Oh no, what? An hour of Stanley Tucci? Just him, the lean-muscled bundle of talent and charisma, taking us round Italy at a leisurely pace, talking lovingly about the food and culture of the land of his forefathers? What did we do to suffer so? Help! Save us from this purgatory!
I jest, of course. There is nothing purgatorial about Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy (BBC Two). Not for the viewer, and certainly not for Tucci. In the opening episode, he gets to wander round Campania (other sunkissed regions are strolled through in later instalments), taking in the bustling delights of Naples, the serenity of the wooded mountains of the island of Ischia, the sea air of the Amalfi coast, the smell of the lemon groves and the taste of the limoncello of Minori. You could easily hate him – if he weren’t Stanley Tucci.
But he is, and he is charming. And – you might have to prepare for this and possibly avail yourself of a contraceptive if you do not want to risk becoming pregnant through the screen – he speaks Italian. Maybe those who have seen the cocktail-making videos he put up on Instagram during lockdown or read his recent memoir Taste were already aware, but I was not and I now have two little bald twins in black polo necks whom I love very much.
In Naples, birthplace of the pizza, we get a short, sweet history of the food and the city – the one growing out of the other’s poverty and bad sanitation. Frying bread was the hygienic choice in a city where cholera outbreaks were so common they gave rise to the saying among travellers “See Naples and die”. Adding things to that bread – tomato! Cheese, of course! Some basil, some pepper! – made it tasty, too. Locals had time to hone their delicacy to perfection before the real and assumed risks of visiting the place lessened enough in the late 19th century to allow it to become a place on the travellers’ trail. From then, pizza began its rightful world takeover.
He runs the pizza gamut. Fernanda, a senora d’un certain age (yes, you infer correctly – my command of European languages was one of the main reasons I voted Remain), cooks him one of the original street versions that her family have been making for over a century (pork fat is one of the toppings).
Tucci then travels with Enzo Coccia, the first pizzaiolo ever to be awarded a Michelin star, to gather San Marzano tomatoes direct from the field, mozzarella near-as-dammit straight from the buffalo, and watch him turn water, flour, yeast and salt into the perfect dough and – scattered with toppings and given just 45 seconds in the oven – the perfect pizza. “It’s a gift to humanity!” he cries. “And where was it born? Napoli!” All pizzaiolos, it seems, have a robust confidence in their product. Although, to be fair, noted pastry chef and inventor of the delizia al limone pudding (“This is the expression of the Amalfi coast!”) Sal De Riso gives them a good run for their money. “Have I proved to you this is the best pastry in the world,” he says as Tucci swallows his first bite of the heavenly looking mass of sponge and creams. I don’t put a question mark because it is not a question.
Food is deftly used to illuminate place and vice versa wherever we go. The people of Ischia specialise in rabbit rather than seafood because their island shores were historically the haunt of pirates and foreign armies. Inhabitants took to the mountains and hunted the game in their forests. Scampia was a failed experiment (was there any other kind?) in social utopia in the 1960s, where people were moved in from the slums but without sufficient infrastructure, so the local mafia soon took over. It is now finding a small new lease of life through an activist/volunteer project that has burgeoned into a successful restaurant. It offers fusion Romany-Italian cooking, growing out of the former’s community that has gathered in the ghettoised place over the last decade or so.
Tucci is an utterly inoffensive guide throughout this sweet, light delizia of a documentary, but there is one moment with Coccia that nicely illustrates his one weakness – which is that he is slightly too muted, too self-effacing. Coccia takes him ebulliently to task over his unexuberant appreciation of the pizza and Naples in all their glory. “Not ‘Napoli’!” he says, imitating Tucci’s neutral intonation. “NAApoli!” Tucci repeats it like an actor slipping into a character, and Coccia is even more gratified. Tutta bella.