Thanks to a little dance we did with Uncle Tony, I wound up with Grandma's noodle machine. And, thanks to the third floor book store in Marshall Field's, I found Marcella's first volume on Italian cooking. I had Grandma's table in my tiny kitchen in my first place here in Virginia, and I decided to try making noodles. I used Marcella's formula: 3/4 cup flour per egg. The only difference, was that Gram never dusted her pasta dough with flour. She put it in a bowl with a little olive oil. I did what Gram did and as I got into the rhythm of cranking and hanging fettuccine, I felt so darn proud of myself.
I've never been able to let go of the synergy I felt, working at that little table, kneading noodle dough, clamping the Imperia onto the extension, and cranking out the strips of dough that would become incredible thin noodles. And I remember well the excitement generated by a call from my crabby dad when he received the dress box of noodles I mailed him.
The first Italian dinner I made for friends included fettuccine with Marcella's tomato cream sauce, a rosemary and garlic studded veal roast, garlic sauteed broccoli, insalata and a dessert made with pound cake soaked in espresso and filled with a whipped cream mixture and covered with chocolate. It was a big hit and from then on, I never strayed far from Marcella's side.
My mother-in-law used to put a Stouffer's frozen lasagne in for the holiday dinner and whine incessantly about how it wasn't as good as my lasagne. I kept telling her I had never made lasagne, that my grandmother never made lasagne and that we ate Stouffer's at our house. She kept up with the same whine and I needed some wine... About ten years later, I'd had enough. I made Marcella's recipe for lasagne. It was quite the departure from Stouffer's, that's for sure! I wasn't sure I liked it, but the looks on the faces of the others convinced me that it was a keeper.
And so it went. Recipe after recipe. Never a failure. Her instructions were precise. And by following them exactly, I experienced the sweet smell of success ~ not to mention a kitchen that smelled divine!
Marcella had a reputation for having an abrupt manner. Indeed, reading her cookbooks, you get a feel for the autocratic attitude she likely conveyed in her cooking classes. Yet, she was pushing Americans to eat the foods of the rest of Italy, not just the corrupted foods of the southern part of the country. She was a reformer, in many ways, and we needed that. Our idea of Italian cooking was mired in red sauce and meatballs.
Ironically, it was just this past Friday night that I attempted the kind of pizza Marcella would have likely abhorred: The Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. Yep. All caps. What I was aiming for was a memory of pizza at Gino's on Rush. The cellar restaurant with the sign over the door that read, "Watcha Thy Head!"
It was around 1964 or '65. My mom and I had taken the train into Chicago to visit my sister. She was very excited about an Italian restaurant and the idea of getting to eat food that Dad wouldn't touch. When my 5'1" mother saw that sign, she cracked up. Nevertheless, in we went, the pizza was ordered and an eternity later, it was served up with a clamped on handle, a wedge shaped serving spatula and in a blackened pan. My mother looked at it and smiled. "Oh, Jeane," she said. "This is just like what my grandmother used to make!" My sister's face fell. She thought she was introducing Mom to something really new and great. It wasn't new, but it was certainly great, and Mom made sure she knew it.
As the story goes, in the coal mining towns that dotted Illinois (and likely everywhere else there was a collection of Italian miners), there were boarding houses. Her grandmother ran one. In the morning, she would make bread dough and put it in a big black skillet on the back of the cookstove. As the day went on, she added leftovers to that thing. In the early evening, it got baked and that was pizza. A cheap way to make sure nothing went to waste, and something that was very filling.
My effort turned out pretty well. I see how I need to tweak it, and I've already made the notes in the margins of the recipe I tried. This is one I'll never find in a Marcella book, but I still owe it to her to have had the courage to try it. Julia Child may have taught my sister to cook, but Marcella was my teacher. I am eternally grateful, and so is everyone who comes to dinner.
Grazie, Dottore Hazan. Riposi in pace.