Arms talking, heads thrown back in laughter, tables creaking with food; pasta, cheese, meats, the best olive oil… filling piazzas, rushing water against stone, grand statues, cobbled roads, crumbling corners, an active volcano, and a kind of chaos that moves you… This is Italy. A land where togetherness is a requisite for admittance, almost. Over the past eighteen months or thereabouts as the world stayed confined indoors our respite was brought on by shows like these, taking us away from reality even if for a moment and where better to play out our long-awaited fantasies than Italy. The most fantastical of places. Italy, a country that thrives on the strength of its past, where technology almost seems out of place, yet it has been our only source of adventure in recent times. When it comes to characters, Italy is a mash up of different facets of life which could explain our affinity for her. She is like a child who will never live up to its expectations, destined to live forever in the shadow of her elders, an obstinate old so and so; slow, crumbling, worn, patina that adds to the landscape of her life, a grand old dame with a life well lived and stories to tell from a wild and promiscuous youth; a past that outshines the present. A spoilt child, cuddled by the many hands that have moulded her. Elegant and old, worldly and beautiful, hard and soft, theatrical and quiet. Innocence has no place here yet her vulnerability is ever present. We remain enthralled by her. Isn’t that something?
Stanley Tucci takes us on an orgasmic journey mostly through food, and bits of history. Italy a land of twenty regions, none the same as the next, as different as night and day, a land of the best tomatoes, pastas, meats, cheeses… every region has something to offer, in food, in beauty, in history and Tucci brings the essence of it to life. And my goodness is he sexy doing it. It is a true joy to witness.
There is food, lots of eating, and talking us through the origins of the food itself. The simplicity and the amore that brings the ingredients to life. It’s almost as if the last ingredient in the preparation of any meal in Italy, is love, followed by suckling sounds of satisfaction as the fat, oil, salts, cheese combine into the most incredible tastes as they melt in your mouth. There are no complications here, ingredients are simple, the basics, that come together to create something inspiring and uplifting.
It encapsulates everything that is Italy; a gentle and full kind of beauty. Everything from the way Tucci interacts with Italian Nonna to that “mmmm…” “oh my God!’ at first taste, to the moment of blissful suspension, is intoxicatingly orgasmic and extraordinary. A different kind of high.
Tucci himself is reason enough to watch; he walks the roads with a familiarity, meets and greet friends old and new, without missing a beat of time gone by, visits with his parents in Florence reminiscing about their time spent there, taking me back to my favourite thing about it; il duomo. To watch this is to witness a continuous love story in every episode, swirl of pasta around a fork, and sip of wine. Gah!! He is swoon-worthingly charming, at ease on camera switching from Italian to English, dressed in his flat fronts, is that what the Americans call it?, and crisp shirts with sleeves rolled up to reveal a perfectly haired, olive skinned arm and those glasses; Clark Kent who? Tucci is not trying to be sexy he simply is, in an innocuous way, that makes his charm irreverent. He is interested, absolutely interested in the heritage of the land from which he hails.
The pandemic notwithstanding, Italy’s beauty and zest punch through on the screen.
Still, most stories are ones we are familiar with; Pizza in Naples, Bolognese in Bologna, cacio e pepe in Rome, Sicilian wines, gelato… these are tales most of us have lived over the many days we have spent travelling the country pre- pandemic and they will remain as the world slowly returns to us having been in the grip of the virus. As earlier noted, Italy is a place entrenched in its past, its past glory remaining ever more present. There are young entrepreneurs who are preserving the heritage, like Ariana in Sicily who owns her own vineyard something that was unthinkable a little while back in the notoriously patriarchal region, a young Milanese barman who runs a speakeasy serving innovative cocktails, the Japanese chef who has put his stamp on the classics without jettisoning the methods. There are other stories that we will not have witnessed as travellers because countries tend to put their best foot forward when welcoming outsiders. The travelling community that set up kitchens in the outer boroughs of Naples for one. Tucci encounters progressive leftist grassroots politician, right-winged characters and fascists without delving deeper into their politics; this is not the premise of the show after all, and it felt out of place in the brief itch where something more lies beneath that needed to be scratched. To do so would have been to derail the purpose of the show because these storylines did not feel like they could be committed to in depth. He takes us to Sicily’s last surviving royal family, visiting with the princess and her family. There he touches on one of the events I remember growing up; the assassination of the Italian judges; Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, that marked a turning point for Sicily. Herein lies some of the conflicts that plague Italy and many countries in Europe; in preserving the past it is hard to move on to the future, in the words of Tucci, these families are a dying breed, and their connection with the past is a connection with a time that saw the silencing of people who upheld the dignity of society, no matter how nostalgic the past can be. It is a complication.
Lampedusa, is the southernmost place in Italy, more southern than Sicily, and this is where migrants first arrive; the island was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2014 for being a short refuge for them before they have to move on. The town is seventy miles off the coast of Africa, closer in some respects to the continent than it is to Europe and Beppe, whom Tucci meets with, tells of a harrowing shipwreck in 2013 where out of 300, 280 people died. The inhabitants often rescue migrants at sea but they cannot inhabit them for fear of prosecution as this is now outlawed. In lieu of their own voices to tell the stories of lives they leave behind, this episode especially, gives space to the many lives lost during those dreadful crossings, reveals the soul of a place that sees no difference in our humanity and understands the harrowing nature of what makes one flee home in search of a better life in strange lands. Men like Beppe are ordinary people, with families of their own who show common decency not afforded to them in some of the loudest parts of the media. Tucci’s tour of the boat graveyard is particularly jarring as are his words that echo the sentiments most of us know when it comes to immigration of this nature; “the desperation has to be so profound to come across on a boat like that.” to risk death in order to seek refuge. These are the moments that reveal a little more, that shows us that Italian hospitality that goes beyond the meal.
As much of the world, Italy is a place conflicted and one of opposites, good and bad, beautiful and sad. A place of immense beauty and profound history which is why this part of the documentary needed more. Cloaked around foods and art, it loses its substance but remains no less important.
Strict rules and food. Passion and a love story. To watch Stanley Tucci, fall utterly and completely in love each episode and for different reasons, is something everybody should have to do, this is the meat to the show in itself, because we fall just as hard as he does, imagining what it would be like, taste like, feel like… This is rediscovery, through the people, the hands and heart that protect history, that reveals a deeper meaning of food and its unfailing ability to bring us together. Yet leave us with a little more food for thought.