In April 2020 Stanley Tucci got us all hot and bothered when he posted an Instagram Live video of himself concocting ‘the perfect negroni’ for his wife, Felicity Blunt – literary agent and sister of actress Emily. Although the fervid response, and the inevitable sponsorship offers that followed (he’s now a Tanqueray brand partner), reveal as much about our lives in lockdown as about the video itself, they also speak to another truth: the irresistible charm of Stanley Tucci.
What makes the fellow so damned likeable? The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games roles that made him a household name? The 2021 TV travelogue series, Searching for Italy, that explored his ancestral nation’s regional cuisine? The roguish wit and exquisite metrosexuality (see signature glasses and bicep-flaunting, internet-breaking polo shirt)? Suffice to say, regardless of age or gender, we’ve probably all projected onto Tucci in one way or another.
Between his 1996 movie Big Night (about two Italian brothers trying to convert philistine Yanks to authentic Italian cuisine), the 2015 cookbook co-authored with his wife, The Tucci Table, and his recent Instagram demos, Tucci has carved a reputation as quite the epicure. Now he’s published a food memoir that cements it (reading about others’ voracious consumption is always reassuring, and if you don’t have a nightly cocktail, you may finish the book feeling abstemious).
In vivid, conversational prose, Taste traces Tucci’s life in food, from his Italian American upbringing in Westchester, New York State, to his recent three-year battle with oral cancer – acknowledging the bitter irony of developing a disease that jeopardised his passion. In fact, the agonising experience, which entailed being fed by tube into the stomach for six months (he is now in the clear and eating again) sparked the epiphany “that food was not just a huge part of my life; it basically was my life”. Unlike acting, “an activity that frankly is beginning to wear a bit thin”.
The obsession isn’t so surprising. “In Italian families, nothing is discussed, ruminated on or joked about as much as food.” One senses the jokes may have a steely undertone – for woe betide the uninitiated eater who dare commit “culinary crimes” such as cutting cooked spaghetti or serving pasta with meatballs; “Italians can be very dogmatic when it comes to food,” he admits.
Of all the Tucci traditions, the most striking is the Christmas timpano, a cholesterol bomb of baked dough stuffed with pasta, meat, cheese and eggs, which forms the pièce de résistance in Big Night (one can’t envisage a scenario where this dish wouldn’t be the pièce de résistance). Naturally, this bon viveur loves Christmas, and he’s embraced all the British delicacies bar bread sauce – although his editors should have pointed out that sticky toffee pudding is a general winter favourite rather than “the classic English Christmas Day dessert”.
Pedantry aside (I’m allowed mine when he dines out on his), I’m already planning to cook some of the interwoven recipes, which range from staples such as tomato sauce to specialities such as pizzoccheri. There’s food history, including the origins of spag bol, a dish that’s surprisingly elusive in Italy considering the pairing of southern pasta and northern ragù alla Bolognese was intended to represent the country’s unification.
Tucci’s shameless about puns and namedropping, hence the glimpses of Meryl Streep and Marcello Mastroianni, although he’s too discreet to spill any proper beans. Amidst the self-deprecating hair-loss quips, gripes about homogenised high streets and nostalgia for bygone butchers, he’s generous about other people, and we must content ourselves with such showbiz morsels as a comparison of film catering in different countries, and the parallels between theatre and restaurant.
Taste is episodic, loosely linear; it sometimes feels a tad flimsy, like a succession of anecdotes (we went to another restaurant with famous pals and here’s what we ate!). Too self-aware not to know this, when describing the high life, he ironically signposts “bragging”.
Taste confirmed my impressions of Tucci: he really would be a dream dinner party host; he really does know about food, and cares deeply about its connective role in family and community. His zestful celebration of cultural heritage and culinary creativity reminds us to savour la dolce vita.
Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (Fig Tree, £20)
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