Stanley Tucci on ‘Searching for Italy’ and Instagram fame

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere — London, to be exact — and Stanley Tucci isn’t in a fitted shirt pumping a cocktail shaker. But he is talking about how he almost threw his back out trying to lift a 40-kilo wheel of Parmigiano so he could cut it into two moons, hollow out one of them, and make carbonara inside of it.

Same Tucci, different flex.

Looking distinguished in a black turtleneck and matching thick-framed eyewear, the 60-year-old actor is video-chatting from the backyard studio of the London home where he and his family have been riding out most of the last year. Like the rest of us, he’s grown used to these sorts of virtual conversations — except his extra screen time has earned him a spot in the club of unexpected quarantine social media stars, alongside Patti LuPone, Leslie Jordan, and husband-and-wife duo Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody.

In late April, a few weeks into our national isolation, Tucci posted a three-minute video of himself shaking a negroni on his Instagram account. The internet drank it up. And more cocktail content, obviously, followed. (More on all that later.)

But his life has been consumed of late by “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” a six-part travelogue series on CNN in which the culinary enthusiast roams different regions of his ancestral homeland to learn about local cuisines while chumming it up with locals and speaking enough Italian to make Giada De Laurentiis beam.

Stanley Tucci and wife Felicity Blunt with Chef Tommaso

Stanley Tucci and wife Felicity Blunt with Chef Tommaso, who is the head chef at Lo Scoglio. They gather for a spaghetti alla nerano (a zucchini pasta dish) in “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy “ on CNN.

(CNN)

Best known for his roles in films like “The Lovely Bones,” “Julie & Julia” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” everyone’s favorite character actor has, through the years, sought to nourish his passion for food. He’s released two family-centric cookbooks, “The Tucci Cookbook” and “The Tucci Table: Cooking With Family and Friends.” And while he’s been approached several times about doing a cooking show, he says it never felt like the right thing for him.

Hatched from a flurry of notes he scribbled about a dozen years ago, “Searching for Italy” was, he says, “more right.”

“If I wanted to cook something I could do that — like I do in one episode,” he says. “But really, I’m more interested in talking to people who cook, and being the liaison between the chef, or the home cook, or whoever it is, and the audience. Because I’m somewhere in between.”

Tucci visited six regions in Italy, stopping in cities like Naples, Rome and Florence. Production on the six episodes was scattered. He shot two episodes in 2019 before pausing to film “Supernova,” starring opposite Colin Firth as a novelist in his 60s who is suffering from early onset dementia (a performance that’s been lauded by critics). He then shot two more episodes before the pandemic hit, and resumed production on the final two as things were winding down from the first lockdown. Arriving at a time when people ache to travel and eat dinner among friends without worry, the opening minutes of the Valentine’s Day premiere came with an acknowledgment from Tucci that it was filmed during the summer of 2020, just months after COVID-19 devastated the country.

In addition to his travel-food series, Stanley Tucci is earning raves for his performance in "Supernova."

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in the movie “Supernova.”

(Bleecker Street)

“It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago the first wave of COVID-19 had emptied the streets of Naples, and Italy was in lockdown,” he says in the voice-over. “Thankfully, I’ve arrived during a brief moment of normality: Restaurants are open and masks are not required outside. We’ll be sticking to the local rules.”

From there, the delectable journey begins. He’ll take you along as he visits Michelin-rated pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia to learn the art of making a pie — including the importance of genuine San Marzano tomatoes — or walk you through how Italians fought Mussolini’s oppression through pasta, or offer tidbits about the Medici family while he ventures out for a grilled fiorentina steak.

“Obviously, the first episodes prior to the pandemic were much easier,” says Tucci, who shares that he had COVID-19 and lost his taste for five days. “After the pandemic, it was harder, but it was incredible to see the resilience of the Italian people. And they are indefatigable — I mean, if we just look at their history, how many different invasions they have lived through, how many different plagues they have lived through, they figure it out. And they still make it work. They are incredibly self-sufficient and incredibly inventive.”

The one where Stanley Tucci explains how to make carbonara

As we talk, Tucci mentions that he and his wife, Felicity Blunt, are planning to make a simple dinner later in the evening: spaghetti alle vongole with some “beautiful” clams they procured. “It’s the easiest dish in the world, but there’s something that just makes you want to be in Italy by the seaside. And of course we’re not, we’re in freezing cold London, with a little snow on the ground. But it’s like a little gesture towards hope.”

He says he has a tendency to be impatient in the kitchen. And he’ll admit he’s hardly a refined cook, nor is he someone who reviews a recipe before getting to work on a dish. “I’m terrible. I’ll look at it, I go, ‘Oh yeah, I know how to do that,’” he says. “Sometimes it works, and other times I go,‘Why didn’t I follow the recipe?’”

He then turns the tables on me — “What do you make? What did you grow up eating?” — which eventually leads to a story of the time I made carbonara with shredded Parmesan cheese. And, well, it was a goopy mess.

“No, no, no, no, no,” he says. “Sorry, I’m talking to you like I’m your father.”

And then, the guidance: “First, the key thing is you can use pancetta, right? Which is easily accessible. And it’s great. But when you get guanciale — go online and just look it up and you’ll find somebody who will sell it. It’ll probably cost way too much money, but it’s worth it. And really, you have to have really good eggs, really good Parmigiano, and the guanciale. And the pasta has to be a really, I know no other word, but strong pasta. In other words, it can’t be some over starchy, crappy, kind of … you know what I mean?”

Yeah.

“There’s this one pasta, which you can get in America, called, I believe, Di Martino. And it’s the one that the guy uses in Italy, in the show. And it’s about timing, and making sure that you use the pasta water to help… Oh, what’s the word I want? Just to help make it viscous. In the weirdest way, it’s like a lot of Italian food, it’s the simplest dish in the world. And yet, if the ingredients aren’t right, and you don’t do it right, it falls apart. But definitely invest in a good hunk of Parmigiano for your fridge and grate it yourself.”

In fact, he’s still making his way through the leftovers from that 40-kilo wheel of Parmigiano that nearly took out his back, which he shoved in the bottom of his wine fridge and eventually cut into 25 “chunks, huge chunks.” “I bought a vacuum sealer to seal them all so that it wouldn’t go bad,” he explains. “And now we’re just distributing them to people all over the place. And then some of it got grated, but I had to use these huge knives that my grandfather had used, one of which he had made. And I had to hammer it down and just be very careful so it wouldn’t — I’m sorry, am I giving the most boring interview ever?”

Hardly.

The one where Stanley Tucci misses peanut butter

Tucci grew up in a family where people were cooking all the time. But it wasn’t until making “Big Night” — the 1996 film he cowrote, codirected and starred in about Italian brothers who open a restaurant along the 1950s Jersey shore — that his food obsession really took shape. For the film, he shadowed famed maestro of Italian cuisine Gianni Scappin, who he says was central to igniting that appreciation; the two would later collaborate on 2012‘s “The Tucci Cookbook.”

“I never really was a particularly good cook — I could cook certain things, but really, not much,” he says. “But once I went into Gianni’s kitchen, and I really started to understand what went into so many different dishes — besides my parents’ dishes — and the rigorous work that has to happen, it was fascinating. When I coupled that with my mother’s rigorous work, and my grandmother’s rigorous work, and then the work of a person who grew up in a family not dissimilar to mine, but then became a professional chef, it was amazing. It was this conjoining of imagination and prowess, and it was just so exciting to me. I really thought, after the movie, ‘Well, I’ll keep cooking, and I’ll keep learning.’ But then I just really became head over heels in love with it.”

His parents, Stanley Sr. and Joan, appear in an upcoming episode of the series. In it, Tucci talks about the time in the 1970s, when he was 12, that his family uprooted from New York and spent a year living in Florence so his father, a high school art teacher, could follow his dream and study figure drawing and sculpture. In the episode, Tucci joins his mother, who studied Florentine cuisine while her kids were at school, to make a family-favorite dish named after one of their beloved former neighbors: Salsa Maria Rosa, a vegetable sauce that includes Italian soffritto as its base.

“I did ache to come home. I really wanted to come back to America,” Tucci says. “I missed peanut butter, and stuff like that, and my friends. But it was great, it completely changed my life. It made me realize that I really like living in, I suppose in some ways, a more European lifestyle. And what does that mean exactly? I don’t really know what that means. I just felt a little more comfortable. As I got older, I thought, ‘Oh, I think that’s where I want to be.’”

I ask Tucci if he thinks this sojourn through Italy was in pursuit of something deeper, much like his father’s. He paused as if something was occurring to him for the first time.

“You’re absolutely right,” he says. “Because I greatly admired my father for doing that. I think one of the things that I learned, maybe from that, is that if you’re focusing on something as an artist — and I’ll use that highfalutin’ term — the hardest part is not just doing the thing, it’s the time around the thing that you need in order to do the thing. And sometimes you don’t know how long that time is going to be, or where you need to go to find that time. The artist is a casualty of the idea of indulgence. But you need that, you need that time. And I think that both of my parents did this in different ways.”

The TV series is not the only way he’s exploring his food side more earnestly. During the first phase of his COVID-19 confinement, he began working on a food memoir, “Taste,” that will be released later this year.

“It kept me sane during the first lockdown, I’ll be honest,” he says. “It’s about growing up in a family that put a great importance on food, and on tradition, culinary traditions, and keeping those traditions going. And making those recipes again, and again, and again, and again.

“Food was the connective tissue that held the family together, both sides of the family,” he continues. “I have experienced my life, in a lot of ways, through my mouth.”

The one where Stanley Tucci mixes a negroni

Putting the finishing touches on the book is largely why Tucci has fallen behind on entertaining the masses with his cocktail videos.

A former bartender, Tucci describes the recent public attention as “flattering but weird.” “I’m completely shocked. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not glad about it. I mean, you’d be an idiot. ‘All it took was a negroni’ — that’s going to be on my tombstone.”

Blunt originally shot the cheeky video to send to her coworkers at Curtis Brown literary agency as a way to cheer them up in the early days of the lockdown.

“I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure,’” he recalls. “So we did it, and then she and Lottie, my assistant, said, ‘Well, why don’t we put it on your Instagram?’ I was like, ‘All right, yeah, go ahead. I don’t know.’ And then … Lottie said to me, ‘Your Instagram is going mad.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’ She goes, ‘You’re trending.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means.’

And the comments? Oh, he’s read them.

“Oh yes, oh yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they were … we had to kick the kids out of the room to read them out loud. They were filthy, and funny. I was crying, I was laughing so hard.”

But there hasn’t been a video since the one on Christmas Eve, which featured cameos from sister-in-law Emily Blunt and her husband John Krasinski as Tucci made a Christmas cosmo.

“No, I know. I know, I’m sorry. I’m writing, I’m trying to finish the book. I’m going to do one … not this week, next week.”

Is that a promise?

“Yeah, I promise.”

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