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The Dartmouth
May 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy’ provides a view of Italy’s culinary diversity

Actor Stanley Tucci continues his journey across Italy with season two of his show.

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In the second season of the CNN original documentary series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” actor, writer and producer Stanley Tucci continues his travels across Italy to learn about the nation’s cuisine and culture. Over the course of four episodes, the four-time Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee brings his audience across different regions of Italy  — Venice, Piedmont and Umbria — with the final episode taking place in London. Tucci focuses not only on each region’s signature dishes, but the rich history and legacy of these dishes. 

Fans of last year’s six-part first season — in which Tucci seeks to “discover how the food in each of this country’s 20 regions is as unique as the people and their past” — will be pleased with the second season, as it continues in the same vein. Traveling to different areas in each region, Tucci explores the interconnected nature of the cuisine, history and people. “Searching for Italy” is more than a typical travel and cooking show as it communicates a deeper message about appreciating history and valuing diversity.

Tucci’s likable personality, unpretentious manner and good humor continue to shine through in this continuation of the series as he meets with restaurateurs, Michelin-starred chefs, vintners, local growers and food producers. There is something to pique nearly everyone’s interest; if you're interested in learning more about Italian cuisine or about the nation’s history, economy, politics or culture, this is the show for you.

The power of this show is well-represented by the first episode; it introduces Tucci’s primary focus on the incredible diversity present within Italy. Kicking off the season in Venice, Tucci debunks its reputation for bad food. The day starts with a Venetian breakfast at a wine bar, followed by a traditional lunch with a local gondolier and a walk through the Piazza San Marco. Set in a place where no food is grown and everything must be caught or outsourced, this episode successfully traces the origins of the ingredients that cooks use. 

In one of the oldest parts of the city, an Afghani restaurateur has opened the restaurant, Orient Experience. The staff — refugees from Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria and Pakistan — prepare recipes from their home countries. Through this restaurant, the show introduces its viewers to new culinary experiences and the diversity of Venice dining. In Friuli, near the Slovenia and Austria border, a meal of goulash fuses Austrian, Hungarian and Italian tastes, honoring its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This episode surprised and delighted me, challenging preconceived notions of a region overrun with tourists. 

The northern region of Piedmont highlights the Slow Food movement, the eclectic truffle industry, winemaking entrepreneurs and Alpine food. We quickly learn that traditional cuisine is often served with a modern twist. In Vercelli, brothers Christian and Manuel Costardi put an inventive spin on the traditional risotto, transforming it into something creative and unique. When Tucci meets with Carlo Petrini at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the audience gets a firsthand account of the Slow Food movement’s history and mission. 

I especially appreciate Tucci’s effort in both seasons to highlight young female entrepreneurs who are making waves in traditionally male-dominated professions. Tucci meets 30-year-old winemaker Giulia Negri, one of Piedmont’s youngest vintners and the first person in her family to make Barolo — one of Italy’s finest wines — from the vines on their property. This mirrors Tucci’s Season One meeting in Sicily with a young winemaker, Arianna Occhipinti, who started her own winery and label. 

Tucci’s journey to Umbria illuminates the traditional, rustic, homegrown lifestyle that many imagine the Italian countryside to be. Tucci describes Umbria as a place where families live close to the land and provides ample evidence: wood-fired oven cooking with cooking show host Giorgio ‘Big George’ Barchiesi, wild boar hunting with the first all-female hunting squadron in Italy, visiting a family-run black truffle plantation, and seeing the centuries-old pigeon caves in Orvieto. Sustainable food practices are the focal point at Citta Della Pieve. This family-owned farm cultivates vegetables resistant to climate change and embodies Umbria’s evolving and independent culture. 

Season Two concludes in London, an unexpected — but successful — addition. According to Tucci, London could be Italy’s 21st region, demonstrated by its large Italian population and thousands of Italian restaurants and delicatessens. A resident of London, he shares his favorite Italian spots and meets Gennaro Contaldo, credited with transforming the city’s culinary landscape. 

This episode harkens back to something that season one did particularly well: demonstrating the contributions of immigrants to a place’s cuisine. In the first season, Tucci focused on the benefits of diversity to Italian cuisine. In Season Two, Tucci looks at the import of Italian cuisine to London and the contributions of Italian immigrants.

The food, according to Tucci, is “how Italian immigrants have defined who they are and where they come from.” He spends time in the kitchen of a renowned chef whose grandparents immigrated to Wales from Emilia-Romagna, dines at a restaurant where Italian mamas cook dishes from different Italian regions and visits multiple immigrant-owned businesses. 

Season two of “Searching for Italy” is just as successful as the first in simultaneously diving into Italian cuisine and catering to a broad audience. Tucci’s exploration of Italian culture touches on themes of tradition, innovation and the forces shaping modern Italian cuisine. The show educates audiences on the nation’s history, geography and politics and its people’s daily lives. Tucci uses a cooking and travel show to impart deeper lessons about the vast network of people that contribute to the cuisine that shapes Italy.

Rating:  ★★★★★