In 2018, documentary filmmaker Peter Miller, who lives in Manhattan, bought nettles at his local farmer’s market and, along with his wife, took to making dumplings with them. They used a recipe written by Marcella Hazan, the legendary Italian author and cookbook instructor who lived in Longboat Key from 1999 until her death in 2013.
In the 1990s, Miller and his wife attended one of Hazan, Connecticut’s popular cooking classes and cooked his dishes for years. Often, when presented with an ingredient or when they were puzzled over a dish, they asked themselves: “What is Marcella saying?” Or, “What would Marcella do?”
That day in 2018, while making dumplings, Miller asked a different question.
“About an hour into this process, rolling out the dough, stuffing the dumplings, I looked at my wife and said, ‘Has anyone ever made a documentary on Marcella? “” says Miller.
The answer was no, and that launched Miller on a quest to tell Hazan’s story. He contacted Hazan’s son Giuliano Hazan, a famous full-fledged cookbook author, and her husband, Victor Hazan, who still lives on Longboat Key. Victor had a lengthy interview in New York City and shared hundreds of photographs and video clips of Hazan with the filmmaker, who has made documentaries on topics as diverse as the lives of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the story of egg cream.
Three years later, the Hazan project, simply titled Marcella, remains unfinished, but Miller has compiled a 10-minute sample that introduces some of the material and requests financial assistance to complete the project.
Hazan’s life story is extraordinary. Born in 1924 in Cesenatico, a small town on the Adriatic Sea, she studied science and wanted to become a teacher. Victor was from the nearby town of Cesena, but spent the years of WWII in New York City, with his family. Back in Italy after the war, he visits Cesenatico and a cousin asks him if he would like to meet girls.
“The first girl he introduced me to was Marcella,” says Victor, now 93. “It was lightning. I couldn’t think of anyone else afterwards.”
The two married two years later, and Hazan followed Victor to New York, then to Milan, Rome, and back to New York. Hazan had always enjoyed food, but didn’t cook much until she found herself uprooted from her surroundings and living in an America where even basic Italian products like extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. were hard to find.
Eventually, Hazan began giving Italian cooking lessons and writing cookbooks that remain standards of the genre today. It’s no exaggeration to say that it revolutionized Americans’ understanding of Italian cuisine. His recipes are straightforward, easy to follow, and the opposite of flashy. Its three-ingredient tomato sauce, “chicken with two lemons” and its braised pork loin in milk are all simple and beautiful.
“In a short time, she took possession of all the Italian culinary canon and overhauled it,” says Victor. “It was nothing less than an act of genius.”
In her later years, Hazan taught cooking classes in a Venetian palace where she and Victor lived. But as he grew older, his health made it difficult to navigate the alleys, bridges and stairs of Venice. The couple moved to Longboat Key to be closer to Giuliano, who had moved to the area.
“She’s a fascinating person and her story really matters,” Miller says. “The way she transformed the way we think about food is a huge and wonderful development in making the world a better place.” Miller estimates that he needs around $ 200,000 to complete the film. He is partnering with the International Documentary Association, a nonprofit organization, to raise funds for the project.
“I want people to know what she looked like,” says Victor. “There will be a vivid image of Marcella, and I hope what emerges are the extraordinary accomplishments of this woman.”
You can watch the Marcella example coil here:
To make a tax deductible contribution to the project, click here.