Three Generations of Pasta Passion

At age 3, Guiliano Hazan `put away a portion' of his grandmother's handmade tortelloni with ricotta and Swiss chard and became `a confirmed devotee,' writes his mother, Marcella

IT comes as no surprise that Giuliano Hazan has created ``The Classic Pasta Cookbook.''

For one, he is the son of Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cooking teachers and author of several cookbooks.

He also happens to have a penchant for pasta.

``I've always been in love with pasta - as my mother mentions in the foreward [of the book] - since I was three years old when I ate a full portion of pasta and was finally happy,'' Mr. Hazan explains in an interview.

But what is a surprise is that Giuliano Hazan's cookbook will be sold in Italy before any of his mother's are. That amuses him. And his mother? ``She thinks it's funny too.'' (His publisher happens to be internationally connected.)

For Americans - whose appetite for Italian food has soared higher than the tower of Pisa in the past decade - ``The Classic Pasta Cookbook'' (Dorling Kindersley, 160 pp., $24.95) is a bonanza.

The large hardcover features almost-life-size photographs of many dishes in brilliant color. Step-by-step directions and simple recipes along with photos of individual ingredients make it inviting and playful rather than intimidating.

``One thing I really didn't want was any sort of froufrou garnishes or anything, because I think the food really stands on its own. It doesn't need anything just for decoration. I've always been against that,'' says Hazan, whose book-promotion tour brought him to Boston from his home in Portland, Ore.

Hazan spoke at length of the misconceptions about pasta and the subtle science behind making classic Italian dishes.

He learned all he could from his mother. ``It's her way of cooking - one step removed, I guess,'' he says.

One misconception is about so-called fresh pasta found in the grocer's refrigerated section. ``Fresh does not always mean better,'' Hazan says.

``Pasta hates the cold. Refrigerating it is the worst thing to do to it. The best way to preserve it - if you are going to make homemade pasta - is to dry it completely, and then it will keep forever. Well... [almost].''

Another misconception is that making pasta is a huge ordeal. To that, Hazan says ``Well, yes, it does take a little bit of time, but you don't have to make it every time you want to have homemade pasta, because you can make a big batch of it and just store it.''

Hazan makes a good case for the homemade variety, saying: ``If you make it yourself, it's going to be better, no question. It has much better texture and resilience. It's much more absorbent. When you roll it out, it's elastic, it'll stretch more and become porous.''

He advises beginners to take it slow and to practice. ``If you want to roll it out by hand, pick an afternoon where you just want to play with the pasta - don't plan on eating it, plan on going out for dinner that night.''

What does he think about the colored and flavored pastas? Hazan cracks a smile. Orange-red pasta (tomato) and green pasta (spinach) are the only ones that really work, Hazan says (even though for appearance's sake the book features other colors).

``Some colors I made [for the pictures] - they'd add absolutely no flavor, so no point. Or some add too much - like squid-ink pasta. It was much too strong,'' he says.

If Hazan's technique in pasta education is enlightening, it is also entertaining.

There is a subtle science to pasta that goes beyond determining which pastas go with which sauces. Egg pasta absorbs more than dried flour-and-water pasta, so you would want to use a cream sauce for egg pasta, never one with an olive-oil base, for example.

The shape also has a lot to do with which sauce you should use. It's not so much etiquette as it is practicality.

``You can have a great dish if you use the right sauce with the right shape, or that same sauce can turn into a mediocre dish if you use a totally wrong shape of pasta,'' Hazan says.

He offers an example. ``To me, eating spaghetti with Bolognese meat sauce is extremely unappealing even if the sauce is wonderful. Instead, the ideal pasta to have with that is to have a homemade tagliatelle - which is slightly wider than fettuccine.

``It's a rich sauce and the tagliatelle absorbs the flavors,'' he explains. ``You can use a nice big tubular pasta like rigatoni; it goes very well with this too because it can grab the meat and the sauce. Spaghetti would be terrible because [the sauce] just wouldn't cling.''

Pasta texture also affects the flavor of the dish, Hazan points out. Spaghetti's smooth slippery consistency also makes it inappropriate for heavier sauces. The even-thinner and more-slippery angel-hair pasta is never served with a sauce in Italy, because it is too delicate. He prefers it with a broth.

In Italian food evolution, what came first, the pasta shape or the sauce?

``First came the pasta shape, and then they made a sauce for it. Afterward it's up for grabs,'' Hazan figures. ``They made sauces and tried to find shapes for them and the other way around.

Although he's hard-pressed to choose one favorite dish from his book, Hazan says that the tagliatelle Bolognese has a special place in his heart - and stomach: ``My mouth would water for hours when I knew we were going to have this at night at home. It's just heaven.''

``To me, Italian food I could eat every day,'' he says. Hazan pauses and adds: ``Well, of course, I do.''

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