Oscar-nominated actor Stanley Tucci has played a range of memorable characters in more than 70 films, from Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman to art director Nigel Kipling (in
Oscar-nominated actor Stanley Tucci has played a range of memorable characters in more than 70 films, from Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman to art director Nigel Kipling (inThe Devil Wears Prada) to real-life attorney Mitchell Garabedian (in Spotlight). But the biggest through-line in his career—and his life—has been food.
Twenty-five years ago, he wrote, directed, and starred in Big Night, a scrumptiously shot cult classic that introduced filmgoers to Primo and Secondo, brothers running an Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey, and their timpano, an encased, baked pasta dish as painstaking as it was showstopping. These days Tucci is hosting the CNN travelogue show Searching for Italy, experiencing viral fame for sharing his Negroni recipe during the pandemic, and getting ready to release his first memoir, Taste: My Life through Food (Gallery Books, October).
“Big Night is very much about integrity and the struggle between commerce and art,” Tucci told viewers of his June 25 session at the American Library Association’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual. “Obviously the memoir is a little bit of my heart on my sleeve. There’s no character to hide behind, no wig to wear,” he said. “It’s not an exposé of me, but it’s as personal as I allowed it to get.”
Though Tucci has released two cookbooks prior—The Tucci Cookbook with Gianni Scappin and Mimi Taft and The Tucci Table with wife Felicity Blunt—this is the first time he’s divulging the personal stories behind his favorite recipes. “In a weird way, memoir is a hell of a lot easier than writing a cookbook,” he said, admitting that when testing one of his cookbooks, his kids got stuck eating fettuccine with mushrooms for eight straight weeks until he got the recipe right.
“I never measure anything. I’m really bad at it, I’m too impatient,” said Tucci. In that way, he likens cooking to acting. “Like any creative act, the more you start to think about it, the more you’ll mess it up,” he said. “You will forget your lines.”
One thing Tucci never forgets is pasta. Growing up in an Italian-American family, it’s a fixture in his books and is the meal he most loves to serve large groups. “There’s something really beautiful, balletic about it, and sort of sloppy,” he said. “I’m just so drawn to pasta, just unconsciously.” Lamb also makes frequent cameos in Tucci’s work, as does a favorite meat sauce. “The more I read [the memoir], I say, ‘Man, you are obsessed with Bolognese.’ It just kept cropping up. So I hope people like Bolognese, because you’re going to learn a bit about it,” he joked.
During his talk, Tucci touched on the despair of not being about to gather or go to restaurants during lockdown (“we’re meant to be together, we’re meant to share food with each other and drink with each other”); his love of reading (books on World War II, especially) and libraries (starting with his hometown library in Katonah, New York); and his writing process (which involves a lot of espresso and an Eames chair). He also named the chefs and writers who have inspired him, such as Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jay Rayner, Sam Sifton, Nigel Slater, and the inimitable Julia Child (“her beef bourguignon recipe is one of the most complicated things you’ll ever read—I don’t know if there’s enough butter in the world”).
But at the center of his food journey is his family, whether it be memories of his grandfather in Italy or watching his parents cook together at home.
“I’ll never forget sitting around the table eating goat that we had gone up to get in the mountains,” he said of a childhood trip to Calabria. He also fondly recalled his family’s observance of Friday meatballs. “I loved it. My mom would make the meatballs, and my dad would fry them very slowly, slowly, slowly. And they really worked as this great team. And they still do.”
Tucci said he plans to dedicate Taste to his parents, who were foundational in his love for food—and who themselves never stopped cooking. “I talked to my dad the other night and I asked ‘What are you doing?’” he said. His dad was cooking veal “with a little bit of cheese and a little bit of parsley and it’s cooked in this celery broth…. He was making that for himself,” Tucci marveled. “He’s going to be 91.”