You may have seen him in the kitchen on screen, but Stanley Tucci’s passion for slow cooking really shines through when he steps out of the spotlight. He joins Livia Firth to discuss their shared love of Italian cuisine and the ingredients everyone needs in their cupboards…
For many fashion lovers, Stanley Tucci is best pictured as fashion fairy godfather Nigel in The Devil Wears Prada, or the blue-haired eccentric television presenter Caesar in The Hunger Games. But, as the author of two cookbooks and an upcoming CNN television series exploring regional cuisine in Italy, Tucci has been paving the way for himself as an Italian chef with a focus on local, seasonal and authentic food. Before the global pandemic hit and lockdown began, Eco-Age’s Livia Firth headed to our local high street in London with the actor and chef – filling the afternoon with fresh vegetables, bulk bought pasta and pistachios, as well as food stories of olive oil and favourite family dishes.
Tucci’s long standing love affair with Italian cuisine comes from his Italian parents and spending a portion of his childhood living in Florence in the 1970s. His appreciation for the country’s cooking has gone on to inspire more than just the contents of Tucci’s kitchen cupboards, having written, directed and acted in the iconic 1996 film Big Night, in which he depicts the trials and tribulations of running an authentic Italian restaurant in 1950s New York. He has great respect for the certain “strictness” that the Italian palette calls for, the particular rules that can’t be flouted in favour of personal taste. Livia tells him that one of her favourite moments in Big Night is the outrage caused to a chef when a diner requests their seafood risotto be topped with parmesan – unthinkable! “Yes,” he laughs, “I admire that.”
This emphasis on authentic cuisine is one which Tucci achieves through prioritising good quality ingredients, ensuring sustainably sourced, local and organic where possible. “Today we go to supermarkets and we just get what we get. But in countries like Italy or France, they buy for the day. This requires not only time, but also having local shops and farmers markets.” It’s a very Italian way to buy ingredients, Livia comments. His go-to comfort dish is pasta marinara – the key being its simplicity. Perhaps it’s Tucci’s emphasis on knowing where each ingredient comes from that escalates the dish to a menu staple.
When questioned on his cupboard essentials, Tucci stays true to his roots: “You have to have pasta, you have to have rice and you have to have olive oil. Good veg is also really a key thing.” In fact, so great is Tucci’s passion for using exactly the right ingredient that he admits to storing away cases and cases of his favourite olive oil before the UK began its transition out of the EU in January 2020. “Now my house is filled with it – every cabinet you open there are things of olive oil!” Thankfully Livia offers to top up his stores should they run low anytime soon.
Food is a common thread through Tucci’s films – including playing alongside Meryl Streep as Julia Childs’ husband in Julie & Julia. He credits the French chef as being an inspiration for his own cooking, though the complexity of her recipes doesn’t go unmentioned. Another idol is Lidia Bastianich, a fellow American-Italian chef, whose hearty dishes capture Italian authenticity at its best. His food stories often centre around that of big family dinners and traditions, detailing with Livia about time spent together in Italy amongst friends, with food at the centre of the occasion: “It really is the only thing Italians talk about!” In addition to dinners with loved ones, Tucci’s dream guests include that of Michelin star chef, Angela Hartnett, whose love affair with Italian food echoes that of his own.
One dish in particular illustrates Tucci’s fondness for the way a slow, considered approach to cooking has painted his own familial memories. “My parents make this thing every Christmas, Timpano – well it’s Timballo, but Timpano is what my family calls it.” His recipe features in his first cookbook, and the dish plays a starring role in Big Night too. For years, Tucci’s family prepared the dish on Christmas eve to cook on Christmas Day. It’s preparation is a labour of love and takes about an hour and half to cook, “depending on the size of it, but you never quite know,” Stanley explains. “The amount of work that it takes to make this thing, the amount of time and effort […] It throws off timing for the whole day.”
“I remember Kate, my late wife, saying ‘Do we have to have that f***ing Timpano every Christmas?’ And I said ‘Well I can’t tell my father that we can’t have it,’ so we continued for years,” Tucci recalls. Kate passed away in 2009 but this dish continues to evoke and create memories. Tucci married Felicity Blunt in 2012, and he says: “About five years ago, Felicity says to me: ‘Do we have to have that f***ing Timpano every Christmas?’”
Felicity proposed a solution – “and for some reason the British people are very good at changing people’s mind. You know, they say it with a British accent and everyone goes, ‘ah yeah, that makes sense,” says Tucci. She suggested making the dish the centrepiece of their Christmas Eve meal, and even Tucci’s father agreed to the change in tradition. “So now we have Timpano on Christmas eve, and it doesn’t screw up the timing.” “So it took an English woman to change an Italian cook?” asks Livia. “Yes, as it always does,” Tucci smiles.
“The one thing that all Italians talk about is food, it’s that palette that connects them more than anything else,” Tucci reflects. This is the focus for the four-part series he’s been working on, which will air on CNN in October this year. ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy’ explores the regional differences in tastes and tradition while travelling the length of the country from Piemonte to Lampedusa. It promises to showcase his “clumsy” Italian too – something he promises improves after a few glasses of Italian wine…
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