launching a writing career that spanned decades. 

Marcella wrote everything in Italian. Her devoted husband Victor Hazan was her translator. Marcella’s recipes are accused of having an “impatient and judgmental tone”. But she’s forgiven for this because they are so reliable, simple, and delicious!

If you ever hear chefs complain that garlic presses ruin the flavor of garlic, credit Marcella Hazan. She despised garlic presses. (I’m curious, what do you think? Tell me in the comments.) She had equally strong sentiments about the overuse of balsamic vinegar – an ingredient whose overuse she is at least partially to blame for!

about the book

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) is actually a compilation of Hazan’s two earlier books, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating (1973) and More Classic Italian Cooking (1978). Albeit with a great deal of revisions and additions. 

This is a substantial book. Rich with information, details, and the author’s idiosyncrasies. One can’t help but compare it (again) to another book that we’re cooking from very soon – Mastering the Art of French Cookingby the equally idiosyncratic and legendary, Julia Child. 

Like “Mastering”, you won’t find photos. You’ll find excellent instruction, and the encouragement to make these – sometimes deceptively simple – recipes your own. Just like Marcella had to do when she taught herself to cook with what was available to her. It may even be the essence of what we know as “Italian” cooking… to make do. To iterate. 

As you’ll learn reading this book, there really is no “Italian cuisine”. Italy is a relatively new country, comprised of a collection of former kingdoms divided by mountain ranges, rivers, cultures, and languages, all sharing a small peninsula (and a few islands). The foodways reflect the individual places. Unlike the codified French cuisine, in Italy, things are more fluid. Two dishes may share the same name, the same primary ingredient – but that is where the similarities end.

When Italian immigrants brought their food to the US, it changed. The ingredients were different, and further influenced by other immigrant groups. What remains the same is the reliance on freshness of ingredients, simplicity, and the deftness of the cook. Marcella Hazan conveys this essence. She all but demanding that we, the cooks, adopt her exacting standards. For which we are bountifully rewarded with absolute deliciousness.

Don’t take my word for it… you need to cook some of these classics for yourself.

the cooking part…

For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. Here’s what we chose from for this book…

choose a frittata

carciofi alla Romana or alla giudia
baked stuffed mushroom caps

risi e bisi

pasta, et al
“aio e oio”
broccoli and anchovy sauce
risotto, crespelle, gnocchi, polenta

swordfish or baked bluefish
roast chicken with lemons
easter lamb

Bolognese rice cake
glazed semolina pudding or bread pudding
frullato or granita

challenge time!
shaped pastas
quinto quarto

notes on what we cooked

carciofi (artichokes) 

OK – this is one of the places where I disagree with our legend. My family is southern Italian. I grew up eating as many artichokes as the short season would allow. But we didn’t waste all the beautiful leaves that Marcella sacrifices for the sake of the tender heart. One of my favorite parts of eating artichokes is scraping the leaves against my teeth to extract their bittersweet flesh. I couldn’t bring myself to follow the instructions. And those who did found it too difficult and wasteful. (And you thought I never gave negative reviews!)


Kinda like spaetzle made with breadcrumbs and parmesan instead of flour. For this recipe you mix up the dough and press it through a food mill into a pot of rich chicken broth. It’s so satisfying and so very simple. And, totally different from the passatelli I had in Modena. There it was more like thick spaghetti made with breadcrumbs instead of flour – similar, but different. So Italian.

“aio e oio”

I’m not sure if that name is in Hazan’s regional dialect, or if she spelled it that way to make it easier for her American audience. And her description feels a bit dismissive of the dish’s southern roots. The real spelling is aglio e olio. It means garlic and (olive) oil. Marcella’s recipe is as delicious as any. Don’t underestimate the complexity of such a simple preparation. It may be easy to make, but not easy to master.


Perhaps the most famous recipe in this book. Nearly every one of us made this recipe. If you’re unfamiliar with “real” Bolognese sauce, you’ll be as surprised by the ingredients as you will be by how long it takes to make. And you’ll be astonished by how delicious and complex this sauce can be. Don’t waste it on crappy pasta. Either make your own or splurge on the real stuff for this one. Then make a second batch for the freezer because you’ll want it again. In fact, make it a double.

baked bluefish

If you’re on the east coast and can get good fresh bluefish, you need to make this recipe. Even if you thought you hated bluefish. This will change your mind. It changed a couple minds in our group! If you can’t get bluefish, make one of the swordfish dishes. I made the swordfish stimpirata-style with vinegar and capers, then added currants (even more Sicilian than Hazan’s).  

roast chicken with lemons

After the Bolognese sauce, this may be the most famous recipe in the book. You may ask “how is roast chicken considered classic Italian?”. It’s questions like that that caused the icy rift between Marcella and her iconic editor at Knopf, Judith Jones (another Julia connection). Suffice to say that lemons are so very Italian (some of the best in the world come from there). Ad this chicken is so good that you won’t care where it came from, you’ll just want to make more. Pretty much all of us made this one. I’ve been making it for 20 years and will continue to as long as I’m still cooking.


Also known as milkshakes for grownups.  Go ahead and splurge on the really good maraschino liqueur. It’s worth it (and there are plenty of wonderful classic cocktails that you’ll discover to use it up). Make this recipe with any fruit that is in season and sourced from your local farmers’ market. Our group rand the gamut with spring fruits, but also tried with bananas. All were like silly happy children with the outcome. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.

Have you cooked from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking? Do you swear by your garlic press? Love balsamic vinegar? Tell me about it in the comments below!

I hope you’re enjoying being a part of this season’s cookbook club. I’ll continue to write these follow up posts here on Wander Eat and Tell, so make sure to subscribe/follow for the latest! This season started HERE.

If you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.

As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment. 

Note: all the links in this post are here because they’re products or services I personally support. I do not receive any sort of payment for having them here. My compensation is in no way tied to your clicks, purchases, or registrations. 

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