by CHRISTINE FEELEY ’23
Most people know the name Stanley Tucci from a litany of films, such as The Devil Wears Prada or even Captain America: The First Avenger. What perhaps a smaller audience became acquainted with was him giving a grand tour around Italy, exploring the food and wine—and everything in between.
I remember seeing a lot of online chatter about Stanley Tucci when his travel show first premiered. He was the next in line of the random celebrity-type figures who people began thirsting over throughout quarantine—right behind Anthony Fauci and several news anchors (including, unfortunately, the now off-the-air Chris Cuomo). There was a significant population who thought, or quickly came to realize, that he and his signature black-rimmed glasses were sexy. The beautiful views and mouth-watering food that are displayed in the show are a bonus.
Even funnier to me was how this show took my own Italian family by storm, with my grandma, great-aunt, and mother all religiously tuning in to each episode and then calling each other to talk about where Stanley had been and where he would be traveling to next.
“He’s such a charming man, this Stanley Tucci!” my grandma said to me on the phone. She had not seen any of his accredited work, but informed me that she had done a Google search to “read up about him.”
That charm was clearly the key behind the obsession that I soon began to slowly understand upon watching an episode. His somewhat softer-spoken but authoritative voice was captivating, even more so when wonderful Italian sentences were rolling off his tongue. This, combined with his evident love and passion for the culture and cuisine, makes him the ultimate tour guide, and the perfect person to walk you around the beautiful Italian backdrops while you sit on the couch of your own home, seething with unbridled jealousy.
Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy possesses the goal of discovering “how the food in each of the country’s 20 regions is as unique as the people and their past,” according to the show’s introduction. Just as Tucci’s own Italian heritage inspired him to embark on this journey to explore Italy’s various regions, I decided to watch the last one of the six-episode season that explored Sicily, due to my own family’s roots on the small island.
Sicily, famous for its location of being the island “kicked” by the toe of the boot that is Italy, is the country’s southernmost region. Nicknamed “God’s kitchen,” the region is described by Tucci as a mythical land of contrasts: possessing both water and fire – (one of the towns he explores is, somewhat alarmingly, in the shadow of an active volcano) – dry and fertile land, and being one of the historically poorest regions in Europe yet still creating the “richest of cuisines.”
In the episode, Tucci visits vastly different locations, ranging from opulent restaurants, expansive vineyards, family-operated fishing docks, and the palace of a Sicilian princess.
He begins in the city of Bagheria, where he visits the Michelin star restaurant I Pupi, run by self-taught chef Tony Lo Coco. Tucci is introduced to his specialty dish, as his mouth waters over homemade spaghetti alla bottarga, topped with shredded bottarga (dried tuna), lemon zest, salted fried capers, anchovies, and mollica (dried breadcrumbs). We learn that the mindset of this chef, along with that of those who engage in the classic Sicilian cuisine, is simplicity. He “harnesses the power of simple ingredients and allows them to shine,” in doing so, elevating even the most traditional of foods. Sounds easy enough for those at home with only a few ingredients at their beck and call, although I can’t necessarily say that bottarga and anchovies would ever be in my refrigerator.
The city of Vittoria is next, known for its grapes – specifically, frappato and nero d’avola, both a kind of sweet grape. One of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, Vittoria is home to a vineyard run by 38-year-old winemaker Ariana Occhipinti. She walks Tucci through the rolling hills, sampling grapes and wines as he becomes more and more inebriated (just kidding, although that would likely make the episode more fun).
In the capital of Palermo, a city whose architecture likely influenced the New Orleans-type vibe, Tucci sits down with a princess who is one of the last surviving members of the royal Sicilian family. They dine on three different types of timballo, a layered dish typically consisting of pasta, rice, or potatoes, among other ingredients, in a beautifully adorned palace straight out of a period film. When I first heard them allude to a “princess,” I expected a sort of young dame typical of a Disney movie, but it was refreshing to see an elder woman in the role, and I’m sure my grandma thought so, too.
My grandma was crushed when I broke the news to her that they had postponed the release of the second season from this past March until later in May. She had turned on CNN only to find continued news coverage instead of Stanley Tucci’s affable companionship, and called my mother to ask if the show had changed channels. As to be expected, my mom was just as confused, so a quick search from me confirmed that it would not be airing that night, and that they would all have to wait to get their desired fix of Italy in a couple of weeks.
The show is a fun exploration of culture and cuisine, occasionally intertwining heavier topics such as the fate of migrants traveling to Italy in search of a better life or the struggles of unemployment rates. What would make it even better is a deeper dive into the recipes themselves, as I was often left wishing for more, wanting both the camera and Tucci himself to linger on the food for just a little while longer, if only so I could vicariously sample and breathe in the aromas of the delectable dishes that the episode boasted.
However, watching just one episode was more than enough for me, strictly in the sense that if I binged a few back to back in the same day, I would start to get just the tiniest bit enraged that I was sitting in my western Massachusetts apartment instead of at a bustling cafe on the streets of Sicily, enjoying a glass of wine and a piping hot plate of homemade spaghetti. The show is bingeworthy, but I would be remiss to not mention that it is one that will leave your stomach rumbling, and a couple of tabs open on your laptop that may or may not be inquiring about the price of plane tickets.
Season 2 of “Searching for Italy” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.