Tuesday, December 17, 2013

the birth of "The Classic Italian Cook Book"

This is the original Harper's Magazine Press edition of "The Classic Italian Cook Book", published forty years ago, in November, 1973. My name is Peter Mollman, (the proprietor of this blog) and I was the editor and publisher of this landmark of the culinary world. Here is how it came into being.

In 1972 I was a Senior Vice President at Harper & Row Publishers, New York. I was responsible for all copy editing, design and manufacturing for the over 200 annual titles published by that major publisher. Simply: an editor at Harper's (and we had superb editors) gave my team the edited author's manuscript, and we took that manuscript and ended with finished books on the warehouse floor, ready to ship.

In addition to that job, I had an ancillary position as Publisher of Harper's Magazine Press, a fairly new joint venture between Harper & Row and Harper's, the magazine. Harper's was at a major level at that time, under the editor Willie Morris, and with a "dream team" cast of writers and contributors. The press was small - just me, as publisher, from Harper & Row, and Larry Freundlich, as editor, from the magazine side. We published about twenty titles a year, most derived from relationships with the magazine's editors and authors (Annie Dillard, Pete Axthelm and Bill Moyers for example) but also a number of titles of authors or subjects that Larry or I had a special interest in.

In the summer of 1972 I was in Italy for the third successive summer. My trips were a result of our publishing a number of art books and large-format pictorial books at Harper, including
"Forever Wild" and other Sierra Club titles. Our high-quality color printing was all done in Italy, where the artisan color separators and pressmen were located, in Milan and Verona primarily, and I was on hand at those establishments for the printing process.

During those wonderful trips I, like so many, fell in love with Italy: the landscape, the people, the great cities, the art, and -- especially -- the food. In a New York Italian restaurant world headed by Mama Leone's, what I ate in those wonderful trattorias in Italy was awesome -- a surprise and a delight.

At Harper we had a strong cook book tradition -- publishing Craig Claiborne, for example -- so I knew the cook book publishing scene. And I was sure there was no cook book published to that time that reflected the kind of and quality of the Italian food I had been eating. I wanted to publish that book. So, armed with a title I had already developed in my mind -- "The Classic Italian Cook Book" -- I set out to find an author.

I was having little if any success until the September 7, 1972 edition of the New York Times arrived at my desk. In that edition was an article by Raymond Sokolov: "Anyone for Cooking Lessons in the Long, Cold Winter Ahead?" -- with a long list of major cooking schools available in New York City. Included in that list were major figures such as James Beard, Cordon Bleu, Virginia Lee, Diane Kennedy. And also on that list was Marcella Hazan.

The paragraph about her school said: "Mrs. Hazan, just back from Italy, is resuming her classes in "authentic Italian food." She specializes in northern and central Italian recipes and structures her lessons around full menus with wines. Students sit down with her and eat what they have helped make. Classes are limited to six students. The basic course of six three-hour sessions can be scheduled either on Mondays at 6 p.m., Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. or Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. starting the week of October 4. The price is $95. An advanced course will be available to Mrs. Hazan's former students for $115. Phone 246-7614."

That was it. I picked up the phone and called. Marcella answered. I told her I read about her cooking school and was interested in whether she might want to write a cook book. Marcella's English wasn't that good at the time; she said she and her husband had talked about a cook book, and that they would get back to me. (In her memoirs she reported that when telling Victor about the call she thought that I was from Harper's Bazaar).

Victor did call back. I told him who I was and why I was interested -- relating how much I loved eating in Italy and why shouldn't that food be available to the home cooks in this country. This, I learned later, was exactly what the Hazan's approach to cooking was and what turned out to be their mantra through the next almost forty years of authoring cook books and teaching cooking.  

Victor, on the phone, said they were very interested. They invited me to meet them at their apartment for dinner. Marcella's recollection of the evening is wonderful. I had described what I was looking for, a cook book with recipes for dishes that were like the ones I had in Italy. I asked her if she would like to write one. She said, "No, I can't write in English." Victor broke in: "I can put it in English for you." And he could, and they did.

From my side, I believe we "connected" almost immediately. In dealing in the publishing world through the years, one comes across one's share of egos, stardom, and self importance. Not only was I struck by the genuineness and sincerity of the Hazan's at that meeting, in addition to their obvious knowledge and skills, but I also felt that there was something major going on, hard to define, but there.

The rest was easy. I visited Marcella at her home several more times, took a class (I still have the typed recipe for scallopine di vitello al Marsala), talked with Victor, a Harvard graduate (as was my son, so we had something else in common) and we agreed to move forward.

Within a month or so of our meeting, we had a contract. I am ashamed to mention how small the advance was -- working with a first-time author, and a new subject, true -- but I am still ashamed so I won't mention it. In the publishing world the fact that we could go from first meeting to a meeting of the minds, a common goal, and a contract, in that short time was unprecedented. It was really a factor of our being a stand-alone, small publishing unit, with no decision making required except mine and Larry's. And we made decisions fast.

In signing a contract, there is the line for "delivery of manuscript". At the contract signing in my offices o, East 33d Street, I read it, and paused. Marcella said, I believe, "three months". I smiled and said, "Let's make it ten." The Hazans delivered the manuscript in less than ten months, and what a manuscript it was.

The organization, all theirs, was perfect; the style of presentation of the recipes was clean, clear and totally understandable. No complicated stuff thrown in. And Victor was not only an excellent translator, he was truly a poet. If you read the introductions to the different chapters, and, especially, read the "Afterthoughts", which is like nothing else in the cook book world, you will see what I mean. It was an incredible collaboration! From the words in the text, we came up with that I think is a brilliant and accurate subtitle: "The art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating."

In addition to the text, we had the services of a superb draftsman, George Koizumi,who worked closely with Marcella to provide instructional drawings that really worked. The drawings for making pasta, for example, are works of art in themselves.

As excellent as the manuscript was, different, sharp eyes examining it will find ways to make it better -- striving for perfection. Our copy editors at Harper were those trained, sharp eyes: making sure all the ingredients were there, were added properly, cooking steps clear and logical, no redundancies, all details covered (like cooking, is the pan covered or not). The Hazans got their marked up text and galleys, cleaned up the details, corrected and added as necessary, and the book moved through galleys, pages and finally printed sheets.

And then in late October we had the first printed books. The rest is history.

Monday, December 2, 2013

the incomparable Marcella

Forty years ago last month, November, 1973, "The Classic Italian Cook Book", by Marcella Hazan, was published - a book described by Saveur Magazine as simply "the best cook book ever." Published by Harper's Magazine Press, the genius of Marcella was introduced to the world, and the world of cooking was never the same. This wonderful picture of Marcella, who died in September at the age of 89, appeared on the jacket of the original publication.

This is a day I will never forget, because I was the editor and publisher of "The Classic Italian Cook Book", and was able to deliver to Victor and Marcella the first printed copies of their book that November day. In a subsequent blog here, I'll tell the wonderful story of our meeting and joining forces to make "Classic" happen.

In a wonderful tribute to Marcella, Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times: "What Alice Waters did for restaurants, Marcella did for home cooks, demonstrating that the simple treatment of decent ingredients leads to wonderful dishes". Mark also compared her to her great friend, Julia Child, and said: "By the time I was developing a career in food writing -- say 1983 --  "Marcella" was as meaningful as "Julia" was a decade earlier. To me, Hazan was the more important author; it was cooking from her book that taught me to interpret Child's work in a way that felt contemporary."

The book achieved instant recognition and acclaim -- a testament to the brilliance of the book: Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Roy Andreis de Groot, Mimi Sheraton, Ms. Magazine, all heaped praise. It quickly achieved acclaim not only as the best guide to Italian cooking ever written in the U.S. but as, simply, one of the best cook books ever.

Cooks all over the country started to exchange stories about and share their experiences in the kitchen with Marcella's recipes. "Pork loin braised in milk" became a standard in the culinary conversations.

For the original publication, Marcella wrote: "Behind the delicacy and variety of Italian dishes is a remarkable simple and direct approach to food." She went on: "I have tried to show how this approach creates the greater pleasures found in the Italian art of eating. I hope everyone who reads this book will find not just a source of new recipes, but also greater beauty and happiness in their life at the table."

Millions did.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

tomato sauce time!

Ava, age six, and her big sister Zoe, age almost nine, are major fans of Grandpa Pete's tomato sauces. Last week their family purchased a major amount of Early Girl tomatoes at their local farmer's market in San Mateo, and they proceeded to make their own sauce from one of Grandpa Pete's recipes. Because the tomatoes were so fresh and perfect and tasty, their mother opted for the purest of the sauces: Marcella #3. A key part of the tomato-sauce-making process is running the cooked tomatoes through a food mill (or Moulee for the French) as Ava is doing above.

The sauce is originally in one of the best single cookbooks ever written. Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cook Book (now out of print but you can get it, used, from Amazon). Marcella has three wonderful fresh tomato sauces in her book, and this one is, surprise! "Number Three" on the list.

The recipe is very simple. Take two pounds of tomatoes, quarter them, and cook them over a light heat (don't let them burn (maybe add a tablespoon of olive oil) covered, for ten minutes. Remove from heat and run them through the food mill a la Ava, using the middle size disc. Return the tomatoes to the pot, add six tablespoons of butter, one onion cut in half, and a teaspoon or so of salt. Cook at a steady simmer, uncovered, for thirty minutes. Remove from heat, take out the onion with a slotted spoon and toss it, taste for salt, and you are tomato sauce ready. You can go a step further and run this sauce back through the food mill, with the finest of the discs, if you wish.

Tomato sauces freeze perfectly. And there is nothing like adding a touch of sunshine and warmth to a bitter winter evening than serving your tomato sauce, direct from the freezer, on your favorite pasta. Grandpa Pete's web site: www.classicpasta.com has all of these wonderful tomato sauce recipes. Or you can go directly to the sauce section: www.classicpasta.com/additional_pasta_recipes.htm for all of the tomato sauces and a lot of other pasta sauce spectaculars like a wonderful variety of bolognese and the "best lamb ragu ever".

Do not let the fall tomato season get away without getting some home-made fresh tomato sauce into your freezer.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


There is nothing like a new pasta discovery for a dedicated pasta lover. I saw the package below in one of my Italian delis; knew nothing about it; and knew it was discovery time. Bought it. Googled it.

The pasta is fregula sarda, a tiny round pasta that resembles large grain couscous. It is made with hard durum wheat, and, as the name implies. is native to Sardinia. The pasta is primarily used in soups, but we found a recipe on the "TasteFood" blog, for fregula with asparagus and lemon. We made it -- delicious and different. Worth a deviation!

For the recipe, go to: 


and find "Other Shapes" and click on "fregula with asparagus and lemon".


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

pasta as therapy

After five weeks, I completed an intense series of radiation for a lymphoma  tumor build-up. Thankfully, it all worked. Tumor gone. During the treatment, I did various things as therapy, and one of the most rewarding was making fresh pasta. One session I got in to making garganelli and it was simply just great fun. And when those lovely little tubes were ready to cook, sauce and eat, it was double rewarding.

The results are shown above. Pictured is my garganelli board, which I bought from Terri Mirri on his site: www.artisinalpastatools.comwww.artisanalpastatools.com. Making the garganelli is really easy to do. It does not take long to get the hang of wrapping the two-inch pasta sheets around the dowel and running it over the comb. Go to my basic web site: www.classicpasta.com and click on "pasta" On the "pasta" page, on the right, go down to fresh pasta and click on "garganelli". There you will find complete how-to, with pictures. (By clicking on "ingredients" on the left side, you can link to a section "where to buy" which will guide you to artisinaltools,

We sauced the garganelli with some of our home made tomato sauce we had made last year, when tomatoes were at their best and then froze. This really works!  We have several fresh tomato sauce recipes under "sauces" on the classic pasta web site.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

it's the pasta!

In a lovely article in the New York Times on March 1, David Tanis writes about the glory and joy of making fresh pasta by hand, and then serving it with little (if any) sauce. The article is called "Noodles with No Need to Dress Up", and is illustrated with photos as above, showing the hand cutting of the pasta -- in the photo it looks like pappardelle.  He describes creating the deep well in the large pile of flour, adding the eggs, stirring, mixing and kneading -- all the actions that we who also make our own fresh pasta know and love.

As David says: it isn't something you master in one go, but it is not rocket science either. "There's a learning curve," he says, and only experience tells you how the dough should feel and how thin to roll it. We would add that the most important "feel" is for the moisture. Each batch one makes varies in how moist it is and it does take experience to get the feel of it -- and either adding flour or gently adding moisture to get it right.

Unlike the wonderful wizards of the rolling pin, those lovely Italian ladies who are absolute magicians in rolling out the pasta, turning it, and rolling it to perfection, we do use the pasta machine to stretch it out to the proper thickness. Then one also can cut the sheets into the strand widths one wants with the machine, but doing it by hand, as shown above, gives the result a special look and feel.

The most important point -- and the one requiring repeating -- is that the pasta is best served (no pun intended) with little sauce. As all the great Italian cooks tell us: it is about the pasta, not the sauce. A little butter and cream (alfedo); cheese and pepper (cacio e pepe) or just some pancetta and herbs, and one has a perfect pasta dish. That's all it needs.

For a more complete step-by-step demonstration of making fresh pasta oneself, go to the "pasta" section at www.classicpasta.com. And thanks David: keep it simple!