Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy

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If you have not caught CNN’s wildly popular documentary miniseries, “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” you have got to find a way to watch these six hours of must-see TV as soon as possible. Anyone with a passion for Italy will appreciate Tucci’s personal perspective in discovering authentic foods synonymous with the different regions of Italy. What I find so appealing is that he features local Italians, some famous and some not, who share with great pride how they create some of these simple, yet delicious dishes using ingredients grown or produced in their regions.

With no way to travel to bella Italia due to imposed coronavirus pandemic restrictions, those of us who have had to cancel Italy travel plans can only dream of the day when life will return to some sense of normalcy. A show like Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” goes a long way to keep this dream alive.

I am one of those travelers who cancelled an Italy trip last fall, and when I heard about this miniseries, I was more than a little excited. I made a note on my phone calendar and as soon as I could record it on my DVR, I scheduled the complete series which began Feb.14, 2021. The six episodes begin with Naples and the Amalfi Coast and then Tucci is on to Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and finally Sicily. The series ended on March 21 and repeat episodes can be found on demand, on YouTube and various streaming services. CNN has repeated the episodes and possibly will do so in the future.

Four of the six episodes were filmed in the fall of 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic and only two, the Naples and Bologna episodes, were filmed in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic when restrictions were briefly lightened in Italy. Despite the show’s predominantly positive reviews, Tucci has taken some flak from Variety Magazine for failing to emphasize what a great disruption the pandemic created to traditions. He mentioned the lockdown, but only in passing. Since the situation in Italy worsened since filming, he could have talked more about how the mandated restrictions obliterated the abilities for families to gather together for meals or for restaurants to remain open and serve their specialty regional cuisines. The pandemic forced major adjustments, which severely impacted the Italian people and their businesses, not only then, but even now. 

Even though I have been to Italy 10 times and to all of these regions highlighted on the show, I learned something new from each episode. Because Tucci did not just take us to typical places or talk only about typical foods we all know about, he taught us lots of things, like new ways Italians are using local foods to help the underserved. I never knew about the neighborhood of Naples, known as Scampia, a poor, slum-like area where a small group of women have started a successful non-profit restaurant called Chikù, featuring fusion foods created by Italians and immigrants who live here. In this episode, he also visits a restaurant where authentic Neapolitan margherita pizza is made. Who could go to Napoli and skip this tradition? A visit to the island of Ischia where rabbit is a family tradition and two stops on the Amalfi Coast, to Minori and Nerano, are wonderful, since these smaller places are often overlooked by tourists.

Episode 2 is set in Rome and pasta is the main attraction here. If you are not taking notes to replicate the cacio e pepe and carbonara recipes, I would be surprised. The show is so well done because Tucci really imparts the Italians’ love for their regions and their foods they so carefully prepare and share. A stop for fried artichokes in Rome’s Jewish ghetto neighborhood includes a history lesson by the restaurant’s owner and another trattoria to taste food made with offal, more commonly known as organ meats, made this another learning experience for me.

Episode 3 takes us to Bologna, the food capital of Italy, and the Emilia-Romagna region, where Tucci visits places like Modena where balsamic vinegar is aged in an attic (yes, you read correctly) and Zocca, where Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura shows us how to make authentic parmigiano from milk produced by local Bianca Modenese cows. I had no idea these white cows existed here for this purpose. Bologna has always been active in politics and Tucci interviews a local from one of the left-leaning organizations to give us a flavor of what motivates the people here and what is going on today. He packs a lot in each episode and it ends in Federico Fellini’s birthplace, Rimini. The scenery from each of his destinations adds another dimension to this vicarious trip to the bel paese. Can you tell I am in love with the show and wish it had more than six episodes?

In episode 4, Tucci takes us to Italy’s financial capital, Milan, and also ventures off to a favorite of mine, Lake Como. The focus here is on foods like risotto and polenta, rather than pasta and olive oil, because, as Tucci explains, the topography of the land in this northern region of Lombardy favors the cultivation of rice, not wheat. Why rice and not pasta? "Because Italy is split in two," chef Cesare Battisti explains. "The south is very warm and wheat grows there, (but) the north is rainy and has got marshes, so rice grows here." We are always learning something.

Tucci’s personality, his sense of humor, his Italian language skills in speaking with the locals, his personality and passion, and his curiosity in the local politics adds a unique flavor to the series.

We learn to make pizzoccheri, a pasta made from buckwheat and served in the north. And of course, Tucci focuses on the Italian tradition of aperitivo, which is a daily tradition in Italy and many believe it originated in Milan. It is a pre-dinner drink served with appetizers or snacks. The food that accompanies the cocktail can be enough to skip dinner, an attractive and economic alternative that especially appeals to students and young people.

The last two episodes take place in Tuscany, where Tucci once lived, and in Sicily. They have not yet aired as of this writing and I cannot wait to see them. I find myself wanting more of this Italian food and travel series. At least I can watch these episodes again and again and hopefully it will be enough to satisfy my craving to return to Italia, my home away from home. And who knows? Maybe I will run into Stanley Tucci there.