I’m sure fans of the character-actor/gourmand Stanley Tucci can be forgiven for starting his new food-and-film memoir by flipping back to the 20th and final chapter to the “news hook” of the book.
He had a mid-COVID battle with cancer, the kind that threatened his ability to speak in that mellifluous, urbane sophisticate’s tongue or taste with that epicurean oenophile’s mouth. Once we’ve reassured ourselves that Tucci is fine and can get back to his ever-in-demand film and TV career, and his “Searching for Italy” via its cuisine for CNN, we can relax and enjoy the hell out of the anecdotes, recipes and breezy charm of “Taste: My Life Through Food.”
Longtime fans picked up on Tucci’s continental tastes long before his many TV chat show appearances and later series (Anyone remember “Through the Grape Vine?” on PBS?) revealed that side of his life.
His breakout film, 1996’s “Big Night,” still taught in acting and film schools as the classic “You want a break? Write and direct your own!” indie film went far too deep into Italian cuisine for that to be an accident.
Tucci recalls how that came about, not just the filmmakers he shadowed and studied under (Alan Rudolph, and Rudolph’s teacher, the great Robert Altman), but the chefs his eventual co-star in “Big Night,” Isabella Rossellini, suggested he visit and also shadow.
Inspired as a struggling young actor by “Babette’s Feast,” which he tucked into at a New York art cinema, recollecting his work as a college years bartender at a famed New York Italian eatery (Alfredo’s), he vowed to make a movie that captured “how a restaurant’s structure mirrored that of the theater. The kitchen was ‘backstage,’ which, during a a lunch or dinner rush, was its own mad biosphere filled with frantic humans barely controlling flames and blades. Simultaneously, the dining room was ‘onstage,’ where some of the same humans, after walking through a swinging door, instantaneously became cool, calm and collected.”
Fine dining, he discovered, was vigorous prep and rehearsal, costume and performance.
“Taste” isn’t a simple, straightforward memoir. Tucci gives us a generous helping of his childhood, enthralled by having his constantly-busy mother all to himself watching “The French Chef with Julia Child” as a boy, his mother commenting on Child’s dishes, tastes and personality as she ironed.
I’ve interviewed Tucci a few times over the years, and the voice you get in person is the one that sparkles off the page here — light, informed, relaxed, a kind and polite man of cultivated refinement, a genuine cosmopolitan at ease with the world and the pleasures his work and off-camera pursuits affords him.
We hear just enough about his family’s Calabrian history, how his grandparents and other relatives escaped Italian poverty to come to America and thrive, bringing their native cuisine with them. There are scores of recipes he inherited from his family included in the book, and a few Stanley Tucci twists on traditional Calabrian this or that, or classic cocktails.
The man likes his food, and his wine and his martinis. That joie de vivre spills onto the pages of this playful book.
“I first visited Cioppino’s (in Vancouver) about twenty years ago when I was making a film for which I was well paid and which no one should ever see.”
Tucci is as self-deprecating about his film work as he is tactful about not naming the dogs on his resume.
He name drops like the grand raconteur he is, charming stories of touring to promote “Julie & Julia” with his regal co-star Meryl Streep, and leading her into a foodie misadventure, whisked to doctor visits by his charming chum Ryan Reynolds, who almost flabbergasted a doctor removing his chemo-treatment feeding tube into malpractice territory.
Although Tucci goes into some depth about on-set catering and its myriad (national) shortcomings, there isn’t all that much about his career or personal life. We remember that his first wife Kate succumbed to cancer, that he met his literary agent second wife Felicity at her sister Emily Blunt’s marriage to that Krakowski fellow at the Italian villa belonging “to some guy whose name rhymes with ‘George Clooney.'”
But another memoir will have to go into more depth about his college years, struggling New York stage actor era and breakthrough in film. The glories of “Taste” make you want to read such a book.
Long passages of recreated conversations of his childhood or with his own kids about food are almost cute, and take some of the privilege out of what reads like a seriously privileged life. And being one of those eat-most-anything fanatics, some of what he cooks (piglets) or eats on location (Minke whale and puffins in Iceland. PUFFINS!) suggests that he’s a bit too willing to buy a restaurant or chef’s declarations of “sustainable” or “humanely prepared.”
He might have been the biggest Julia Child fan on the set of “Julie & Julia,” although director Nora Ephron might have debated that. Tucci also turns the reader on to Child’s best British rival, the traveling, cooking and prattling on in glorious, off-the-cuff, drink-whilst-one-cooks Keith Floyd, a long gone chef whose TV episodes are immortalized on Youtube.
Tucci’s star-struck reaction to dining with the great Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni as the great man filmed “Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear)” for Altman in Paris, his frank and funny F-bomb laced reactions to this or that extraordinary dish from assorted restaurants in Italy, New York, Iceland or Paris, his friendship with chefs who helped him master this or that — roast pig, etc — make for a grandly entertaining read, a celebrity memoir you’ll want to hang onto.
I mean, it’s got recipes. Tons of recipes. Including his own “perfect” martini.
“Garnish with either 1 or three olives (never 2) or a lemon twist.
“Become a new person.”
Yes. But maybe not one who eats puffins, dear man.
Taste: My Life Through Food, by Stanley Tucci. Simon & Schuster. 291 pages, $28.