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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy

A film, television and stage actor,  Stanley Tucci has an impressive 136 parts to his credit in a career that has spanned nearly 40 years. He’s also dabbled as a producer, director and voice actor on his way to three Emmy Awards and nominations for an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy.

Big-screen acting has been Tucci’s bread and butter, most of it in supporting and ensemble roles. Whether he’s playing an understanding dad in “Easy A,” a flamboyant magazine art director in “The Devil Wears Prada” or Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a wry intelligence shines through much of his work.

 

His breakout role came in the 1996 film “Big Night,” which he co-directed and co-wrote. In it, he plays the charming, embattled co-owner of a struggling Italian restaurant that he runs with his headstrong chef brother. Known for its spirited scenes of cooking and feasting, the film established Tucci as a culinary force. That reputation grew with his turn as Julia Child’s adoring husband in the 2009 film “Julie and Julia.” 

 

Tucci began embracing that role in non-fiction projects in 2011, when he hosts the PBS show “Vine Talk,” which featured panels of celebrities tasting wine and telling stories. A year later, he published his first cookbook, simply titled, “The Tucci Cookbook.” Last April, he took the internet by storm during the pandemic with a three-minute Instagram video in which he prepares a negroni for his wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, with whom he authored his second cookbook. 



And so the stage was perfectly set for the February 2021 premiere of his wildly popular CNN series, “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.” His latest culinary adventure features a curious and enthusiastic Tucci in the part of a real-life travel show host walking the streets and piazze of Italy in search of the next great meal. Along the way, he meets a host of characters, including historians, pizzaiuoli, celebrity chefs and assorted cheese and wine makers who reveal the magical factors that make Italian food so incomparably delicious. “This was a passion project and love letter to the place where my family is from,” he said in a statement about the series.

 

With roots in three provinces in the southern region of Calabria – Cosenza, Vibo Valentia and Reggio Calabria — Tucci has deep emotional ties to the land of his ancestors. “Because my parents were so respectful of their heritage, that cultural identity was really important to me, and still is,” he reveals in an interview with CNN Travel.

 

Tucci lived in Italy for a year in the early ‘70s when his father, a high school art teacher, took a sabbatical with his family to Florence. The trip proved to be a life-changing experience. “First of all, that trip helped inform my aesthetic. Two, it made me appreciate a European lifestyle and sensibility,” he told CNN. “By the time I graduated college, I was aching to go back again, and I felt like I was meant to be there more than I was supposed to be in America. And so, whenever I could, I would go back to Italy.”

 

He wants Americans to connect with the authentic Italy that he has come to know and appreciate. “I think in America there are a lot of very specific ideas about what is ‘Italian,’ and one of the reasons I wanted to do the show is to dispel some of those myths about what Italy is.” 

 

Although the main theme of the series is food, Tucci touches on Italy’s rich and varied geography, history and culture as well as its tumultuous politics, both past and present, and their impact on the nation’s cuisine. “I’d like people to see that incredible diversity, and how it came about — from geography, from invasions, from the influences of the Arab world, from the Spanish, the Normans, the Austrians. It’s an incredible culinary melting pot.”

 

He plans on covering all 20 regions of Italy, one episode at a time. He ended up having to shoot around the pandemic to bring his first four to fruition, filming one episode before the outbreak and the other when restrictions were temporarily lifted. He described the Italians he met as “tired, beleaguered by the whole thing, but incredible, open and generous.”

 

Tucci’s quiet demeanor is one quality that sets him apart from culinary travel giants like Anthony Bourdain, Giada De Laurentiis and Rick Steves. He is none of them while possessing traits of all three. He has the mischievous way of Bourdain, the profound respect for ingredients that De Laurentiis brings to the table and the friendly appreciation that Steves shows his guides.

 

The subtle, dry sense of humor Tucci brings to so many of his film and television roles shines through as he samples his way across Italy, giving the show a comedic twist rarely found in its counterparts. There’s a lot of laughter going on, and that’s something we can all appreciate after the year we’ve just had. 

 

In the premiere episode, breathtaking shots of the Bay of Naples and the Amalfi Coast serve as the backdrop for local delights such as the famed Amalfi lemon, Campania’s signature buffalo mozzarella, and spaghetti alla nerano, a zucchini dish so many of us recreated at home. In Rome, Tucci pauses outside the Pantheon to bask in the sublime joy of maritozzi, a whipped cream-filled brioche, before taking a poignant stroll through the Jewish ghetto with a Holocaust survivor. Bologna delivers revelations about the creation of balsamic vinegar, the impact of climate on the production of prosciutto di Parma and the echoes of Fellini’s footsteps in the beachside resort of Rimini. The Lombardy episode is a bit like “Sex & the City” meets “The Sound of Music,” with Tucci drinking Milanese cocktails one moment and visiting an artisan cheesemaker in the Alps the next. A home-cooked soffritto with his parents in Florence and a glass of Nero d’Avola with a young winemaker highlighting his visit to Sicily.


Francesca Fabbri Fellini with Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini
Photo from "Omaggio a Fellini con I Bislacchi di Artemis/Casadei
If I had to pick a favorite episode, it would be Bologna. The cinema angle was wonderful with a tour of Rimini by Federico Fellini’s niece, Francesca Fabbri Felini. She recently made a short documentary film about her uncle that has been making the festival rounds in Italy. So she’s had a strong presence on social media promoting it and sharing memories about her zio Federico and zia Giulietta Masina. It was such a nice surprise to see her in the episode. She and Tucci talked about Fellini’s 1974 film, “Amarcord,” which was inspired by his life growing up in the town. His 1956 film, “I Vitelloni,” was also inspired by growing up there. Both films have just been released to stream in a special collection on the Criterion Channel called Essential Fellini. There are also numerous videos and interviews in which he along with friends and family talk about his experience growing up there and the impact it had on his movies. The ending of the episode, an aperitivo at the The Grand Hotel, Fellini’s old stomping grounds,  gave me the chills and was the perfect conclusion to a spectacular show. 

Friends and I had small criticisms of the series here and there. Why, for example, did Tucci talk at length about cholera in Naples while overlooking the 17th-century plague that wiped out nearly half of Florence, leading to the creation of the wine windows Tucci spotlighted. And why did he visit a vandalized bookstore in the Roman neighborhood Centocelle, an isolated incident that happened two years ago, while ignoring Cinecittà and the city’s rich cinematic history?

 

Minor shortcomings aside, the series was a huge success for CNN. According to Deadline, the season premiere drew in 1.52 million viewers and was promptly renewed for a second season, with a release date set for 2022. The episodes from Season 1 are available on CNN’s website. The network is also available through a number of streaming platforms including YouTube TV, Hulu and Sling TV. Click here to check out my report on the series for Radio Vulture, a weekly show transmitted from Rionero in Vulture, Italy.


Click on the images below to stream his films on Amazon.. 



Check out his cookbooks, too...


                      


- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the June 2021 issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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