We’re All Searching For Italy
It’s early Spring in Tuscany, and here in California as well. I love this time of year, as the days grow longer and ever so slightly warmer, and the colors of nature seem brighter. I usually feel a sense of optimism when new flowers start to bloom. However, this is not a Spring like the ones I usually love. The world is still steeped in a pandemic that drags on. The regions of Italy are currently in various stages of lockdown, businesses and people suffering. Here at home we are clawing our way back from the edge, but not out of the woods. This is the painful reality from which I escape each week as I watch actor Stanley Tucci’s show Searching For Italy. The longing I feel for travel, warm weather and simple joy is so palpable, it’s like a flavor in my mouth. Right now, I think we’re all searching for Italy.
Searching for Italy is exactly the gift that we didn’t know we needed when the show began filming. The CNN series follows Tucci as he crisscrosses the various regions of Italy, tasting and sipping along the way. This CNN article tracks his travels, providing us with the restaurants and recipes. So far, the episodes I’ve seen have mainly been filmed during the pandemic, presumably during the brief open windows of Italy’s struggle with the virus. But, magically and gloriously, the Tuscany episode was filmed pre-pandemic. In fact, the episode feels so reminiscent of a sense of normal that the producers felt the need to warn viewers at the top of the episode that it was filmed before the pandemic. Otherwise we would all lose our minds in fear and longing at the close talking, boisterous laughing, two-cheek kissing and food sharing. It’s simply wonderful.
Tucci begins the Tuscany episode by telling us that he and his family moved to Florence for a year when he was twelve years old. His parents, who charm us with a cameo, are both Americans of Italian descent. They lived for that year in Florence during Tucci’s father’s sabbatical from his teaching job so that he could study art and Tucci’s mom could explore cuisine. They were all transformed by the experience. As Tucci puts it, “It changed everything for me… We returned to America a family reborn.” This, Tucci tells us, was the start of his lifelong love affair with Italy. Having spent extended stays in Florence over the years, I can attest to the city’s ability to get under your skin and stay there.
As he strolls among the sights of Florence, Tucci teaches us about the powerful Medici family who, with their love of art, science and all things new and beautiful, essentially bankrolled the Renaissance. They created a “think tank” in Florence, and from there the likes of Michelangelo and Galileo changed the world. Not only did the Medici family revolutionize art, architecture and science forever, but they also had a huge impact on Italian cuisine. The family patriarch Cosimo I de’Medici married a Spanish princess who is credited for bringing the tomato to Italy for the first time. This import would become perhaps the biggest staple in Italian food. Even more interestingly, the tomato didn’t originate in Spain either. The Spanish brought it back from the Americas, likely somewhere in South America. In any event, this world-traveling fruit found a hospitable environment in Italy.
Tucci introduces us to several of his friends in the region, including a chef who walks us through Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio market. I remember this market well, its food stalls brimming with whatever is in season and local. Tucci and his friend choose a beautiful cut of T-bone steak and we learn the secrets behind perfectly-grilled Bistecca alla Fiorentina as enjoyed by Tuscan nobility since the 16th century. Next we move into the rolling hills of the countryside to learn about some of my favorite food in the world- cucina povera, or “poor food,” brought to us by generations of resourceful Tuscan farmers. Turns out that some of the best food on earth begins with day-old bread. Tucci and his friends feast on such delicacies as papa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), panzanella (bread and veggie salad), and my personal favorite ribollita (bread-based stew). We have written about this surprising delicacy before- see our post here. Finally, Tucci takes us to the Tuscan coastal town of Livorno, where he shares a meal of decadent seafood stew with friends. I defy you to watch this episode without drooling.
Tucci also introduces us to the wine windows of Tuscany, or “little doors of paradise.” In Renaissance times, this uniquely-Tuscan phenomenon provided a way for wealthy families to sell the contents of their wine cellars to passers-by on the cobblestone streets, through tiny windows carved into the sides of their palaces. In the early 17th century, the windows served as a way to safely serve customers during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Walking around Florence today, you can still see these beautiful little windows. When Tucci filmed his episode in the summer of 2019, he only found one functional window, and enjoyed a lovely glass of local vino bianco. What Tucci did not know at the time is that enterprising Florentine restaurant and shop owners would soon revive these long-shuttered windows to again serve customers during a pandemic. In fact, my favorite gelato shop in town, Vivoli, is now serving their delicious treats through their window. I like to imagine how much it would brighten my day during these difficult times to be handed a seasonal peach gelato (my favorite) through a tiny, 500 year-old window.
In the closing shot of the Tuscany episode of Searching for Italy, Tucci rounds a Florentine street corner and his eyes are drawn like a magnet to the enormous spectacle that is the Duomo- so grand and amazing that it needs to be seen to be believed. I can relate to that feeling of being there, in the indescribable presence of such beauty, the magnet drawing me in. I can’t wait to return.
In Italian, there is a short and sweet term for “see you soon”- a presto.