2000s Archive

One Life to Live

continued (page 2 of 3)

I knew nothing about interviews. To me, it was just a guest joining us for lunch. The food was the thing. In Italy, when someone comes to eat, you don’t bother with preliminaries; you go straight to the table. When the doorman rang to let me know that Claiborne was coming up, I turned on the heat under the saucepan of water in which I was to cook the pasta and put the cooked veal rolls back in the pan to reheat them. When Claiborne came in, however, he said he wanted to interview me before we sat down to eat, so I rushed back to the kitchen to turn all the burners off. When the interview was over, I turned on the heat under all the pans again, and I brought the artichokes to the table. We had just started on the artichokes when the doorman rang to say that there was a photographer from the Times downstairs. Claiborne had him come up, saying that if I didn’t mind, he would take some photographs before we continued with the meal. Back into the kitchen I went to turn off all the fires, convinced that the veal was going to be leather-hard by the time I finished warming it up again. Miraculously, every dish was very good, and Craig, who in the years to follow would become a close friend, was enchanted. On the following Thursday, Craig’s story covered the better part of a page. He printed my telephone number, and my cooking classes sprang to life again. It was October 15, 1970. I have never since then had to be concerned about how to occupy my time.

Marcella and Victor shuttled between Italy and New York with their young son, Giuliano, and they always spoke Italian at home. Consequently, when Giuliano was enrolled in the third grade at a New York school, language was one problem he faced. Lunch proved to be an even bigger hurdle, because the other children ridiculed the food he brought from home. Marcella substituted innocuous sandwiches for homemade tortelloni with ricotta and parsley or cannellini- bean soups, but realized that she, too, faced the same cultural chasms.

I had a call one morning from a woman at Giuliano’s school who said she was organizing an event for parents and children. “There is going to be a buffet,” she said, “and I was hoping that you could contribute a dish.”

“Certainly,” I said.

“Could you bring some Swedish meatballs?”

“Oh, I don’t know what they are.”

“Can you make a tuna casserole?”

“I am afraid not.”

“How about a chicken casserole?”

“I don’t even know what you mean by ‘casserole.’”

“Well, all right,” she said, sounding somewhat cross. “Can you contribute a dozen bottles of Coke?”


“Can you bring them next Thursday evening?”

“I’ll have to send them with someone, because on Thursday evening I have a cooking class.”

“Of course, I understand. I hope you are making progress.”

In the spring of 1973, Marcella’s first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cook Book, was published to enthusiastic reviews, and demonstrations on television weren’t far behind. Newfound acquaintances such as James Beard, restaurateurs Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, and actor Danny Kaye became friends for life.

Like others who have been nurtured by the settled life of a small town, I have never felt a strong urge to expand my habitat. I am not a self-promoter, but New York is a bellows that can fan great flames from small sparks. In the year that my cookbook was published, I was invited to dinners and parties, and in a few months, I had met nearly everyone in, or at the margins of, the city’s food world. I immediately felt strong empathy for and from James Beard. I was startled at first by the open-air shower that he had in the back of his house on West Twelfth Street, but I soon understood that it wasn’t crude exhibitionism; it was a manifestation of his natural candor, of his aversion to cover-ups. I was amazed by what he knew and remembered. He was my living encyclopedia: Whenever I had a question, he had the answer. He had a sonorous voice that he used as a foil for the mischief in his eyes. His laugh was magnificent, rising from deep within his capacious belly. An example of it still rings in my memory’s ears. Sometime after we had become friends, we were both giving cooking classes in Italy—Jim at the Gritti Palace, in Venice, and I at my school in Bologna. He phoned me there to ask a question about an ingredient.

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