When she came to this country in 1955 from her small fishing village in Italy, Marcella Hazan was a lonely, fearful newlywed suffering from immense culture shock. Even the big refrigerator in her New York apartment -- an appliance unknown in her tiny town -- was a terrifying discovery.

"It took me months to use it. That big, heavy door -- I thought I'd be caught inside," she remembers. "I was so stupid and afraid then."

She didn't remain that way for long.

By the late 1970s, she was a best-selling cookbook author, a popular cooking teacher and the woman who could rightfully take a major slice of the credit for expanding Americans' notion of Italian cooking beyond pizza and spaghetti and meatballs.

Ingredients we now take for granted, like sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, got their high-profile launching in her books. "And pasta salad," she adds, in a tone that says she's not entirely happy about this accomplishment. "I put in one recipe as a joke, really, and look what happened."

For her newest book, "Marcella Cucina" -- "the last book of my life," the 74-year-old candidly calls it -- she received a record-setting $650,000 advance from HarperCollins, at the time the largest ever awarded a cookbook author.

This month she launches a 17-city promotional tour, and although age has slowed her, it hasn't dulled her notoriously sharp tongue or lowered her long-held high standards.

"Julia {Child, a friend for 25 years} says I'm too much a perfectionist," says Hazan with a smile during a recent interview in New York. "I told her I can't change."

She has just flown in from her son's wedding in California and she is nursing a bad chest cold. Despite a hacking cough, she still lights up a cigarette, blows out a stream of smoke and talks about her indomitable, perfectionist reputation.

It is that strong will -- plus her strong desire to please the American husband she adores -- that got her through those first overwhelming months in America.

In the introduction to "Marcella Cucina," she writes poignantly of those early days:

"After my husband left in the morning the days were long and lonely and often I was desperate, but when he returned and it was time for dinner, my early domestic achievements were greeted with encouragement so tender, and the food I had cooked brought us so much joy, that as I think back on that time, daunting though it was, I am nonetheless filled with warmth."

Eventually, she learned to use the refrigerator, to shop at a supermarket, even to learn some useful English words from watching baseball on TV -- another appliance unknown in her hometown of Cesenatico.

A biologist with two doctoral degrees, she also did research in New York for a time on gum disease. "See, I was always in the mouth," she jokes.

By 1970 she was giving cooking classes in her kitchen. One day she got a phone call asking if she'd be interested in writing a cookbook. She said no. Her English wasn't good enough, she felt. "I'd have to write the book in Italian," she told her husband, Victor Hazan, an Italian-born American she met and married in Italy.

"So write it in Italian," he answered. "I'll translate it."

Thus began a collaboration that many in the food world believe is the keystone to Hazan's success. She would carefully research, test and hand-write her recipes on steno pads in Italian, then she and Victor would discuss them and he would rewrite them in English.

"For Marcella," says one food insider who has known them both, "her life's goal is to make sure her food is good and that people can cook it. For Victor, his project is Marcella. Although he never messed with her cooking, his prodding is a big reason for her {financial} success."

In 1973, with Victor's help, Marcella's "The Classic Italian Cookbook" was published by Harper's Magazine Press. In 1976, it was republished by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., followed by "More Classic Italian Cooking" in 1978.

Americans' attitude toward Italian cooking dramatically began to change.

Certainly there had been Italian cookbooks before Hazan's. What was different were her recipes and, more important, her hard-headed opinions.

She fervently believed in the beauty and simplicity of home cooking, and she was determined that her recipes, while remaining true to her Italian roots, would be the kind the American home cook could use and treasure as well.

And then, as now, she wasn't one to mince words. Consider these pointed examples from her first two books: "Never buy any Parmesan in grated form." "There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to the factory-made."

"When buying canned tomatoes, look for whole, peeled plum tomatoes of the San Marzano variety imported from Italy. They are the best kind to use and, if possible, settle for no other." "Never just follow the manufacturer's suggested cooking time on the {pasta} box. The only way to get it right is to taste periodically while the pasta cooks." "I meet people who say, I have made your chicken with two lemons and it is the juiciest, best-tasting chicken I have ever had.' And you know, it is perfectly true."

If anything, her new book is even more personal and opinionated.

"We really let ourselves go in writing this book," says Victor, and it shows -- in the emotional introduction detailing their life together and in the anecdotes preceding the recipes, which reveal more of Marcella's notoriously sly barbs.

A leek soup recipe inspired by her brief honeymoon includes this introductory comment: "The evening we arrived, the pensione served us leek and potato soup, an event to this day Victor seems to recall more sharply than anything else that took place during our stay."

In addition to producing cookbooks, Marcella also has taught cooking classes in Italy for nearly 20 years, first in Bologna and then in Venice. Those who have been her students recall being both inspired and intimidated by her.

"I remember we'd whisper among ourselves in class, trying to decide who would be brave enough to ask her some stupid question we had," recalls the editor of a well-known food magazine.

Says another food writer who spent a week with her in Italy, "She knows a lot, but she's humorless and that can be hard to take."

Even she agrees that she can be prickly. She insists she doesn't have a temper -- she would never yell or throw things, Victor adds -- but she acknowledges that she does get impatient with people and irritated with their inane questions.

Such as: The woman in one of Hazan's $3,000, six-day cooking classes in Venice who asked if a certain dish could be frozen. Hazan told her it could. "But for how long can it be frozen?" the woman persisted. Exasperated, Hazan asked her, "How long do you want to freeze it for?" "Indefinitely," the woman answered. "Then why even make the dish?" Hazan snapped back.

Or: The painfully thin student in a past class who would eat only a tiny taste of each dish she prepared. When Hazan saw the woman take one small tube of penne pasta, cut it into four slices, eat just one slice and push away the rest, Hazan was incredulous. "Why even bother taking the class?" she sputters even now, recalling the incident.

Or: At a recent luncheon in Washington when a freelance writer, who obviously hadn't read even the cover flap to Hazan's book, asked her if she really had been born in Italy. Speechless, her hazel eyes settled on him with a cold, withering stare. Fumbling to come up with something more acceptable, he then asked if she ever used ground veal in her Bolognese sauce, a food faux pas in her world akin to asking if she ever put M&Ms in her lasagne.

Needless to say, if looks could have killed, he would have been lying on the floor eviscerated.

"Oh, I know that look well," says Susan Friedland, Hazan's editor at HarperCollins. "But," she adds, "you have to understand that this woman is enormously hardworking and she gets disappointed when people don't make the same effort."

Friedland, in fact, says in all her years editing cookbooks, "I've never seen anyone quite so dedicated to getting it right as Marcella. It's why her recipes have the reputation they do for clarity and dependability."

But after nearly 25 years of teaching and writing, Hazan is calling it quits.

By the end of next year, she and her husband plan to sell their 16th-century home in Venice and retire permanently to Longboat Key, Fla. "Now that we're in our seventies, we need warmer winters and more reliable medical care," he explains.

But some things never change. Just like when she first moved to this country more than 40 years ago, Hazan still is not overly fond of refrigerators. "Americans want to store everything. Italians just buy it and cook it," she observes.

She and Victor recently removed the huge refrigerator-freezer that came with their Florida home and replaced it with a much smaller one with only a small freezer compartment.

The freezer, as Victor Hazan puts it, "has room for ice cream and vodka. What else do you need?" SIMPLEST LEEK AND CHICKPEA SOUP (4 to 6 servings)

This soup won't win any awards for prettiness, but it's a winner for its wonderful flavor and ease of preparation. Marcella Hazan's advice to slip the skins off the canned chickpeas before cooking makes all the difference in their taste and texture. From "Marcella Cucina" (HarperCollins, $35).

2 1/2 pounds leeks

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

15-ounce can chickpeas, drained

1 beef bouillon cube

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese

Trim away the root end of the leeks and any part of the green tops that is wilted, bruised, discolored or dry. Cut the remainder into thin disks. Soak in several changes of cold water. Drain and spin or shake dry.

Put the leeks in a medium saucepan, add the olive oil and salt, turn on the heat to medium-low, cover the pan and cook the leeks at a slow pace, turning them over from time to time, until they are nearly dissolved, about 30 minutes.

While the leeks are cooking, skin the chickpeas by squeezing off the peels between your fingers. When the leeks are very soft and creamy, add the chickpeas, enough water to cover by 1 to 2 inches and the bouillon cube. Gently stir the contents with a wooden spoon, cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

Take two or three ladlefuls (about 1 1/2 cups) out of the soup and puree through a food mill or blend briefly in a food processor. Pour the puree back into the soup, add liberal grindings of black pepper, swirl in the grated Parmesan cheese and cook for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. In the final stage of cooking adjust density to suit you by adding a little more water.

AHEAD-OF-TIME NOTE: You can prepare everything a day in advance, up to, but not including, the moment when you add the pepper and Parmesan cheese. When resuming cooking, warm up the soup thoroughly before adding those two ingredients.

Per serving based on 4: 420 calories, 16 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 693 mg sodium PESCE SPADA COME LO FA LA RITA (Swordfish Sardinian-Style With Mint and Saffron) (4 to 6 servings)

Not least among the pleasures of the south shore of New York's Long Island is the native swordfish. The fine, pale pink, creamy flesh cannot be surpassed by that of any other example of the species. When we took a small summer place in Watermill, I hastened to duplicate the pasta with swordfish I'd had in Sardinia at Rita D'Enza's Restaurant Gallura in Olbia.

When I first served it, we found ourselves scraping the bowl not for more pasta, but for the sauce. And so we agreed, Victor and I: Next time we make it, let us, for once, forget the pasta and just have the sauce. And that is how Rita's swordfish pasta became Rita's swordfish, period. From "Marcella Cucina" (HaprerCollins, $35).

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

About 35 small fresh mint leaves, torn into bits

1 cup dry white wine

A large pinch of saffron

1 cup canned chopped Italian plum tomatoes (or use chopped and peeled fresh ripe tomatoes)

Salt to taste

Chopped fresh or dried red chili pepper, to taste

2 1/2 pounds fresh swordfish steaks, about 1 inch thick

Choose a saute pan or skillet that can later contain all the fish without overlapping, put in the olive oil and garlic and turn on the heat to medium. Cook the garlic, stirring once or twice, until it turns a very pale gold color.

Add the mint, stir quickly three or four times, then add the white wine and the saffron. When the wine has simmered a minute or so and the scent of alcohol has subsided, add the chopped tomato and salt and chili pepper to taste. Cook at a lively simmer, stirring occasionally, until the oil begins to separate from the sauce, about 15 or 20 minutes.

Strip away the skin that circles the fish steaks, and if the steaks are very large cut them into pieces no longer than 4 inches. Sprinkle with salt. Add the fish to the pan, turning the pieces over a couple of times to coat with the sauce. Cook, over high heat, for 3 minutes on one side and 2 to 3 minutes on the other. Transfer the entire contents of the pan to a warm serving platter and bring to the table at once.

AHEAD-OF-TIME NOTE: You can prepare the sauce several hours in advance. When ready to serve, reheat it at a gentle simmer, then turn up the heat and put in the fish.

Per serving based on 4: 569 calories, 57 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 30 gm fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 516 mg sodium FILETTO DI MAIALE ALLA MODA DEL CINGHIALE (Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin Wild Boar-Style) (6 servings or, if no first course is served, 4 servings) From "Marcella Cucina" (HarperCollins, $35).

2 pounds pork tenderloin, cut into 2 pieces

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup very thinly sliced onion

3 large garlic cloves, peeled and lightly mashed with the flat side of a knife blade

4 or 5 whole bay leaves

1/2 cup finely cut celery, both stalk and leaves

Rosemary leaves, 1 tablespoon if fresh, 1/2 tablespoon if dried, coarsely chopped

1 cup red wine

1 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms

1 tablespoon butter

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Choose a deep rectangular or oval dish that can contain the meat and all the other ingredients except for the mushrooms. Put the pork tenderloin into it along with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the onion, garlic, bay leaves, celery, rosemary and wine. Turn the meat over several times to coat it well, then cover the dish with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator overnight. Take it out occasionally whenever convenient to turn the pork over, basting it with its marinade.

The following day, take the meat out of the refrigerator at least 1 hour before proceeding with the preparation of the dish. Turn it over and baste it when you take it out of the refrigerator, and once every half hour thereafter.

Detach the mushroom caps from the stems, discarding the stems. Wash the caps quickly in running cold water without letting them soak. Pat them dry gently but thoroughly with a cloth towel and cut them into thin slices.

Lift the tenderloin out of the deep dish, pick out any bits of the vegetables from the marinade that may be sticking to it, and pat the meat dry with kitchen towels.

Choose a skillet that can accommodate the two pieces of pork without their overlapping, put in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and turn on the heat to high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle when you put in the meat, slip in both pieces. Turn the meat over to brown it evenly all around, then transfer it to a platter.

Pour all the marinade from the deep dish into the skillet, turn the heat down to low, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally until all the vegetables are very soft or almost dissolved.

While the marinade is cooking, put the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the sliced shiitake caps and salt to taste. Cook, turning the mushrooms over occasionally, until the liquid the mushrooms have released evaporates completely and they have become very tender.

When the vegetables of the marinade are very soft, add the cooked mushrooms, cooking them together for about a minute or two. Add both pieces of pork, sprinkling them with salt and several grindings of black pepper, and raise the heat to high. Cook the meat for 10 minutes on one side, then turn it over and cook the other side for another 10 minutes.

Transfer the meat to a cutting board, cut it into slices about 1 inch thick, and place the slices on a very warm serving platter. Remove the bay leaves from the marinade -- and the garlic cloves, if you can find them -- then cover the meat with the cooked marinade and mushrooms and serve at once.

Per serving based on 4: 490 calories, 53 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 126 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 439 mg sodium SUGO DI BROCCOLI E MOZZARELLA (Broccoli and Mozzarella Pasta Sauce) (4 large servings)

Suggested pasta: With broccoli, boxed dry pasta tastes better than any other kind. You'll be tossing the cooked pasta in a pan at the end, so a short shape such as rigatoni would be the one to choose, for its sturdiness and ease of handling. Also satisfactory are fusilli or penne. From "Marcella Cucina" (HarperCollins, $35).

1/2 pound broccoli

2 tablespoons salt plus to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

12 ounces pasta

1/4 pound mozzarella cheese, chopped fine

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese plus additional to grate at the table

Detach the florets and any small leaves from the broccoli. Pare away the tough outer skin from the broccoli stems, and from the larger of the florets' stems as well. Halve the thick, detached stems lengthwise. Wash the stems under cold running water, and the florets in several changes of cold water.

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add 2 tablespoons salt and the thick main broccoli stems. (The salt is to keep the broccoli green and will not make it taste salty.) Cook for 6 or 7 minutes, then add the florets. When the water returns to a boil, cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the thickest broccoli piece feels tender when tested with a fork. Drain and, as soon as the vegetable is cool enough to handle comfortably, chop it fine.

In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, combine the oil, butter and chopped garlic. Cook the garlic, stirring frequently, until it turns pale gold.

Add the chopped broccoli and a little salt, stir two or three times to coat the broccoli well, then take the pan off the heat.

Cook the pasta in abundant salted boiling water to a very firm al dente consistency. Drain it, collecting in a small bowl better than 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

Add the drained pasta to the pan containing the broccoli and turn the heat to high. Gently stir the pasta and broccoli three or four times, then add the chopped mozzarella, parsley, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup reserved pasta water. Briskly turn over the pasta until the mozzarella has melted and the water has been entirely absorbed or boiled away.

Transfer to a warm bowl and serve at once with additional Parmesan cheese to grate at the table.

AHEAD-OF-TIME NOTE: You can cook the chopped broccoli and saute it with the garlic a few hours in advance. Keep it in the pan, putting a lid over it as soon as it has cooled off. Do not refrigerate. When you resume cooking and the pasta is boiling, warm up the broccoli with a little dollop of butter.

Per serving: 545 calories, 24 gm protein, 68 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 518 mg sodium CAPTION: Marcella Hazan, above at the Willard Hotel, has lost none of her convictions nor her indomitable, perfectionist reputation. ec