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“Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy” opens with the actor striding down a bustling Naples street in a perfectly tailored summer suit, dodging Italians on Vespas and scanning the sidewalks for his next delicious meal. It’s exactly the picturesque scenario you might expect and want from a travel series hosted by Tucci, an extraordinarily charming presence who knows and loves Italian food, judging by his demonstrated knowledge on the show and excellent 2012 cookbook, a compendium of beloved Italian classics simply titled “The Tucci Cookbook.” And yet, the first words Tucci speaks on his new CNN travel show are words of reassurance to explain the fact that this episode was filmed during the summer of 2020, mere months after COVID-19 devastated Italy beyond measure.
“It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago the first wave of COVID-19 had emptied the streets of Naples, and Italy was in lockdown,” Tucci’s opening voiceover muses. “Thankfully, I’ve arrived during a brief moment of normality: restaurants are open and masks are not required outside. We’ll be sticking to the local rules.” And with that, Tucci moves right along to sing the city’s praises with only a few masked encounters and occasional elbow bumps to remind the audience of the fraught time period in which he’s visiting.
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Launching “Searching For Italy” with this episode is an extremely confusing choice, and not just because we now know that this apparent “moment of normality” didn’t last. Four of the show’s six episodes were filmed in the fall of 2019, months before the pandemic hit. Only two episodes — this premiere in Naples and a future chapter in Bologna — were filmed in 2020. Not every series has to air in the order it was filmed to make sense, but in this exceptional case, treating an enormous event such as a pandemic like an inconvenient asterisk does a disservice to both the show and the country it covers. It also feels like a missed opportunity from a narrative perspective. “Searching For Italy” spends much of its time detailing the country’s rich restaurant culture and how important gathering to eat is for Italian families overall. If Tucci and company were determined to go back to Italy in 2020, months after they wrapped shooting their initial episodes, why not seize the moment to speak more specifically to how the pandemic disrupted those traditions and examine how the country had to adjust? That might have meant finding a different Italy than the show was originally searching for, but it at least could have justified the visit.
This bizarre initial decision is made even more frustrating by the fact that the series is otherwise very smart and endearing. The second episode to air, for example, will see Tucci exploring Rome, a city too often dismissed as mere tourist bait. But Tucci makes an effort to seek out its less obvious spots and meals, including four signature Roman pasta dishes and a fascinating detour into the inventive ways Italian chefs have transformed offal, or all the organs and bits of gristly meat that poorer Italians learned to work into delicacies. In one particularly good segment, Tucci visits a Jewish chef who grew up in a ghettoized section of Rome and only narrowly escaped the Nazis as a child. Now, she runs a restaurant specializing in artichoke hearts, an ingredient long left to the city’s poorer Jewish community. When she gives Tucci her own version of a fried artichoke, its leaves miraculously splayed in the shape of a shining sun, his face lights up as he declares it the best artichoke heart he’s ever had.
In a later episode, Tucci returns to Tuscany, the city his family once called home and which quickly changed the trajectory of his own life. Tucci’s comfort in Italy and palpable love for its culture is genuinely infectious — not just for those he meets and charms along the way, but for this viewer, too. And in the all important test of how voraciously a travel show host actually eats the food on offer, Tucci passes with flying colors, happily engulfing every bite with vigor.
Without being able to travel to Italy anytime soon, it’s a sincere pleasure to spend some time there vicariously through a host as game and genial as Tucci. Should he ever decide to expand his tour of the country and actually unravel its thorny new reality instead of glossing over it, it would probably make for even more fascinating, revealing television. But in the meantime, he invites us to join him for some good conversation over thick twirls of pasta, bright panzanellas, lavish cuts of meat and glimmering glasses of wine — an offer that’s ultimately just too good to refuse.
“Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy” premieres Sunday, Feb. 14 at 9 pm on CNN.
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