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How Stanley Tucci’s Searching For Italy offers food for thought

Actor Stanley Tucci's Searching For Italy is the food travel show we need right now

Stanley Tucci (right) with Nicola Salvadori, a prosciutto de Parma expert, in Parma on Searching For Italy

Credit: Christof Stache-Pool/Getty Images

Stanley Tucci has acted in, directed, produced, and written just about everything and either been nominated or won awards for it. He lives in London and I saw him once at the club I belong to.

Tucci has the kind of face that you think you know but aren’t sure whether it is from TV, the movies, or from somewhere in your personal past. In the club, I heard the New York accent and immediately thought that I must have seen him there. 

At any rate, a few years later, CNN was running ads for his series, Searching For Italy, every five minutes, and it got so that when I heard the opening music, I turned the sound down. I had never before in my life decided that I was going to hate something I had never seen and vowed not to watch it. But if you watch CNN, Tucci is like wallpaper; the ether; and so eventually I had to succumb.

My friend from New Jersey who lives in the south of France and is Italian on both sides, like Tucci, cautioned me. He said that the food was great but the white trousers that Tucci wore ubiquitously would do me in. His exact words, in only the way a New Jersey person can deliver it were: “The grub is great, but what’s with the white pants?” Nevertheless, he and his friends watched it in New Jersey last summer when it premiered on CNN America and won the much-coveted demographic of 23-53-year-olds in his time slot. Tucci and the show have since been nominated for Emmys; no surprise there.

When I visited my New Jersey friend in France, we would go to the famous Saturday market in Ventimiglia, just over the border from Nice. This area of Italy interests me because the big city there is Genoa, where Columbus sailed from in 1492 and started the whole Age Of Exploration, with its succeeding horrors.

The people of Ventimiglia, I was warned by my friend, are not very friendly, but I was sure that it was mainly just me. This area is right-leaning and one of the fortresses of the anti-immigrant Lega Nord, the Northern League of Matteo Salvini.

Tucci nails one of his culinary pals about this in the episode about Milan and the friend tries to get back to talking about rice, but Tucci wants to talk about immigrants and the absurd notion that his friend implies that food and Italian politics do not mix.

In Rome, he eats the food and talks about the Jewish ghetto, making us realise that the word ghetto originated in Italy and was where the Jews were rigidly segregated. Parts of their cuisine come largely from what they were left over to eat. He talks to African immigrants at a food kitchen, people who can speak Italian, people who have no papers, who have Italian-born children, but are not part of Italy.

He visits one place that had been fire-bombed twice because it held left-leaning talks along with serving food. You kind of get the feeling that the owners ask Tucci if they can tell their story and he puts them on air.

Everywhere this enviably slim guy goes, he eats and finds people to argue with him. He curses, too, like a good Italian American.

One episode even features his parents. When his mother is cooking and he talks about his hopes for the series, she asks: “What series?” I’m glad this was kept in as it adds to the strange reality of the show. Because it feels both like a TV construct and an Instagram thing all rolled into one, and I think that this is new.

Tucci is no Anthony Bourdain, who risked life and limb to bring us fried snakes in the desert, but this is fine because he was and is perfect for lockdown. The man loves food; cooking; eating and wearing white trousers and you warm to him in spite of yourself. 

He is a great actor and director and writer, so he knows what happens on camera and he knows what kind of relationship the camera has with him. He talks to it and past it to us at the same time and this is a rare skill and gift. He also loves Italy and even though there is realism in his series, there is not, too.

His Italy is food and kitchens and restaurants and wine and fishing for your food; and a fluke storm on the Amalfi coast, where you get to eat the cuisine of a great local chef. Tucci World is full of people he can call “boring” before they come on camera; or “great” before they come on camera and this makes the show intimate and warm and why you can like Tucci or not. Because he is that great word used in Yiddish, a “mensch”. 

Tucci is a mensch, a human being. One that you want to kill, because stuffing all of that rich Italian food and drink into his mouth does not make him fat. I ran to my local Italian every time he was on and this was so often that I have got to know the chef, Luca, who makes a special pasta for me. He has not seen Searching For Italy and when I told him about it, he just rolled his eyes.

Italy is always a dream, especially for those who have never been there or lived there.

More than anyone in these horrible times, Tucci and his Searching For Italy, gives us all a kind of home.

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