The Timeless Fantasy of Stanley Tucci Eating Italian Food
In CNN’s culinary travel series, Italy is beautiful and the food of Italy is beautiful. Not insignificantly, Tucci is beautiful, too.
By Helen Rosner March 27, 2021
Several episodes of the CNN series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” open with a message that’s part apology and part warning: “The following episode was filmed prior to the start of the covid-19 outbreak.” For the couch-bound viewer, any travel show is a portal to fantasy. But a show like this—airing in a time like this—is escapism of another order. Here there are olive trees and cow-dappled hills and the blue-green sea, sure, but also cheek-kiss greetings and crowded piazzas, tiny café tables and narrow alleyways. Tucci, the show’s host, wanders through Italy’s regions unmasked, unfettered, chatting amiably with cheesemakers and pizzaiolos, sipping aperitivos on rooftops, picking up petals of artichoke from a plate in a cramped restaurant kitchen. Everything, always, is drenched in heavy yellow sunlight, as if the nation were basking in the languor of eternal late afternoon.
“Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” which concluded its first season this past Sunday, is ostensibly educational. Each episode takes viewers on a tour of a specific region, and in each Tucci spends a bit of time with scholars and activists, discussing some aspect of the region’s history or politics or social strife. But mostly he eats, and talks about eating, and visits the farmers and producers and venders who provision his marvellous meals. Italy is beautiful. The food of Italy is beautiful. Not insignificantly, Stanley Tucci is beautiful, too. He strolls the narrow thoroughfares of Florence and Naples with the physical eloquence of a dancer, at once smoldering and restrained. He gazes at wheels of cheese and swirls of pasta as if the food must be seduced before it will consent to be devoured. The Tucci of “Searching for Italy” is a figure out of time: thick-framed glasses, white pants, a rich leather belt, a linen shirt tailored narrowly to the trapezoid of his torso, cuffs rolled just so, the hint of a bronzed and muscled forearm. He delivers sly jokes and engages in patter with shopkeepers in a mix of Italian and English. “This bread, it’s an aphrodisiac,” he says, standing outside a bakery in Bologna, and adds, “I’m all alone in a hotel; why would I want to do that?” His suave exterior shows cracks only in moments of sensory ecstasy. Taking a deep whiff of a split wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or letting the funk of a ribbon of prosciutto blossom on his tongue, he moans, he sighs, he murmurs. The whole thing verges on obscene: Tuccissimo.
At the age of sixty, Tucci is enjoying a somewhat unexpected late-career reinvention as a sex symbol. Students of the Tucci allure have pointed out that it is in no way new. It dates back at least to his appearance in a nineteen-eighties ad for Levi’s 501s, in which he shows off an A-shirt and exquisite deltoids on the streets of New York City. His breakout role, as the debonair restaurateur Secondo in the film “Big Night” (1996), was less explicitly sexy, but it had the effect of linking Tucci’s persona forever to the intimacy and sensuousness of food. The movie, which Tucci co-wrote and co-directed, is about a pair of Italian brothers in the nineteen-fifties who are trying to save their struggling New Jersey restaurant with a huge, blowout dinner. The movie is most beloved for its feast scenes, when the brothers serve their guests a fusillade of Technicolor courses, including an extraordinary timpano centerpiece. But the greater food sequence takes place in the movie’s final minutes, when Secondo makes an omelette for his brother and their lone employee. It is filmed in one unbroken shot, without dialogue or music; its choreography of silence and motion, solitude and togetherness is like something out of Fellini. Cracking eggs, setting the pan over the flame, laying hunks of bread on plates, Tucci makes cooking a physical language.
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Tucci has returned to food often in the course of his career. He’s authored two cookbooks (the second with his wife, the literary agent Felicity Blunt, who makes a few cameos in “Searching for Italy”) and played Julia Child’s adoring husband, Paul, in “Julie & Julia.” A culinary memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food,” is due out in the fall. Sure, Tucci has played other roles as well: supervillain, serial killer, fashionista, wizard. In his most recent film, this year’s tender “Supernova,” he plays opposite Colin Firth as a man navigating early-onset dementia. But the Stanley Tucci of our hearts is a man who cooks and eats and enchants while doing so. An ur-Tucci moment came to us, last April, in the form of an Instagram video. It shows Tucci in his home kitchen, making a Negroni for Blunt. Wearing a tight shirt, he titrates the Campari with beguiling sangfroid—an eyebrow flicker, a kittenish half smile. “Enjoy This Powerfully Erotic Video of Stanley Tucci,” the Cut recommended, and by god we did.
Plenty of Hollywood stars know their way around a kitchen. Cookbook best-seller lists are perpetually full of names better known from IMDb pages than the James Beard Awards. But most often the stars who cross over into food are women. And, often, those women have turned to the kitchen after aging out of Hollywood’s cruelly narrow definition of female desirability. In the field of professional domesticity, youth is a novelty rather than a currency, and success comes from being likable more than fuckable. It may be that fewer male movie stars have second acts as culinary personalities because the sex appeal of men has no clear expiration date. Instead of a low-budget stand-and-stir programmed for the midafternoon mom brigade, Tucci gets a prestige travel show in which he charms his way around one of the most beautiful countries in the world, like an aged-up Alain Delon in “Purple Noon” (minus the murder). Before the first season of “Searching for Italy” had finished airing, it had already been renewed for a second. It doesn’t feel entirely fair.
In a recent Variety profile, Tucci said that he found the process of hosting a documentary series to be surprisingly challenging. “I’m not a journalist; I’m not an interviewer,” he said. His lack of experience is not inevident. “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” is a good show, but not quite a great one. Its culinary discoveries (balsamic vinegar in Modena, pizza in Naples, risotto in Milan) are not new, and its gloss on the less glamorous aspects of Italian culture and history are rarely more than decorative. The Italy we are shown is suspended in a dreamlike past: every cheese has been made for centuries, often with the same tools; every drizzle of balsamic vinegar is a triumph of preserving the old ways against the encroaching, soul-sapping efficiencies of the modern age. Tucci samples mortadella in Bologna with a leftist organizer and goes fishing in Lombardy with a far-right hard-liner, the latter of whom he engages with genteel distaste. But the substance of their conversation is overwhelmed by the ambience of their surroundings, and of Tucci himself. Stanley Tucci plays a travel-show host; Italy, with a bit of corsetry and airbrushing, plays itself.
“He’s no Bourdain,” one CNN devotee in my life said, of Tucci, unprompted, a few weeks ago. I suppose I agree, though that’s sort of like saying that a langoustine isn’t a porterhouse. Like Tucci, Anthony Bourdain was rich in charisma and possessed unlikely sex appeal. But Bourdain the travel-show host served as a spotlight, fondly illuminating the people and places around him. Tucci is an electromagnet. Even when he’s in a crowd, he seems like the only person on the screen, and the show is at its best when it stops fighting the desire to focus entirely on him. He chops carrots for a soffritto in a rented apartment in Florence with his mother. He adds another knob of snow-white butter to a massive skillet of garlic and cabbage as he makes pizzoccheri, a Lombardian specialty, as a gesture of appreciation for his crew. At one point, Tucci takes the camera away from his director of photography, so that the man can eat. It’s the best moment in the series: Tucci on camera, then behind the camera, then back on camera again—at once the cook and the creator, the lens through which we see the meal, and the meal itself.
Helen Rosner is a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2016, she won the James Beard award for personal-essay writing.