For the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor, wellness is found at
the table in the company of family and friends.
By Allan Richter
There’s no shortage of films about culinary matters to satisfy the cinematic cravings of foodies. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” brought smiles to anyone with a sweet tooth. “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” redefined precipitation. “Waitress” used pies as a metaphor for communication. And “Super Size Me” showed how fast food can put you on the fast track to super-sizing yourself.
Stanley Tucci knows a thing or two about food and movies. The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor was affiliated with two of the genre’s well-received films. Tucci co-directed, co-wrote and stars in “Big Night,” a 1996 independent comedy about two brothers who are counting on a jazz benefit to save their failing restaurant. And in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia,” Tucci plays famed gourmet chef Julia Child’s husband, Paul.
Tucci, who has appeared in more than 50 films, may have gravitated to those parts because food, more than serving plot lines in films, plays a highly personal and central role in his life. In the Tucci household, meals are given attention the way others might plan for a short vacation. Hours are spent deciding what to make for a meal, which takes days to prepare. The focus on matters culinary doesn’t end there. The subject of food dominates the table conversation—what’s right and wrong with it, how it tasted differently at a certain restaurant, where it was first eaten, what it should be eaten with and the like.
This obsession, a decidedly healthy one at that since Tucci meals are rooted in the Mediterranean diet, can partly be traced to the exceptional and, as far as the family was concerned, unsurpassed cooking of Tucci’s mother when he was a child. “Having grown up in a household that was ‘food obsessed,’ I cannot help but put a more-than-ordinary emphasis on what goes into my mouth and how it tastes,” the “Hunger Games” actor writes in his 2012 book The Tucci Cookbook (Gallery). “Food, above art and politics, or personal matters, is the subject to which we return over and over again. Possibly because we derive nourishment from it not only physically but spiritually, and to us, the creation of a great meal is perhaps the ultimate artistic endeavor: Edible art.”
As Tucci observes in The Tucci Cookbook, food is a happy manifestation of his Italian heritage, a heritage, along with its traditions, in which his parents instilled great respect. “Consequently, in my work I feel it is necessary to explore and celebrate from whom and where I come,” the actor says. He co-wrote “Big Night” with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano, as part of that celebration and hoped to show audiences a view of Italians that was more positive than the gangsters portrayed in many other films. In his words, he wanted to show a more “humanistic” view that showed the people in all their complexity.
He based his “Big Night” character partly on Gianni Scappin, the head chef of Le Madri, a restaurant in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. For a year and a half, Tucci immersed himself in studying Scappin’s culinary techniques and philosophy after being introduced to the restaurant’s owner, Pino Luongo, by his friend, the actress Isabella Rossellini, who also appears in “Big Night.” Scappin’s recipes, as well as those of Tucci’s parents, Joan and Stan, appear in his cookbook.
The Soul of a Foodie
While the cynical may look upon Tucci’s first cookbook as part of a fad—Hollywood actors dabbling in the cookbook genre—the actor’s latest, The Tucci Table (Gallery), is testimony to his commitment and further solidifies his kitchen credentials. He wrote the book with wife Felicity Blunt, whom he married in 2012. Blunt is the sister of actress Emily Blunt, with whom Tucci starred in “The Devil Wears Prada.” The recipes also reflect a mix of Blunt’s British and Tucci’s Italo-American heritages; thus, the inclusion of English roasted potatoes and fish-and-chips recipes, for instance.
The book’s dedication—“To my family, ever growing, ever hungry …”—was prescient. In January, Tucci and Blunt welcomed a son, Matteo Oliver.
As with his first book, The Tucci Table is about more than the food itself—it’s a nod to the social fabric Tucci and his family and friends have woven over the years dining together. “My life has been sustained by food beyond mere nourishment,” Tucci says in the book, released late last year. “The relationships forged by the acts of cooking and eating with others have had a profound effect on me and have more and more significance with every passing year. When I think of the moments that have brought me the most pleasure, the most joy, they are almost always framed within the context of food and the table.”
The Tucci Table, a portion of whose proceeds Tucci is donating to the Food Bank for New York City (foodbanknyc.org), is also an ode to Tucci’s first wife, Kate, who died in 2009 from breast cancer and with whom Tucci had three children. Tucci calls Kate a “wonderful and generous cook” whose recipes, for the most part, were never written down. Tucci worked with their children, Isabel, Nicolo and Camilla, to re-create many of her dishes. “Making them now keeps her ever present in our lives, and, although they were delicious,” Tucci writes, “what made them truly special was they were of her and that she made them for us.”
The social ingredient in Tucci’s recipes is a key part of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet, as are the fish, olive oils, vegetables and tomatoes in many of Tucci’s often-simple Italian recipes. “The hallmark of Italian food is the simplicity of it, and they use fresh herbs to flavor it, so you don’t need these rich sauces; Alfredo sauce was an American invention,” observes Lisa Sasson, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health. “The flavor of Italian food comes because of the freshness of the ingredients.”
Labor of Love
Many Westerners associate pasta with unhealthy, fattening carbohydrates, but pasta—as used in a traditional Mediterranean diet—is doled out in small portions, and dishes often rely more heavily on vegetables, herbs and other plant-based foods, says Sasson, who leads her students on cultural and culinary trips to Italy each year.
Acknowledging that pasta and bread may not be the healthiest staples of the Tucci family diet, the actor includes in The Tucci Table what he terms a healthy alternative that Blunt introduced him to: a quinoa salad with feta, pomegranate and pistachio that can be served as a side or main dish. As Tucci notes, quinoa makes a healthy base to which a number of other nourishing ingredients, such as dates or avocado, can be added for variety.
At 54 years old, Tucci remains fit and trim by all appearances, despite his family’s attraction to pasta and breads. He told Web MD in 2009 that he exercises six days a week by running on a treadmill, doing sit-ups and practicing yoga. “It’s about striking a balance,” he said. “You’ve got to earn good food and good drink.”
He earns his meals in part by laboring over them. Filming in Majorca, Spain, Tucci admired the tremendous effort that went into cooking paella over a wood fire. “It’s a lot of work, but I like a dish that’s a lot of work. The harder it is to make it, the more satisfying it is when you succeed,” he told the Huffington Post last year. Similarly, he fires up the wood-burning pizza oven in his backyard at noon so it’s ready for dinner.
Even dishes the actor terms simple involve a little extra attention that gives the plates an added special dynamic. The trick in getting his Tuscan Tomato Soup, for example, to turn out just right is letting the tomatoes slow simmer, as Tucci learned from his mother, to remove the tomatoes’ acidity and enhance the soup’s sweetness. Tucci has been making the soup for years.
Tomatoes, olive oil, sea bass, polenta—whatever the ingredient, it is never quite as meaningful without the human ingredient, the family dynamic. That dynamic was apparent from the time Tucci’s mother’s family emigrated to the United States, where they settled in Verplanck, New York, a small town on the Hudson River. Pole beans, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, escarole and many other varieties of fruits and vegetables grew in a sizable garden that was active year-round.
Equally memorable were the times young Stanley found himself helping his grandfather, who also had a root cellar for garlic, onions, celery and potatoes, in the garden. Tucci also recalls going to the river with his grandparents, tying pieces of chicken as bait to the bottom of
crab nets. If his aunt and uncle came over from Cape Cod, chances are the feast included bluefish. “All of this followed by a boisterous game of bocce made for what are now much-missed seafood-filled summer days,” Tucci recounts.
Tucci’s cookbooks, as with some of his film work, are an outgrowth of his efforts to preserve a record of his heritage and family. It is a decidedly healthy effort because he has an eye on the future as much as on the past.
“The dinner table is the anvil upon which we forge our relationships,” he says in The Tucci Table. “Be they ties of family, of friendships, of new love or of old, it is a place where we share the events of our day, our feelings, our stories, our memories and our hopes and promises for the future.”