In a moment when Italy’s appeal is ever more appreciated by those who can’t visit just yet, Stanley Tucci has filled the boot-shaped absence with his Searching for Italy series on CNN. A consummate host, Tucci brings his flair, charisma and humour to the episodes, making the already colourful scenes of Italy all the more impressive with his riveting storytelling and suave personality.
Mouthwatering scenes of delicious dishes and stunning panoramas of the Italian landscape inevitably charm viewers, alongside lesser-known stories and some out-of-the-way eateries you may not have heard about. Episodes so far have discovered Naples, Ischia and the Amalfi Coast, moving on to Rome for the second instalment, then Bologna, Modena, Parma, Forlimpopoli and Rimini, followed by Milan, Sumirago, the Bergamo Alps and Lake Como.
This brings us on to the episode that interests us most: Tucci turns his attention to Tuscany, where Florentine flavours take center stage. Aired on March 14 on CNN, the episode was immediately met with rave reviews with its peek into local life in addition to picture-perfect panoramas made all the more magical by the soft tones of Stanley Tucci, a name that’s undoubtedly familiar from his roles in films such as Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal and co-starring with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. The three-time Emmy Award winner is a natural onscreen, casting his magnetism on those who accompany him.
A few familiar faces appear onscreen as locals step into the spotlight for scenes in some of Florence’s best-known bars and restaurants. The trailer for the series has already received an enormous number of views and stars the Renaissance scholar and official tour guide, Elisabetta Digiugno, who shares her knowledge of that well-known sight in Florence: the wine doors. Leaning outside the wall of Babae (via Santo Spirito 21R), where you can find one of the few functioning wine doors, Digiugno discusses the “little doors of paradise” through which flasks of wine were passed during the time of the plague. One hundred and thirty of these small arched openings can be spotted around the city and cannot be found anywhere else outside of Tuscany. (If you’re looking for more on this, photographer Robbin Gheesling’s works featuring these portals are on display at the Paperback Exchange bookstore, at via dell Oche 4, until April 6.) On being asked about the experience, Elisabetta was keen to share just how much Tucci’s presence is essential to the show’s success. “When I met him, it was in that precise moment that I understood what it means to be a great actor. It’s not only about having talent, it’s the capacity to recognize other people’s inner soul. It’s the generosity and humanity of sharing that talent with others and illuminating everyone else around as stars also.”
Turning back to Tucci, the episode features gorgeous shots of Florence’s main landmarks such as the Duomo and the Baptistery, where we see Tucci discuss his family connections to Florence. A second-generation Italian-American born and raised in New York, Stanley spent a year in Florence when his art teacher father took a year-long sabbatical. The Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio (piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti) also merits its mention, where Tucci meets ground-breaking chef Fabio Picchi before the pair carry on to C.Bio (via della Mattonaia 3A), a grocery store where nothing is left to chance, also owned by Picchi. Here the food entrepreneur and actor discuss typical Florentine dishes, such as bistecca alla Fiorentina, referring to the necessity of having the best cut of meat possible, which Picchi sources at the Sant’Ambrogio market.
The natural progression shifts to wine and it’s here that we see the shots featured in the trailer with Elisabetta Digiugno, enjoying a sip of local wine at Babae, or as Tucci terms it, “a good old-fashioned bar crawl” that moves on to Osteria Belle Donne (via delle Belle Donne 16/R) for a taste of vin santo and the Tuscan classic, cantucci (almond biscuits). It’s time for Mercato Centrale (via dell’Ariento), where food critic and culinary historian Leonardo Romanelli takes Tucci through Tuscany’s cucina povera (peasant cooking), and the joy to be found in simple dishes.
A detour is made to Ponte Buriano in Arezzo for the Festa della Battitura, the wheat threshing festival that traditionally takes place in the last week of August and which celebrates bread-heavy countryside cuisine. The hearty dishes on offer include crostini d’ocio, crusty bread topped with sauce made from gander.
Returning once more to Florence, Tucci, Romanelli and Daniela Murphy dine at Marco Masselli’s Osteria Cinghiale Bianco (borgo San Jacopo 43), where the famous Tuscan dishes of ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and panzanella are devoured, addressing the commonly asked question about Tuscany’s lack of salt (historically too expensive!). The New Generation Festival at Palazzo Corsini even sees a feature (some scenes were filmed over summer 2019) as the Renaissance-inspired performing arts festival is presented in all its colour and pizzazz—a foam take on panzanella sees Tucci set off in search of its creator. He finds him at Nugolo (via della Mattonaia 27). The innovative dishes by young chefs Antonio Badalamenti (founder of the Typiqo grocery home delivery service, www.typiqo.it) and Simone Caponnetto inspire and delight.
Following his Florentine fine dining, Tucci’s last Tuscan destination is Livorno, where shots of the Terrazza Mascagni’s iconic checkerboard pattern creates a visual feast, before chowing down on chickpea flour pancakes called cecina and heading to the hills for some cacciucco (Livornese seafood stew). Episode Six is set to be Sicily where undoubtedly more gourmet delights await viewers. While travelling to all these places is still a little way off, we can certainly try to whip up these dishes at home and keep cooking culinary delights in the meantime.
To follow along Tucci’s journey, keep an eye on on the CNN website as he continues his tour through Italian excellence.
This article was published in Issue 277 of The Florentine.