By Meg Grant
April 20, 1998 12:00 PM

In the airy kitchen of her condominium on Longboat Key, Fla., Marcella Hazan begins fricasseeing a chicken for Victor, her husband of 43 years. With the detachment of a scientist, she selects three perky stalks of rosemary, then removes two well-shaped cloves from a bulb of garlic with the point of a knife. She picks up the chicken parts. “These are so big,” she exclaims in a husky voice that is a cross between Lauren Bacall’s and Sophia Loren’s. She enlists Victor, 69, to cut the larger pieces in half while she coats a heavy skillet with extra-virgin olive oil and turns on the heat. After rubbing in the garlic and grated rosemary, she arranges the chicken, skin side down, in the pan and stands back as it sizzles.

This is the doyenne of cooking Italian-style at work. Since she became a force on the culinary scene at the age of 48, Hazan, now 74, has also fricasseed American stereotypes about Italian food—no spaghetti or meatballs emerge from her kitchen. Over the course of five best-selling books, most notably 1973’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, she has introduced readers to true Italian home cooking—dishes like lemon chicken, risotto and pesto. Her menus are dictated by the freshness of available ingredients. “I go to the market and decide what I cook,” she says. Flavor comes from within. “We don’t add sauces,” she explains. “Nothing is poured onto the dish that didn’t come out of the pot.”

Hazan has not only reeducated the public about Italian cuisine, she has taught thousands how to cook it. Her recipes are remarkably uncomplicated. “Marcella’s magic is her simplicity,” says Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in L.A. “Her recipes you can do. They’re not for the snobbish but for people who love good food.”

For all her culinary influence, Hazan has no use for such trendy affectations as dipping bread in olive oil (“Don’t say that’s Italian,” she says) or sun-dried tomatoes (“I never cook with sun-dried tomato,” she says. “That’s a pickle!”). As for gourmet “fresh” pasta, “Why buy it?” she asks. “To make pasta at home is easy. Eggs and flour.”

For Hazan’s latest book, Marcella Cucina, publisher HarperCollins paid her a then-record (for cookbook authors) $650,000 advance, a measure of the mark she has made. At a book signing in Pasadena, a woman told Hazan that she had named her baby Marcella; Hazan’s cooking had that much of an impact on her life.

Hazan shrugs off such adoration; her gruff, matriarchal manner is legendary. “She’ll teach you how to cook,” says Susan Friedland, Hazan’s editor. “But you have to pay attention and not ask stupid questions.” Hazan charges $3,000 for a week of hands-on instruction. As a teacher, Hazan, who smokes and routinely follows her evening meal with Jack Daniel’s, is famously direct. Recently a student asked about pre-grated Parmesan cheese. “You might as well buy sawdust,” Hazan said. “It’s cheaper and tastes the same.” Julia Child, a longtime friend, admits “she’s forbidding because she’s rough.” But, Child adds, “that’s her manner, and she’s got a good heart.”

Hazan has always been down-to-earth. The only child of an Italian tailor and his wife, she was born in Cesenatico, Italy, and raised partly in Alexandria, Egypt. When she was 9, Hazan fell while running on the beach there and broke her arm; it wasn’t treated properly and paralysis set in. Seeking better care, Hazan’s parents returned to Italy, and Hazan underwent three surgeries in Bologna over the next five years.

Despite being left with limited mobility in the limb, she says, “I had a mother who never told me I could not do something because of my arm. I learned not to give importance to it, and neither would the other person.” At the universities of Padua and Ferrara, Hazan earned doctoral degrees in biology and the natural sciences. She will never forget, shortly after meeting Victor in 1953, his saying that “only a very stupid person studies science.”

“You thought literature was all that mattered,” teases Hazan, who likes to spar verbally with her husband. The son of a Jewish father who left Italy before World War II to come to New York City to start a furrier business, Victor met Hazan after returning to Italy, his birthplace, in 1952. Introduced by his cousin, Victor and Hazan fell for each other immediately. “Marcella was very beautiful, very dynamic,” he says. “She was very sweet,” he adds, smiling, “unlike now!”

The two married in Cesenatico in 1955 and moved to New York City, where Victor worked at his father’s fur shop. Hazan took seriously the job of feeding her new husband, though she had little preparation for it. “In Egypt and in Italy we had a maid who did most of the cooking,” says Hazan. “I never paid attention.”

With help from a cookbook by Ada Boni, Hazan worked by instinct to re-create dishes from her childhood. She served the resulting multi-course meals on a sagging bridge table at which the couple would discuss each culinary attempt. “It wasn’t the story you always hear, of one disaster after another,” says Victor. “I never remember a single one.”

Hazan took a job as a hospital researcher but kept producing marvels in the kitchen even after the birth of their only child, Giuliano, now 39 and a cookbook author and teacher in his mother’s style. She hadn’t considered the culinary arts as a profession until 1968, when six women she met in a Chinese cooking class begged her to teach them to cook Italian. In 1969 she opened her apartment to the women once a week, and word spread.

A year later a man from The New York Times called asking if he could come by to talk about her school. She invited him for lunch. When Victor asked his name, Hazan, uncertain with her English, said, “Something like Crek Clacker.” “Craig Claiborne?” Victor asked. “Yes, that was it,” said Hazan.

Times food editor Claiborne arrived later that week, sampled a meal (tortelloni and a veal scallopini dish) and then wrote a story that changed Hazan’s life. “The phone,” says Victor, “has never stopped ringing.”

One of the early callers was Harper’s Magazine Press, asking Hazan to write a cookbook. To date, The Classic Italian Cookbook has sold over half a million copies. More Classic Italian Cooking came next, followed by Marcella’s Italian Kitchen and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. In 1976, Hazan moved her school to Bologna, and two years later, Victor left the fur trade and joined her in the business, giving lectures about the culinary regions of Italy. The two now offer classes at the 16th-century Venice palazzo they purchased in 1980.

Hazan swears Marcella Cucina will be her last book. “It took me five years to write,” she says, laughing. “I don’t have time to do another.” The couple returned to Venice in February and will hold classes—long ago booked—through November. Then she and Victor will retire to Longboat Key, an island off Sarasota, Fla. “My work will not stop; Giuliano will continue it,” says Hazan of her son. For Hazan, who looks forward to reading mysteries and walking the beach, retirement will be a return to beginnings. “I want to go back to cooking just for Victor,” she says. “I like to see his face when he takes the first bite.”