We had tender names for each other, but to the world, she was Marcella. Her story, and mine, begins on an Italian summer evening when, 60 years ago, we fell in love.
My parents had left Italy for the United States a few months before the start of the second World War. I was almost 11. Thirteen years later, I sailed back to Italy on my own, intending never to leave it again.
The years between had been filled with yearning for my birthplace, for the sound of its language, for the taste of its dishes. In my native region of Romagna I had a cousin, Nino, whose family lived in a town called Faenza, where the ceramics known as faience originated. Faenza was a few miles inland from the Adriatic Sea, and in the summer that I arrived the family was spending the hot months by that sea in Cesenatico, a beach resort and fishing town. I was their guest.
One evening, Nino suggested that I meet a very good-looking girl he knew in Cesenatico whose name was Marcella. When we climbed the steps to her parents’ villa, her mother, an exceptionally handsome woman, said, “You just missed her, you’ll find her at her friend Maria Carla’s.” When we got to Maria Carla’s, Marcella was leaving to catch up with another group of friends for the evening. Nino introduced us and she shook my hand with her left. I noticed that over her right arm she had draped a shawl of many colors. What I was stunned and held by, however, were her eyes. I had never seen their like, the color of glowing amber, dotted with tiny specks, brilliant, penetrating, shining on me with startling directness. Nino introduced me as his cousin from America. “Of course, it’s obvious,” she said. I was wearing jeans, which Italian men had not yet begun to use.
“What are you doing in Cesenatico?” she asked.
“I have come back to Italy to stay and to write.”
“To write? So young and already you know that you want to write?”
A few days later, when she came by the pensione where we were staying, she confessed she had thought I was 14. She upped the estimate to 18, but she was still several years short.
We saw one another every day that summer. We sketched for each other a broad image of what our lives had looked like up to then. Marcella declared her passion for science. She was enrolled in the University of Ferrara and was about to receive her second doctorate, in biology. I was foolishly snotty about science, and expressed my surprise that anyone would waste her intelligence on science, rather than on literature and art. She seemed to have no interest in food, whereas I could talk of almost nothing else. She asked her mother to invite me to lunch, always the main meal for Italians, as it was for the rest of Marcella’s life and mine, to her very last day.
That first lunch is impossible to forget. We had tagliatelle—pasta made by hand as it was then in every kitchen in Romagna—with a glorious ragù. I shamelessly asked for a full second helping, and yet found ample room later for several messicani, as Marcella’s mother called her exquisitely tasty veal rolls made with pancetta, Parmesan and fresh tomatoes. My downfall was the wine. Marcella’s father produced a delicately sweet golden wine called Albana, which I immediately associated with the mythological nectar that the gods on Olympus used to quaff. I was not accustomed to quaffing nectar, or even to drinking wine, but that didn’t stop me from copious indulgence. Miraculously, I left the house standing, but some hours later Marcella received a phone call. “Signorina, il suo fidanzato sta dormendo in una barca da pesca—Miss, your fiancé is sleeping on the deck of a fishing boat.” At that time, in a small town, a habitual male friend was automatically promoted to respectable fiancé status. The term they’d use today would be ragazzo, boyfriend.
I continued to claim that I wanted to write, a claim without the slightest substantiating evidence, but my indulgent father agreed to a small allowance that would give me time to show what I could do. Italy was extraordinarily cheap in the early 1950s, and I was able to rent a floor and hire a housekeeper in a villa on a hill that overlooked Florence. The villa had seen better times, even several better centuries, but its noble proportions had largely survived and to my eyes some of its antique splendor was still discernible. I lived there for over a year before Marcella and I were married in 1955.
The housekeeper’s husband taught me to make wine, stamping the grapes with my feet, to forage for mushrooms and wild asparagus, and before breakfast to collect ripe figs from the orchard. He stole some of my shirts, which seemed a fair exchange. I bought an old Ada Boni cookbook and began to cook. Like many novice cooks, I was attracted by elaborate recipes. I learned to make sweetbreads, which continue to be my favorite meat, and to collect live snails from the vineyard and purge them to prepare them for cooking. Marcella came to visit whenever she could, but I did the cooking long before she had an opportunity to show where her genius lay.
We had our first Christmas together there, on a Tuscan hillside, overlooking vines and olive trees, and far below it the silvery Arno River elbowing its way through Florence.
At that time, Marcella’s family, like many others in Italy, did not do a Christmas tree, which was thought of as a foreign tradition coming from Northern countries. I was the child of observant Jews and there had been no Christmas trees in my life. Yet that year, I tramped the woods behind the villa to cut down and drag indoors what became the first of 58 consecutive Christmas trees. There was never another Christmas for us without a tree and gaily wrapped surprises below it. There has never been a Christmas without Marcella. This year there was no tree, no presents, and I asked to be allowed to spend the day alone with my thoughts.
When Marcella and I reminisced about her first year in America when she began to cook, it seemed as though we were recounting a fable. Marcella got off the boat in New York having never before spent five minutes in a kitchen. She knew no one, spoke not a word of the language, and began to shop for foods that looked not only unfamiliar, but even inscrutable. At first she relied on my old Ada Boni, but it wasn’t very long before she put it aside because she had made a marvelous discovery.
The textures, scents and flavors of the foods she had eaten from her girlhood on came flooding back in full recollection, and even more incredibly, she found that she could instinctively understand how to transform the ingredients available to her into the dishes that resided in her memory. When she reached full development of her gifts and would braise pork or veal, fry nearly everything, make a fish stew, devise pasta sauces or any number of astonishingly savory vegetables, or scores of other dishes so good they could bring me to tears, I’d ask her, “How do you know to do this?”
“I don’t know,” she’d say, “it just comes to me.”
If our lives had taken a different turn, Marcella might have had a career in Japanese flower arrangement instead of cooking. When we lived in Rome, in the middle 1960s, she began to take instruction in the Ohara School of flower arrangement from an Italian woman who had lived in Japan and had published two books on the subject. When we moved back to New York again, Marcella quickly enrolled in the New York chapter of the Ohara School. She had the aptitude for it that came from her all-encompassing sense of observation, and from her university studies in the natural sciences.
When a Japanese bank opened its offices in the Waldorf Astoria, they visited the Ohara center to choose someone to install flower arrangements in its windows on Park Avenue. They chose Marcella. We subsequently traveled to Japan, where in Kobe we were warmly received by Mr. Ohara, a living national treasure. He invited Marcella to a private demonstration of arrangements he was creating that would be photographed for a book, a unique privilege that startled our Japanese friends. It was the spring of 1969. In the fall of that year Marcella gave her first cooking class in our New York apartment kitchen. She never ceased to wonder whether she might not have been happier if instead of teaching Italian cooking, we had been able to return to Kobe and to Mr. Ohara.
From her first years in the university, teaching was what Marcella prepared for and intended to do. It could have been mathematics, biology, chemistry, all of which she taught in Italy. It could have been flower arrangement. It became cooking. She didn’t think of herself as a cook, and hated to be described as a chef. “I cook only for family and friends,” she said. “Others I teach.” She so loved to teach that if even a casual acquaintance would say, “I don’t know how to make pasta,” she would say, “Come up to my kitchen and I’ll show you.” And she did. She gave hours upon hours of unpaid private instruction. Her deepest regret was having had to retire from teaching after we moved to Longboat Key in 1999. Not too many weeks before her death, in September, when she could not stand unassisted, she asked me if I couldn’t organize private classes that she could give in her kitchen to two or three persons.
Many people, including some who had never met her, accused Marcella of being gruff or grumpy. Marcella was always, invariably, direct. She said exactly what she believed. She knew what she thought was right, she knew what she thought was wrong, and had little patience for anything in between. It grieved her that so many people who came to her classes had such a skewed idea of how to cook. “Cooking is based on common sense,” she used to say. “Don’t use unnecessary ingredients, don’t cover up flavor with spices, it is just as important to leave something out, as it is to put something in.”
One of the facets of Marcella’s character that she usually kept out of public view, so that it largely escaped notice, is what could be described as her impish girlishness. She was mischievous and loved making faces, especially when a photographer was about to snap her. She was a superb mimic, although she never exposed her mimicry to its subject. She was funny, but she didn’t tolerate gossip or malice. She was described as a heavy bourbon drinker, yet she never took a sip of alcohol except with food. In fact, she adored wine and had an acutely perceptive nose for it, but its acidity made her ill.
Marcella started smoking when she was in her teens, smoked for the next 70-plus years, and loved every puff. Smoke corroded her lungs and blocked her arteries. She knew it, but she accepted it because it gave her pleasure. The last week of her life her doctor forbade her to inhale even one puff.
“He is so dumb,” she said. “I am 89 and I have enjoyed cigarettes all my long life, why should I suffer now just to stay alive a few extra months?”
On her last Sunday morning, Marcella got out of bed and on her walker to go to the bathroom. Halfway there she called me. “My legs aren’t holding me up,” she said. “I’ll take you,” I said, and I grasped her arms. She slipped into my arms for a moment, then slipped from them to the floor, and quietly slipped out of life.
Click here to see a slideshow of photos from Victor and Marcella’s life together. >>
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Like what you read? Click here to subscribe.