Tucci with chef Nerina Martinelli and her team in Florence restaurant Nugolo
Stanley Tucci is having a moment. A respected actor for decades, he’s in danger of becoming loved in a way few of Hollywood’s hugest names truly are. He’s let us in on his private personality a little and, in short, we like him. First there were the lockdown cocktail-making videos, which became a viral sensation and evidenced his love of the finer things in life while showcasing that easy charm.
Now, his tour of Italy – exploring the diverse history of the country as told through its culinary delights – is proving a welcome ray of sunshine this spring, as it airs on BBC Two. Escapism has never looked or tasted so good. The charm, style and foodie leanings were all hinted at by an acting career that takes in The Devil Wears Prada (as warm-hearted fashionista Nigel), Big Night (as a restaurateur, albeit one who takes food slightly less seriously than his chef), Easy A (as Emma Stone’s witty dad) and as the righteous real-life lawyer in Spotlight.
They are all front and centre in Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, which, like so many of the dishes Tucci samples on his quest, is deceptively simple. Beautifully paced, beautifully scripted, beautifully filmed and beautifully narrated.
He makes creating an entertaining celebrity travelogue look easy, succeeding where so many before him have failed, in making the show as entertaining and enlightening for the viewer as they are for the host travelling the world on the TV production company’s dime.
Tucci is genial, suave, with quick wit and ready smile as he meets a cast of characters deeply connected to the food of the country. He finds many of them way off the beaten track, far from the high-end establishments we expect Hollywood stars to frequent.
It might feel luxurious, at a time of war in Europe, to escape into the sun-kissed delights of Tucci’s Italy. But throughout the series there are reminders of conflicts past, and indeed of the way food can become symbolic of struggle and resistance.
We hear how pizza was a response to poverty and plague in Naples. When the pandemic shut down pizza vendors across the city, the loss was felt deeply. So much so that 60,000 pizzas were sold in the city the first day after lockdown. This is food deeply embedded in local cultures, in the stories we tell about ourselves, in tradition. Tucci’s disgust at a recent Parma Ham scam is palpable. He cares.
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And Tucci also hears about prison-produced pecorino cheese – a luxurious taste made within the confines of the local jail. We hear about anti-fascist pasta in Rome – “revolution, religion, anger and death in a simple pasta shape”, as Tucci puts it. And there is the story of how the humble artichoke became a symbol of Jewish resistance in Rome under fascism. This show is gently but seriously educational. There are also modern twists. Who knew offal would be reinvented, modernised – the lowest cuts of meat, which became the staple of Jewish diets during the dark days of Mussolini, are now celebrated by a brilliant med-school dropout in Rome, who has magic in her tattooed frying pan arm?
This is not just a celebration of great food, then. Instead, it is an investigation of how food that is loved the world over came into existence, exploring why it matters so much in Italy, and what dishes across the regions signify. There are the young radicals fronting the homegrown sardines movement – invoking a favourite food to fight off anti-immigration populists in Bologna. Still in Italy’s food capital, Tucci risks a crisp white shirt while tasting balsamic vinegar that has been one family’s obsession for 17 generations and visits the People’s Kitchen, where supermarket donations are cooked up for the city’s most vulnerable during the pandemic.
Even Milan, better known globally for its fashion, is revealed as a foodie hotspot. Tucci meets influencers and visits underground bars. But, again, it is not just the new, the fashionable, the expensive that Tucci explores. Instead, he looks deeper, finding ancient cheese made in the mountains before cutting loose at a lively hangout that was once the HQ of the rail workers’ union and offers a Milanese menu of the people, for the people.
Meanings and traditions, in the food, in the culture, in the place, are at once constant and evolving. As Tucci tucks into plates piled high with class-conscious cuisine, he takes joy in the passion of the food producers. The tomato farmers who know their produce is the best in the world, the pizza producers who sleep easy at night knowing they are the best in the business, the blessed cheesemakers. More than anything, this is what works in this series. He makes time for people, their stories, and allows space for their enthusiasm and passion to shine through.
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We do not want to lose Tucci the actor to travelogues. There are great performances still to come. But his sideline in pleasing the people by showcasing his private passions is welcome. So it was that when Tucci and his wife were trapped on the Amalfi coast by a freak hailstorm, no one watching could begrudge them being stuck with some of the finest ingredients on the planet and a chef who promptly summoned up an impromptu banquet rather than wasting precious food. Tucci earned his luck. Here’s hoping the Limoncello that washed it down, as he gazed out along one of the most breathtaking coastlines on Earth, tasted as good as it looked. Saluti!
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