While I was living in Italy I had the opportunity to cook for the late and great Italian cook book writer Marcella Hazan at my sister’s apartment in Venice. Marcella lived half of each year in Venice and was introduced to my sister by Connie Rusconi, the American wife of the great hotelier Natale Rusconi, director of famous Hotel Cipriani, whom she had befriended through various connections soon after their arrival in Venice.
My brother in law had been a very successful investment banker in Manhattan for many years, which allowed them to travel often to Italy, and at a certain point, with two young daughters, they decided to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city, sell their apartment, a Ferrari and move to Italy, which they had come to love. The stories of their travels to Italy with its small towns, beautiful country side and glorious food over the years was the source of my inspiration to venture out and discover it for myself.
I was living in Piemonte at the time, truffle country, and my sister called me one day to say that she had invited Marcella Hazan to dinner and “could you come do the cooking?” My mother had all of her books when I was an early teen and we often cooked the recipes together, so naturally I was rather jazzed (and nervous) about the adventure. So I packed up some truffles, a beautiful Piemontese veal tenderloin, a couple of bottles of Barbaresco, Fontina Val D’Aostana and I set off for Venice in my Fiat Punto.
I parked my car in the overpriced Parcheggio at Piazzale Roma, gathered up the provisions and walked across Venice to the Accademia Bridge, where my sister had a beautiful apartment overlooking the Grand Canal, whereupon I set to work on the dinner. All went well, even though there I was, a young American kid either brash enough or dumb enough to cook for the doyenne of Italian cooking. The menu was steamed sturgeon and julienne vegetables with saffron cream, tajarin with meat sauce and truffles, fillet with fonduta and more truffles and to finish, panna cotta: somehow I pulled it off and had a wonderful evening with Marcella and her husband Victor (a prominent wine author) without embarrassing myself! The following day I returned to Piemonte for my last several months there and then on to Cremona for my last year.
I returned home to Atlanta in the summer of 1990 and immediately began to look for a job. The first place I went was Veni Vidi Vici, because a year and a half prior Marcella told me that she was opening a restaurant in Atlanta and that when I returned I would have a job. It was toward the end of her involvement with the restaurant and things were probably not the way she would have liked them-the restaurant was beautiful but the feeling was a bit off, so I continued my search.
My next destination that day was Cappriccio in Buckhead where I met Dino LaRosa. We hit it off immediately as I had just arrived less than a week prior from nearly five years in Italy and I had worked near his birthplace of Genoa. We talked for about an hour about food, Liguria, fresh herbs, seafood, pasta, cars, Italian women versus American women (I had very little to say there..) and lastly that he wanted me “to make pasta for Pano” the next day at noon.
As you may have already figured out, Cappriccio is now known as Pricci and little did I know that Pano and Dino were in the planning stages of its transformation when I dutifully arrived around 10 AM to prepare for the tasting. By around 11:00, I had prepared sauces and such for the pastas I had in my head and I had moved on the “making the pasta” part of the day, flour, eggs, a fork and so on when Dino appears from around a corner, looks at me says, laughing out loud, “what in the hell are you doing?” I meekly responded, dumbfounded, “making pasta”, to which he responded, still laughing, that I could have just used what they had there, so I told him that I already had two of the pastas made and I was about finished with third, so I may as well keep going with the cooking and plating.
A few minutes later I arrive in the dining room with three pastas and there was Pano, who I did not know but had heard of Pano’s and Paul’s, Dino and another Italian gentleman, Antonio Sedran and they were all laughing. I was feeling somewhat set up at this point but I put the plates down, explained them, they quieted down finally and proceeded to wolf the pastas down. When they finished, Pano looked up and asked when could I start, and to come see him in his office the next day. None of them expected me to actually “make the pasta” and apparently so unexpected that it was funny, I was just following instructions.
I was hired as the sous chef for the project and we developed the menu for the transformation at the old Fish Market in Lenox Square. The following summer Pricci was born. Two years later I walked back into Veni Vidi Vici as the executive chef. Sadly I never had the opportunity to see Marcella Hazan again or to thank her for inspiring me at an early age and for building a beautiful restaurant for me to spend 19 years in.