"Like Marcella, her cookbooks are earthy and full of love," says Beard, a graduate of her famous summer and fall cooking school back in Bologna. "Marcella," he glows on, "is sensual and attractive, and I think that's why she attracts more men-to her classes than most teachers." Indeed, the dining room is full of admiring ex-pupils, including actor Joel Grey.
Though Marcella has lived most of the last 22 (of her 54) years in the U.S., she is not confident in her English. "When somebody telephones and it sounds complicated, I just ask them to dinner," she laughs. Ten years ago one such caller turned out to be New York Times epicure Craig Claiborne, who put his appreciation in print, and she was launched. Another caller Marcella took to be Harpers Bazaar turned out to be Harper's Magazine Press, offering to publish her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book (sales: 80,000).
Born on the Adriatic in Cesenatico, Marcella earned a Ph.D. in biology at the universities of Padua and Ferrara. While teaching near Milan, she met her husband, Victor, who was on vacation. (Of Jewish origin, his family had left Italy before World War II for New York City, where his father established a fur business.) In 1955 they married and settled in Manhattan. For six years Marcella was a researcher at the Guggenheim Institute, specializing in gum disease. "I'm forever working in the mouth," she cracks. She similarly makes light of her incapacitated right arm, the result of a childhood accident. Reports Victor: "When students complain that they cannot devein a shrimp properly, Marcella just laughs and says, 'Oh, come on, if I can do it with one hand, surely you can do it with two.' "
Interestingly, it was Victor, 50, who was the original gourmet. In fact, Marcella had never cooked before her marriage. "I was in love, so I tried to get interested, like girls do with football," she says. "I don't know if Victor was sweet or shrewd, but every time I cooked something, he would jump up and embrace me. So, of course, I tried even harder next time." (Another fan is their son, Giuliano, 20, a student at Swarthmore.)
In 1968, while she was taking Chinese cooking lessons, fellow students coaxed Marcella to teach them her native cuisine—and put her in business. She drafts her books in Italian, and Victor translates. Their proudest achievement is the cooking school in Bologna, where a one-week course runs $1,000. The pupils are English-speaking, and the operation became such a tourist magnet and publicity-getter that the city built her a $100,000 teaching kitchen across from the train station. It says something about the powers of Marcella's pasta and persuasion that the Bolognese regime is Communist.
Guess who's coming to dinner? Julia Child and James Beard. Julia and husband Paul, in fact, are traveling all the way down from Boston for the meal, but Marcella Hazan, an Italian-born Manhattanite, is unintimidated. If she kills the great chefs of America, it will be with calories—and what a way to go. The menu tonight includes a pasta course, veal scallopini and asparagus (see following recipe), green bean and potato pie and zuppa inglese, a liqueur-spiked custard-and-cake dessert. The occasion is the publication of Hazan's second volume, More Classic Italian Cooking.