Review: ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy’ is an informative, entertaining watch

Tucci drives this documentary series, revealing the social and political undercurrents of the nation’s cuisine

by Madeline Sawyer | 9/30/21 2:00am

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by Sophie Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

The CNN original series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” follows actor, writer and producer Stanley Tucci across Italy as he explores the nation’s cuisine and culture. The six-part documentary series combines some of the very best things in life: travel, cooking and all things Italian. Tucci — a four-time Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee known for his roles in “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Big Night and “Spotlight,” among others — travels to a different region of Italy for each episode. Both charismatic and down-to-earth, Tucci introduces each episode by telling the audience that his goal is to explore his Italian heritage and “discover how the food in each of this country’s 20 regions is as unique as the people and their past.”

Tucci certainly accomplishes this. In the series, which aired in early 2021 and was released for streaming on HBO Max in late summer, Tucci not only savors delicious food but devotes much time to talking about the forces that shaped each region’s cuisine. As viewers learn about the signature dishes of Campania, Lazio, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Tuscany and Sicily, Tucci teaches the audience about the nation’s rich history — to which food is inextricably linked. Tucci uses a cooking and travel show to impart deeper lessons, prompting the audience to consider the historical, economic and political forces that shape modern Italian life.

In each place he travels, Tucci talks to people from all walks of life. In addition to the expected crowd of acclaimed restaurateurs, Michelin-starred chefs and food writers, Tucci converses with locals, small business owners and food producers. One of the most successful parts of the show is when he speaks to Italians who operate businesses that have been in their families for decades — and sometimes even centuries. Eclectic characters such as Daniele di Michele, a chef and D.J. who cooks while spinning records, pop up throughout the series. Tucci even dines with a Sicilian princess, a member of the last remaining line of Sicilian royal families. He uses her rare status as evidence of the extent to which the nation has changed, despite its strong ties to tradition. 

Starting his journey in Naples, Tucci learns about the origins of pizza and visits a cheesemaker turning buffalo milk into mozzarella before he heads to the picturesque Amalfi Coast. Here, locals add Amalfi lemons to everything from espresso to lemon cream-filled desserts and, of course, use them to make the infamous limoncello.

Tucci effortlessly weaves history into each episode, and does so in an engaging way. In Campania, Tucci discusses the nation’s economic, political and social woes — themes present throughout the series. In pasta-obsessed Rome, Tucci comments that, “we may think of a bowl of pasta as the ultimate comfort food, but there’s a distinctly uncomfortable history of Italians fighting oppression through pasta.” We learn how pasta originated as the food of the working class and became a symbol of resistance against Mussolini’s fascist regime of the 1930s. Similar examples of the historical and political significance of food abound throughout the show. 

Dartmouth students might particularly appreciate the connection to education in the episodes on Bologna — an ancient university town that has evolved into a modern liberal city— and the Tuscan capital of Florence — with its Renaissance history of innovations in art, science and architecture. Tucci seems to especially revel in the food and art of Florence, where his family lived for a year during his childhood. He credits this experience as the start of a lifelong obsession with Italy, igniting a passion for the nation’s cuisine and culture that keep him coming back time and again. The sun-kissed hills of Tuscany provide a gorgeous backdrop as Tucci travels south to the small village of Ponte Buriano for the annual wheat threshing festival. Here, the simpler food of rural Tuscany is joyously celebrated, taking the audience away from the city and providing viewers with a sense of Italy’s economic diversity. 

The contrasts between northern and southern Italy are nowhere more apparent than when the show takes us to Milan, the fashion and industrial powerhouse of Italy. Food and money are of the utmost importance in this sophisticated city full of trendy bars and high-end shopping. Dartmouth students can relate to the Milanese work ethic, which has contributed to the tradition of a citywide happy hour and the determination of the city’s residents to live by the words: “work hard, play hard.”

Though serious topics are presented — and the series is certainly educational — “Searching for Italy” frequently weaves in humor, never staying solemn for too long. One such moment comes in the third episode, as Tucci learns about Emilia-Romagna’s protected food products and how it earned its nickname “Food Valley.” Touring a factory where hundreds of Parma hams hang to age, Tucci remarks, “I didn’t know there were this many pigs in the world. Well, there aren’t anymore.” He continues, “This is a shrine to piggies past. Their sacrifice was worth it.” Jokes about deep-seated food rivalries also provide comedy and intrigue. Once again, Tucci explores the distinct agricultural practices, which are tailored to the unique geography and climate of the region. 

In the final episode, Tucci visits Sicily, traveling to the town of Vittoria. Here, he visits with 38-year-old winemaker Arianna Occhipinti, who is forging ahead in a traditionally male-dominated profession. Even further south is the small island of Lampedusa, where local fishermen attempt to help immigrants arriving on boats from impoverished and war-torn places. The entire island was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Tucci comments, “The integration of immigrants into a society makes that society so much better, and stronger and richer and more interesting. To turn people away, it’s not natural.” While learning about southern Italian cuisine, Tucci seamlessly weighs in on one controversial issue confronting the nation.

“Searching for Italy” features plenty of traditional Italian dishes and family cooking secrets. However, while there is no denying the show is centered around Italian cuisine, this series has something for everyone. I would extend Tucci’s statement, “The palate is the organ that connects Italy,” to argue that it connects many more of us. In addition to food lovers and cooks extraordinaire, anyone curious about Italian history, geography, politics and even fashion can find something to pique their interest. Expanding his search within the country would make this all the more true. After all, Tucci commits to exploring the cuisine of Italy’s 20 regions. 

Set against the backdrop of truly breathtaking shots of the Italian countryside and cities, it is difficult not to start dreaming about la dolce vita. If you weren’t already obsessed with Italy and planning your next trip there, you will be after watching “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.”

Rating: ★​​★​​★​​★​​★​​

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