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A SPICY ENCOUNTER WITH THE EXALTED MARCELLA

I've been in the food game for a long time now, and there isn't much in the culinary world that scares me anymore -- dreadful accidents like scorched caramelized sugar and unexpected lumps in the sauce excepted.

But the prospect of interviewing Marcella Hazan one-on-one last month terrified me. After all, she is the godmother of Italian cooking in the United States, author of several almost biblical texts like "The Classic Italian Cookbook" and the recent "Marcella Says." Semi-retired now, she lives in suburban Sarasota, right next door to where I was staying.

In my world, her last name is never used. You say "Mar-CHEL-a" the way you say "Julia," speaking of the late Julia Child. I have enormous respect for her. But I had taken cooking classes with her in Bologna many years ago -- I knew she was one tough biscotto.

I remember her watching me make risotto, which was not as well known in America as it is now. Classic risotto is one of those dishes that are deceptively simple -- "simple food is not easy food," Marcella says -- and when she peered into the pan as I worked, let's just say she was far from happy.

You have to add broth very slowly as you stir, and I'm not a patient cook. My risotto never met her expectations, that's for sure. (It never met mine, either.)

For courage during the Florida visit I brought along my son-in-law from Portland, Me. Rob Lenk once cooked in upscale restaurants, and never in his whole life did he add the broth too fast. The two of them got into a long risotto discussion about cooking the dish for restaurant use, difficult because it takes too long from scratch. Seems you put the cooked stuff on a cookie sheet in the fridge and then reheat. Who knew?

I spent 15 minutes looking at the Gulf of Mexico.

How's the food in this part of Florida, I finally asked. (We are talking about kind of an upscale place where the sun may shine but the traffic chokes and people don't spend a heck of a lot of time in their $100,000 kitchens.) Marcella thinks it's only fair. She shops at the local Publix and isn't crazy about what's available.

"The fish is not fresh," she says, adding that the boats stay out too long. "And there seems to be only one cut of meat." She's not too nuts about the restaurants in the area, either.

Many are super fancy but "true Italian food is not restaurant food," Marcella pointed out. "It is very hard for a chef who is not Italian to translate Italian cuisine."

In Italy, cooking takes love and time. "You chop very fine the onion, you brown the meat ..." Also, "Italian food does not have to be so decorated." Marcella may be in her 80s, but I don't see any mellowing here. Still the same husky voice, the Marlboro addiction, the lack of tolerance for foolish questions. Questions like mine.

"Why are you so surprised?," she demanded when I expressed shock at the fact that she still cooks two times a day.

Ooooh, shades of Bologna!

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com