March 6, 2021TV
Stanley Tucci has over 100 credits on his IMDB filmography - of late he's probably best known for things like The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games series. But he's done so much more, like a ten episode stretch on ER, an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America and, most appropriately to the review at hand, in the bittersweet food movie Big Night, way back in 1996. Now he has added travel/food host to his resume, with the enchanting Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. The premise of the series is simple, each week he visits a different region of Italy (based on the credits it seems like the show will feature twenty in total). He connects with local experts and explores the unique cuisine of that area. Three episodes have aired so far, showcasing Napoli and the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Bologna. So far, the series is perfectly balanced, just like the food it is celebrating. Over the one hour airtime, we see not only the tantalizing meals that make it to the plate, but also the preparation process and, most importantly, the stories of those who so lovingly cook for others. There is also fantastic scenery, history, fun facts, and a charming host in Tucci. Appetizer, entree, dessert - this show has it all.
It's been awhile since I've had anything resembling appointment television - but having caught up with the first three episodes of Searching for Italy on demand, I have the feeling I'll be parked in front of the set Sunday nights at 9pm until the last show has aired. I'm enjoying it that much.
I know that's a contradiction in terms, but it's the best way I can describe the magnetism Tucci brings to the show. I suspect he might be an introvert, as his appreciation for everything he eats and everyone he meets is never over-effusive. But it's clear how curious and engaged he is about all he's covering on the show - he's not only trying to learn on behalf of the viewers, but also as an enthusiastic home chef. He switches between English and Italian, not entirely effortlessly, but in a way that demonstrates his desire to connect with his hosts in their native language. He's got great food literacy, and knows the good stuff when he tastes it (which is ALL THE TIME) on this show. I love how most of the time his reaction is pretty subtle (a pause, a deep breath, a look heavenward) although he did get pretty hyped about a zucchini pasta in the first episode. He wears a shocking number of pristine button-downs for someone who is doing so much eating, which I attribute to a combination of great confidence in his ability to safely get his food from plate to mouth and/or a wardrobe assistant waiting in the wings with backups if some of the sauce goes sideways. Throughout the show his voiceover is beautifully delivered - he's got a truly sonorous voice. When he's talking about balsamic vinegar, he refers to it as "black gold" and in such reverent tones it makes you want to rush to Modena immediately for the oldest bottle you can find.
Without being overly ponderous, each episode packs in a lot of food knowledge, but also history and culture. For example, in Napoli (birthplace of pizza), many don't make their most famous dish at home because (as Tucci says) why would they? Pizza places there are more ubiquitous than Starbucks in New York. So when the covid crisis hit, many were deprived of the pizza that they would normally have almost every day. Apparently when the lockdown was first lifted over 60,000 pizzas were ordered. As Tucci's host says here "First pizza, then vaccines". In E3, Tucci talks with the local reporter that broke the story on a huge Prosciutto di Parma fraud scandal. Tucci went so far as to try authentic prosciutto next to the fake, and makes it clear what an egregious crime this was for the region. There are a few additional, less sunny stories that Tucci covers briefly, like the Jewish ghettos in Rome (both before and during WWII) in which the residents were locked after dark. Or the complicated challenge of gentrification in one of the other Rome neighborhoods he visits. These detours from the main event (food) don't weigh the show down and provide a more rounded view of a country that would be easy to over-romanticize.
My default position is generally - give me all the Italian food, ever. And that is only exacerbated by this show. Whether visiting the only true source of San Marzano tomatoes or watching buffalo mozzarella being made or joining Federico Fellini's niece to watch an expert hand-make cappelletti like (as Tucci says) a machine, this is a sumptuous experience. We get to hear from cooks who are making dishes born from years of tradition, often passed through their families. They take such pleasure in preparing the food, sharing their stories, and then watching Stanley (as many of them call him) enjoy it so thoroughly. So many of them see the food of their region as a gift, and it is a joy to watch them make those gifts available, not just to those on the show but to us as well. There's a lot of beaming and laughing throughout the cooking and eating process, as it should be in any good Italian kitchen!!!
A few caveats for the squeamish - so far there haven't been any scenes of butchering, but there are a few shots of cute wild rabbits that will become stew, and we see many cuts of meat (whether aging prosciutto in Bologna or offal of all sorts in Rome). For the first three episodes, there has been only a very small amount of screen time dedicated to these realities, but it's something to consider if you're watching with more sensitive viewers.
Depending on the episode, Tucci is visiting Italy either before or during the covid crisis. The show is careful to orient you to when it was filmed, and when applicable reminds you that they are following the local protocols for masks. Though it leads to a lot of cute elbow bumps from Tucci, so I'm not mad about it.
While we wait for the opportunity to travel again ourselves, Tucci is a wonderful surrogate, bringing the best of visiting other places right to our living room. It would be great if the show came with a side of pasta delivered to your door, but I don't suppose even Tucci (despite his many talents) could pull that off.
Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy airs Sunday nights on CNN at 9pm ET/PT. If you check your listings, you can probably find repeats of the episodes that have already aired, and as I mentioned I was able to watch them all using Xfinity's on demand service. It's rated PG - Tucci swears occasionally but, because it's him, it just seems delightful.