How Italy changed Stanley Tucci

(CNN) — Stanley Tucci wants to put you straight about Italy. A land where the sun shines, the nonnas smile and every plate of spaghetti bolognese comes showered in parmesan cheese? Scratch that.

“I think in America there are a lot of very specific ideas about what is ‘Italian,’ and one of the reasons I wanted to do [my new] show is to dispel some of those myths about what Italy is,” he tells CNN.

“People imagine it’s always sunny and people are playing mandolins and eating pizza and chicken parmigiana — which isn’t even an Italian dish.

“Because my parents were so respectful of their heritage, that cultural identity was really important to me, and still is.”

For his latest project, the actor is playing himself, as he strives to put the record straight about the country he’s descended from on both sides.

Premiering tonight, “Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy” explores the food of six of Italy’s best loved places: Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany and Sicily.

But while it all revolves around the food, the Academy Award nominee was keen to get into the history, culture and politics of Italy — and why all those things are inseparable from what’s on your plate.

Far from being a land of renaissance towns sandwiched between mountains and the Med, Italy is home to “incredible diversity” geographically, he says.

He talks about the “profound effect” its history — Italy is a young country, finally unifying in 1861 — has had on the diet. “Invasions and religion, politics… each region is so distinctly different, not just the topography, but also the food,” he says.

Likewise, Italy has had a profound effect on him. Born in the United States, he’s descended from Italian immigrants on both sides — both, in fact, from Calabria, the knobby toe of Italy’s boot.

While Tucci grew up in New York State, partial to hamburgers, hot dogs and Velveeta cheese, he also was eating “this really amazing diet” of Italian food at home.

And, aged 12, Italy changed his life.

A personal renaissance

Stanley Tucci spend a year in Italy when he was 12 years old.

Stanley Tucci spend a year in Italy when he was 12 years old.

CNN

In 1972, Tucci’s father, Stan, a high school art teacher, took a year-long sabbatical to study figure-drawing and sculpture in Florence — and the family came with him.

Apart from ski trips to Vermont, “I had never gone anywhere,” he says.

“I’d never been on a plane, never been overseas. So it was incredible. It completely opened my mind to the world.”

For a year, he went to an Italian school while his dad studied art and his mother, Joan, brushed up on Tuscan cooking. It was an experience, he says, that “changed everything.”

“First of all, that trip helped inform my aesthetic,” he says. “Two, it made me appreciate a European lifestyle and sensibility.

“By the time I graduated college, I was aching to go back again, and I felt like I was meant to be there more than I was supposed to be in America. And so, whenever I could, I would go back to Italy.”

…And now time for yours

Tucci says Americans typically misunderstand Italian food until they visit the country.

Tucci says Americans typically misunderstand Italian food until they visit the country.

CNN

Now that Italy has given him so much, he’s hoping to change how Americans view Italy.

“They don’t get the extreme diversity of it — that if you’re in Sicily you’re less than 100 miles from the coast of Africa, and if you’re in northern Italy in Alto Adige, people are speaking Swiss, Italian, German — a combination of Italian-German and Swiss-German,” he says.

“And that there’s not a tomato in sight when you go to Lombardy.

“I’d like people to see that incredible diversity, and how it came about — from geography, from invasions, from the influences of the Arab world, from the Spanish, the Normans, the Austrians. It’s an incredible culinary melting pot.”

Italy’s food is also notoriously regional, as the series explores — but so are the people, says Tucci.

“If you ask people in Italy, so you’re Italian? They’ll say, ‘No, I’m Florentine.’ Or, ‘No, I’m Piedmontese.’ ‘I’m Sicilian.’ The Sicilians really don’t consider themselves Italian.

In Minori, a town along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Stanley Tucci samples lemons he calls the best in the world. Watch “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

“And the more you get into the food, the more you realize how different it is, not just from region to region or city to city, but from house to house, or restaurant to restaurant.

“People consider parmesan the king of cheeses, but people in Tuscany will say, ‘No, no, it’s a terrible cheese. The one you want is Tuscan pecorino.’ I remember having a conversation with a guy in a deli in Pienza [known for its pecorino cheese] who said, ‘We don’t even carry parmesan.’ It’s incredible.”

The difference with where he grew up is huge.

“Someone said to me, ‘The thing about Italy is, you can travel 10 miles and get a completely different menu; in America, you drive 300 miles, you’re going to get exactly the same thing.”

Coming together under Covid

Tucci and wife Felicity dig in to a plate of pasta on the Amalfi Coast.

Tucci and wife Felicity dig in to a plate of pasta on the Amalfi Coast.

CNN

The Covid-19 pandemic, he reckons, is one of the few times Italians have felt Italian, rather than regional.

“They really came together in a way that certainly America didn’t, or England for that matter,” he says.

“You felt that there was a real strong sense of togetherness, which there hadn’t been for a long time.”

The show filmed both before the pandemic and after the first wave, in summer 2020. He says he found the Italians “tired, beleaguered by the whole thing, but incredible, open and generous.”

Once the borders reopen, they’ll need tourism “desperately.” But he suggests, tempting as it is to go to the usual big city suspects, “it’ll help a huge amount if you spend [your money] in smaller towns and smaller establishments.”

And while Americans might not be expecting the food that awaits them — in the US, he says, as he explored in his film, “Big Night”, “They expect meatballs to come with the spaghetti, they like huge amounts of cheese, lots of sauce” — he thinks they’re pleasantly surprised.

“Almost every single person I talk to who’s American, they say, ‘Oh my god, the food in Italy is incredible.’ Which means they get it. They understand.”

The ultimate Italy

Stanley Tucci visits one of Italy’s greatest cheese makers to see him work his magic with mozzarella. Watch “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Tucci has been getting “it” for almost 50 years now, but although he’s traveled extensively around the country, one place he hasn’t returned to is the land of his ancestors — he was last in Calabria when he was a child.

Instead, he’s most taken by the central regions — Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche — as well as Rome and Piedmont. He also has a soft spot for Lombardy — “Oh my god,” he yelps of the risotto he tried in episode 4 of the series — and he says that, of Italy’s 20 regions, Lombardy would be the one he’d most happily live in.

“I like the climate, I think Lake Como is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I like the food of that area a lot, and I like being able to experience winter, which you don’t really experience in London [where Tucci lives].”

So, would he ever take the plunge and move?

“No,” he says without hesitation. “Too many Italians.”

As only someone from Calabria would dare say.