If you aren’t already familiar with the raw sensuality of Stanley Tucci making a negroni for his wife, Felicity Blunt (a name that means “uncompromising, intense happiness”) in their home, you have some catching up to do. In the early days of social distancing, Tucci’s sensibly muscular arms and coy twinkle were a balm to so much anxiety and disillusionment. When leaders could do little more than shrug and slather their steak with ketchup, Short King Tucci whispered, “don’t worry,” in our ears with crisp actorly diction as he gave his cocktail shaker a thorough yet sensitive jostle, his form-fitting charcoal polo tucked neatly into black chinos. In the absence of answers and comfort, Tucci was the passionate, adroit Italian culinary zaddy that people didn’t know they needed. It was, quite simply, amore.
Tucci’s appeal as a competent chef long precedes this year. His 1996 film Big Night, which he co-wrote and co-directed, tells the story of two Italian brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who are proving themselves as restaurateurs in North Jersey. In it, the duo is attempting to cook their way out of bankruptcy with one perfect meal, which includes a now-famous timpano, a sinfully delicious pasta drum. The film was a cinematic triumph and a mouthwatering full-length food porn. Tucci also has two cookbooks, The Tucci Cookbook and The Tucci Table. Not only is Tucci a good actor, he’s fully “Method” in the kitchen. When you watch Stanley Tucci make a meal on screen, you can rest assured that he knows what he’s doing, and you can bet it actually tastes good. He’s not just pretending, he’s cooking. This isn’t fiction, it’s a meal. By that same token, it’s not just a meal, it’s a story. He’s not just cooking, he’s spinning a narrative, he’s pulling you in, and he’s giving you a reason to care.
Tucci has been a light in the storm of this year, and he still has more to give. Such is Tucci’s spiritual powers, his shimmering and special brand of love and provision. Just when we need it most, Tucci is on CNN with a new show, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. He’s travelling around Italy looking more closely at the regional specifics of traditional Italian cooking, starting in Naples and the Amalfi Coast, then going to Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and Sicily. It has been a year of remembering that food can be a full-time job, and that even when we don’t have much of a narrative-days blend together, distinguished only by the step count on my pedometer and how many hours of television I watch-food can become the focus, the reason for living, a story to tell someone on the phone. Tucci knows this, and has always known it, which is why he is my Patron Saint of the Quarantine.
To honour Tucci’s smouldering appeal and culinary sorcery, I have been watching Searching for Italy, and I also decided to honour Tucci by trying my hand at his famous timpano recipe. The timpano seemed perfect for this moment. It’s a giant, dough-encrusted symbol of gastronomic abundance and social eating after a year of avoiding gatherings and cooking a lot of spaghetti-for-one. As the air got a little warmer, I became determined to make the Hollywood ziti drum for a small group outside. We may have to observe CDC guidelines, but the CDC said nothing about making a giant timpano that could upstage Isabella Rossellini.
The timpano filling is overwhelming even on the page and could make a carnivore blush: ziti, hard boiled eggs, Genoa salami, sharp prosciutto, meatballs, beef ragu, and Romano cheese. It’s full of twists and turns, maximalist but streamlined. Mind-boggling yet conceptually quite clear. You roll out a thin blanket of dough, put it in a pan, fill that with an Italian explosion, seal it up, and put it in the oven. I think I gave myself carpal tunnel syndrome just cubing the salami.
Another key to making the recipe was building suspense and drama. I invited a small group over to our backyard on a Saturday night and we drank wine for about an hour while the timpano cooked and then cooled in its pan. During this time we talked almost exclusively about the timpano, which seems key to the experience. By the time it was ready to flip the pan and reveal the dish in all its bread drum glory, we were so hungry and anxious about whether it would remain structurally sound that we shouted madly as I pulled the pan away to reveal that it had indeed worked. As we cut the timpano into unthinkable slices of decadence by candlelight, we listened to Andrea Bocelli and I imagined the Gowanus Canal overflowing with ragu. The drama and magic of the timpano worked on us, and the meal was all the more delicious because it had been a story.
Tucci’s appeal, and the lesson of his project as a chef, a food historian, and an actor-who-cooks, comes from his belief that food is inherently narrative. He is an appealing storyteller not just because his shirts fit so well and he has acting training, but also because he trusts the story to enrich the food. On Searching for Italy, he treats every new city and every new dish as an opportunity to learn about the person who makes it, the recipe it comes from, and the way it’s meant to be enjoyed. He delves into histories and personal narratives with sensitivity, curiosity, and playfulness, reminding us all that food is more than just what’s on the plate. That’s been an invaluable lesson to me this past year, especially as someone who has historically viewed food preparation as a means to an end. Tucci taught me, and that is, quite simply, amoré.
To quench your Tucci thirst, I highly recommend watching his journey through Italy on CNN, and I also recommend trying one of his recipes. Tucci is sure to give shape to your nebulous, late-quarantine days, the same way he gives shape to a form fitting shirt. His food memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food, comes out in October.