The first few shots of the CNN documentary series Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy capture a good chunk of the show’s appeal: Stanley Tucci, wearing sunglasses and a stylish suit, strides through Naples as cars and motorcycles rush past him. After years of cultivating an image as a sex symbol without ever coming across as unapproachable, he seems like the perfect host for a food and travel show. Of course we would want to carouse and break bread with Stanley Tucci. Though the specter of a certain coronavirus may occasionally slip into the frame and jar viewers out of the fantasy, the series reveals Tucci to be not just a great actor and a potent thirst object but also a thoughtful, charming host.
Each of the show’s six episodes focuses on a different part of Italy. The first covers Naples and the Amalfi Coast, and from there they journey to, in order, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and Sicily. In each region, Tucci does his best to get off the beaten path, appealing to the locals and old friends to lead him to true culinary gems. What sets Tucci apart as a host is that, unlike most of the talents tasked with shepherding viewers through different parts of the world, Tucci, despite being of Italian descent, isn’t necessarily an expert. Those who watched him confidently blunder toward a Negroni may have realized this already. (Though that would require taking one’s attention away from his forearms and directing it instead toward his methods, and missing the point.) He encounters almost everything with an open sense of wonder, and he allows the people he comes across to take center stage. Those subjects range from a Jewish chef whose specialty, deep-fried artichoke hearts, has everything to do with what was typically available to the city’s poorer Jewish community, to a nonprofit restaurant born from a collaboration between local activists and a community of Neapolitan and Romani women. It’s obvious that Searching for Italy’s focus isn’t just on what people are eating and how they make it, but also why, a question that’s key to any good food show.
From the jump, however, it’s clear just how strange it is to be watching, and making, a food and travel show—a genre whose basic elements include going places, meeting new people, and then eating around them—in the middle of a pandemic. Though four of the six episodes were filmed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the first and third episodes were filmed after Italy’s first wave. In fact, the first episode opens with Tucci commenting in voice-over that it’s hard to believe that the now-bustling city had just been in lockdown, and as for what is and isn’t deemed safe, “restaurants are open and masks are not required outside.”
Be that as it may, your personal level of comfort when it comes to what is and isn’t safe to do may make watching those two episodes a little strange. Masks are on, but only part of the time (with some adopting the mouth-only method of masking), and Tucci and his guides (not to mention his crew) are sometimes in enclosed spaces where they have to take their masks off to eat. Stranger still is the fact that, apart from those opening remarks, there isn’t really that much, if any, discussion of how the pandemic has affected the people Tucci is talking to, despite the fact that Italy was an early epicenter of the pandemic. The show is interested in the idea of community, but it’s not interested in digging deep into the traumas suffered by these particular communities. To be fair, most viewers, looking for a break from the rest of CNN’s nearly round-the-clock coronavirus coverage, may welcome the break.
Since Anthony Bourdain’s death in 2018, no new hosts have been able to fully fill the well-worn suede boots he left behind, though it’s not for lack of trying. Tucci isn’t necessarily a natural heir—Bourdain was a seasoned chef and an expert in international dishes, for one thing—but the series has its own strengths. Tucci is eminently watchable, especially when he eats—he tucks into everything, such as a gorgeous zucchini pasta, with enviable fervor, and often communicates how delicious he finds the food through mischievous smiles. Though the context of the pandemic makes the show a bit of a roller coaster in terms of feeling lulled into comfort by Tucci’s inherent charm and then having elbow bumps reawaken us to the ongoing crisis, Searching for Italy still manages to serve up some pretty generous portions of escapism, and audiences thus far seem to be eating it up: CNN recently announced that the series was the new No. 1 news show in its time slot. Given the success of this first season, it’s no surprise that the news network already placed an order for seconds. It remains to be seen whether we’ll remain this hungry (or is it thirsty?) for this kind of counterprogramming once we ourselves can get back on the road, but in the meantime, Tucci seems to know how to satisfy our cravings.