I have to confess to being more than a little late to the party. The first series of Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy to be shown in UK earlier this year has achieved almost cult status amongst its fans. Is there anyone who hasn’t watched and loved it? And now, to this blogger’s great delight, Series 2 has at last hit our London screens making Sunday evening TV something to look forward to. My son and I have watched Series 1 so many times on iPlayer that if we were still living in the days of recording programmes on VHF videos, we’d have worn out the tape by now watching all episodes over and over again.
I’m a food and travel TV addict. Well, food and travel are great loves of mine, hence writing this blog. I don’t like all food and travel programmes though; I do discriminate and there are certainly some people I can’t stand watching (no names here) while others I love, or at least like a lot. I liked the days when Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon made programmes together, going round Italy celebrating both its food and art, like Rome Unpacked; I like Rick Stein’s many series, particularly his Long Weekends, for sharing not only his passion for all things food, presenting great reliable and authentic recipes but also bringing poetry, literature and history into the programmes (Rick studied English at Oxford hence has a genuine love for these things as well as food); and I still like watching Jamie Oliver, be it over 20 years since that seminal Naked Chef series, which really changed the face of TV food programmes – and, it made it more than okay for guys to cook!
To an extent, Stanley Tucci follows in these groundbreaking footsteps, but he also brings something new and essentially his own to the field of food and travel TV. Perhaps it’s the actor in him – indeed he’s a famous actor – that allows him to be so relaxed and engaging in front of the camera, and his voice narrating the programme has an intimacy that makes it seem so much a personal experience shared. Then there’s his family connection to Italy: an Italian heritage (hence the name) but born in the US in 1960 and brought up near New York, spending a year living near Florence with his family in the 1970s. He has a great wry sense of humour as well, so you get not only the food and history but a good laugh at times. And, as the title suggests, he does seem to be genuinely searching – to discover more about Italy’s people, their food, their lives. And he celebrates it all; each programme is a kind of celebration for all that is wonderful about Italy, though he’s not afraid to dig into the dark side, like the immigration problem in Sicily. And all that eating, Oh my god, he says frequently (perhaps he needs to expand his exclamation repertoire) as he samples some gorgeous dish prepared especially for him and we can only wish we could taste it too. For a while we feel like we’re in his ‘searching’ shoes, his ‘experiencing’ shoes. He’s not teaching – he’s learning, finding out, just like us on holiday and wanting to get to know a place and its food and people more. So, for the 40 minutes of one episode, he’s one of us. Perhaps that’s a large part of the appeal.
I was delighted to see that in the first episode of the new series here in UK, Tucci was going to Venice. It’s the Italian city I’ve visited far more times than any other (though I’ve possibly spent more actual time in Rome as I once stayed there for five weeks and have been back a few times since). In many episodes of the first series I found delight in recognising Tucci was in places I’d also been to – like my favourite cafe in Florence, Gilli, where he loved their budino di riso as well. Last night in Venice, he headed straight to one of the best bars in the Rialto to sample their cichetti, All’Arco, where I’ve eaten too – though not, it has to be said, cichetti and a glass of wine for breakfast. All’Arco has become well known but in general, Tucci is searching out places where Venetians themselves will go and avoids the obvious tourist areas. Even though I’ve been to Venice so many times, I learnt a lot, though it didn’t feel like ‘learning’, it felt like a friend sharing what they’d discovered.
Tucci looks back to the beginning of Venice, making a mild joke about urban planners back in the 5th century coming up with a plan to build a city in the sea on stilts. Soon he embraces all the rich culture that came in the following millennium when Venice became the world’s leading trading empire bringing silk, money, spices, ideas and money to the city and beyond. This experience and living on the sea, living as Tucci says, ‘between earth and water’ has shaped its character. And this is part of what makes Venetians different to other Italians.
Tucci explores the different cultures that have influenced the city; eats with a gondolier and hears they eat cichetti throughout the day to keep themselves going; discovers the historic importance of ducks and goes duck hunting in the early hours before eating pasta with a duck ragu; visits a vineyard where the vines have adapted to the salty water that covers them when the Aqua Alta comes; and visits a restaurant run by an Afghan refugee who has refugees from many countries working in his kitchen to provide wonderful, eclectic dishes, and he tells Tucci he’s been welcomed as the Venetians are very open-minded.
Yes, Tucci is smooth, the actor in him gliding apparently effortlessly through all these experiences, but he’s entertaining, he asks the questions we’d like to ask if we were there, and he finds the best and less obvious of what a city has to offer. I’m looking forward to journeying with him through this new series – and the first episode, although I’ve seen so much of Venice already, made me want to return for there’s still so much to see.