My Italian grandmother, who grew up in the Emilia-Romagna region, used to cut pasta with a razor blade every weekend. I usually paid a call on Sunday dinner and was always hungry. Once, as a teen, I grew impatient and said, “When is this going to be ready?” She looked at me with her big, green eyes and said, “Don’t try to rush me. Making food, and making love: they’re not on the clock, these two things.” I scoffed, and she said, “You’ll understand one day, when you have your own woman, and your own kitchen.”
I remember telling this story to Stanley Tucci at a conference on Italian Americans in the arts about 30 years ago. He laughed and shook his head, and I took to him at once: he’s a sharply witty, intelligent, sophisticated man. Energy seethes from every pore. It doesn’t surprise me that he went on to become a national treasure—a cultural figure who stands for excellence in acting and directing, Italian cooking, and all things Italian American, delighting millions with Searching for Italy, his recent travel and food show on CNN. (It’s been renewed for a second season.)
But Tucci is more than the host of a food-and-travel show, however entertaining. He’s also a remarkable writer, on the screen (he co-wrote Big Night, his classic film of 1996, and Final Portrait, a riveting 2017 biopic about the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti) as well as on the page, as with Taste: My Life Through Food an engaging memoir that tracks his life—from his early days in Westchester, where he grew up in a family with a huge focus on food, through his early acting career, his first marriage (to Kate Spath, who died of cancer in 2009), his journey through some 70 films, a second marriage to Felicity Blunt (in 2012), his move to London, and a recent bout with tongue cancer (from which he has nicely recovered).
I’ve watched him with admiration in so many films, including The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, The Lovely Bones, Margin Cal,l and Spotlight—just to name the obvious. And I’ll never forget seeing him on Broadway with Edie Falco in a 2002 revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally, which famously opened with a shocking nude scene. Tucci took complete possession of this role, playing a working-class cook in a greasy spoon to perfection. His repartee with Falco was among the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in the theater. Tucci is an actor’s actor, an artist on stage and before the camera who plays a part with his whole body, and whose features seem easily to become a ripple of nuance. No gesture, however off-hand, goes to waste.
It’s a point that Tucci makes forcibly in Taste, where he recalls an acting teacher who noted that audiences like to watch people eating and drinking. And he knows it’s hard to appear authentic before the camera. “This is a bugbear of mine,” he says. “Whether it is an actor, a chef, or a cook, I think you can always tell when someone isn’t really tasting something.” One is used to cooking shows where the chef rolls his or her eyes in fraudulent ecstasy. “When someone really tastes something, whatever process happens in their mouth triggers a reaction in their eyes as well as the rest of their body.”
This is a strangely wonderful book, but it’s not a cookbook. Those who want the full spread of Tucci recipes should defer to The Tucci Cookbook (2012) or The Tucci Table (2014), both of which place the art of cooking (and eating!) within a hospitable framework of family and friends. Here we get just a smattering of favorite recipes, from the more exotic pizzoccherie of Lombardy to your essential ragù or frittata or, most basic of all, a simple pasta con aglio e olio. There’s a wonderful take on carbonara here, too, with the dire warning that there is “no onion or garlic and certainly never, ever any cream or butter” in a true carbonara. The recipes in Taste are selected, for the most part, because they have played a role in Tucci’s own gustatory development.
And taste—that crucial human sense—here becomes a doorway to the world.
Tucci dips behind the recipes in Taste, stripping away the many masks of the actor and television personality, the husband and father, allowing us into the life of the man himself: the sensitive and intelligent child who grew up in the context of a loving family with roots in Calabria. We follow him through his precarious early years in New York as he found his way as an actor and writer, watching as he dines out at any number of great (and sadly shuttered) restaurants and delis. We hear about his struggles to get Big Night—his tour de force of writing, directing, and acting—financed: not an easy task for a film that, as he says, was almost a “foreign film,” that is, one that was “primarily character driven, eschewed stereotypes, and ended somewhat ambiguously.” Through the book are snippets of life on sets in various countries, with cameos by famous friends in the business, including Meryl Streep and Tony Shalhoub. Even the great Marcello Mastroianni puts in an amusing appearance for dinner one night!
But the names in bold face don’t matter, as there’s an essential modesty in this memoir that radiates through the text. Taste is not only gustatory taste here. There’s the distinct flavor of character as well, as Tucci combines his love of food with a marvelous love of life itself. “Food not only feeds me,” he writes, “it enriches me. All of me. Mind, body, and soul. It is nothing more than everything.”
My grandmother would have nodded in agreement.