The actor and host of the hit CNN series Searching for Italy is back for another helping with a new food-focused memoir
Given how fit and trim Stanley Tucci is, it’s a bit surprising how large food has loomed in his career. The 60-year-old actor made his directorial debut with 1996’s Big Night, about two Italian-American brothers (played by Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who try to save their family restaurant with a feast centered on a timpano. The lovingly prepared baked pasta dish is practically a supporting character, and Big Night is often cited as one of the great culinary movies in cinema history.
Over the years, Tucci has also costarred as Julia Child’s husband Paul in Julie & Julia and released two cookbooks, but he really leaned into his food-lover persona during the pandemic. This past February, he premiered a CNN travel series, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, a spiritual successor to Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown that uncovered the intricacies of Italian regional cooking and earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination.
This month, Tucci releases a new book, Taste: My Life Through Food, a memoir about his gastronomic experiences that draws from his Italian-American upbringing in Westchester County, his family’s move to Florence when he was 12, and his recent battle with salivary gland cancer. (He had to reteach himself how to eat and taste while filming his CNN show.) Here, Tucci calls from the kid-filled London home he shares with his wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, and dishes on “red sauce,” Italian stereotypes, and the art of cooking.
During the pandemic, you became a bright spot for a lot of people, thanks to a Negroni-making Instagram tutorial that went viral and, of course, your travel show. How did that impact your own experience of the past year?
It made me really happy. Of course, you want to keep making people happy with whatever you do, but you can’t overdo it, because then it just seems silly. I think that maybe one of the things people like about it is that I sometimes know what I’m doing when I’m making cocktails, and I sometimes don’t. There is obviously a certain reticence and maybe a bit of a caustic sense of humor that people seem to enjoy. If you’re out there just rah-rahing and trying to make everyone cheer up, they’re just gonna go, “Oh, f*** off.” So I guess my natural inclination to not do that made it work well.
Have you been contacted by any bartenders who want to collaborate?
You have no idea what people sent me. And there are things in the offing that are really interesting that I’m definitely going to partake in. People even started putting out pre-made cocktails with my name on them, and I had to hire a lawyer and go through all this stuff. It was just like, Oh God, really? I had to trademark my name!
You’ve been a storyteller as a director, actor, and screenwriter, but I imagine writing a book taps into a different part of your creative brain. How do you put pen to paper?
You literally just put pen to paper. Sometimes nothing comes out, but you have to sit there. You might write a sentence, or you might write an entire chapter. It’s very scary when you’re confronted with a blank page, but this was different because it was personal. Everything else I’ve written has been screenplays or book adaptations, but this is literally about me. You just want to make sure, Does anyone really care what I have to say on this subject? You’re always questioning, which I think is a good thing, because otherwise it ends up being you stroking your own ego. And who cares about that, right?
I was impressed by the freshness of your food writing. How do you avoid clichés?
I’ve never done it before; I think if I were to continue writing about food all the time, you’d probably go like, “Why does he say the same f****** thing all the time?” I read memoirs; I read a lot of food books. And I also just personalized it in my own sort of caustic, wry tone.
You write about how weird it can be to watch TV food personalities eating, with that fake look of ecstasy on their faces.
It’s true though, right? You notice it. You’re like, “Come on. I don’t believe that.”
When you’re on camera for Searching for Italy, do you have to think about switching up your “tasting” expressions?
No, because I really taste it. Luckily, basically everything I ate I liked. But I think, particularly for me, having gone through cancer treatments, [eating] was really hard.
I couldn’t believe you were dealing with that as you were filming.
I couldn’t believe it, either. It was pretty quick after I had gone through treatments, and it was really hard. I could taste everything, but I couldn’t necessarily swallow everything. I wouldn’t be able to sit down and eat that bistecca alla Fiorentina, you know?
Is it improving?
Yeah, it’s better. It’s not quite normal, and it may never be.
Well, I’m glad to hear you’re on the upswing. You write in the introduction of Taste that you spend more time thinking about food than you do on acting these days. Do you think there are similarities between being a cook and an artist, or even just a food lover and an art lover?
Oh, absolutely. Food is interesting on so many levels, because it’s a creative process, but it’s also an art form, but it’s also a skill. But it’s also something you kind of have to do. Nowadays, you don’t have to cook, but you still have to eat. It’s an integral part of your life. So I think that—I’m just going to make an espresso, so you’re going to hear a sound—they are related. When you’re cooking, you have to have a basic understanding of how to use a knife, what ingredients go together, how to turn the stove on. You need a certain amount of technique, but then you also need imagination. And that’s exactly the same for painting, for acting, for directing. You need to have an understanding of what the rules are, and then make everything else up in between.
While filming during the pandemic, did you notice any differences in the way Italians dealt with the crisis, as opposed to the Americans or the British?
[There’s some commotion in the background] Wait, hold on one second. My daughter has just come home; I haven’t seen her for six weeks. I love you! She was away.
Oh, I don’t want to keep you from her!
No, don’t worry about that. I didn’t know she was coming home now… So, we shot two episodes during the pandemic. Everybody was very cautious. We finished the Campania episode literally a day before the next lockdown started, so we got quite lucky there. I think that the Italians dealt with it really, really well. Unfortunately, their vaccination rates are not that high, and I feel quite lucky in England, where so many people are vaccinated.
When you’re traveling in Italy, do you have any tricks for finding a great restaurant in a new town? I’ve had so many surprisingly mediocre meals there.
One of the key things is to find a place that doesn’t say menu turistico. I think that’s a good start. The more off the beaten track you are, the better—usually, but not always. I mean, there are amazing restaurants like Armando al Pantheon right next to the Pantheon, where we shot in Rome. Sometimes [instead of] asking the concierge at the hotel, maybe ask a cab driver. Where are the workers going? Where are the cops going? Where is the concierge going to eat? That’s what I want to know, because a lot of times he is not going to the restaurant he recommended to you. He’s going to a little place around the corner.
My family, like yours, is Italian-American from New York. A decade or so ago, we traveled to Rome and experienced this weird kind of culture shock, where we thought we knew Italian culture and quickly learned how different it actually is. I remember my dad asked for “un cannoli,” and the waiter looked at him like he was crazy, because cannoli is plural. When you moved to Italy as a kid, did you experience something similar?
I went to Florence, and all my family came from Southern Italy, so it was real extreme. Also, I did not speak a word of Italian, so I was just sort of thrown into this whole new environment. But you pick it up. Are there similarities? Yes. But really, kind of no, at the same time. Like you’re saying, they’re two totally different cultures. When you hear people speak in America, and they’re not the ones who came over but the generation after that, they’ll say certain words, and you’re like, “Oh, my god, that is so far from the actual word.” A lot of times it sounds just horrible.
Like Tony Soprano and “gabagool.”
Exactly. It’s really, really unfortunate, because it is such a beautiful language. It’s the same thing that happened with the food. It got sort of bastardized. It’s just far removed from what it really is, in the size of portions and the amount of sauce or how much cheese. Everything just became removed from the original, and sort of perverted.
In the chapter about Big Night in your book, you write about wanting to avoid Italian stereotypes. Is that part of your mission in Searching for Italy? Do think about it consciously?
I do think about it consciously. When my cousin and I wrote Big Night, it was very important for us not to have any sort of gangster thing. I’ve played gangsters, and there was a while where I just stopped doing it. The only time I did one after that was in Road to Perdition, and everybody was the bad guy. With this show, my intention is partly to show that what we think of as Italian food is not necessarily Italian food—that it’s much more than pizza and spaghetti. When people go “red sauce”… like, what? It’s so complex. It’s so varied. It’s so seasonal. It’s so connected to history. It’s so connected to geography. Why does pizza exist? Why does it exist in many forms? Why is it different in Rome than it is in Naples? That is really interesting.
You’ve become one of those actors, like Meryl Streep, who has a body of work in which every generation of viewers can find something to love. Pete Davidson even rapped about you on SNL in a song called “Tucci Gang.” What do your kids make of stuff like that?
My little kids have no idea. The older kids just go, like, “Oh god, Dad,” which is perfectly natural. And I think—I hope—that they’re proud of me. The thing is, I’ve done so many different kinds of movies that, if you last long enough, it’s inevitable. You can do the kids’ movies, The Hunger Games, the animated thing. You can do Supernova, the thing I did with Colin [Firth], which is a sort of older audience. And then you do Easy A and The Devil Wears Prada, and that’s the joy of it. And that’s why you started doing it in the first place: You could be all those different people.
Well, you should go hang out with your daughter now!
Thank you. I hope your family’s well. And tell your father if he wants a cannoli and he only wants one, he just says cannolo. Ciao!