Q&A: Stanley Tucci on food in films, London restaurants, and Italian hospitality
With two cookbooks and a film about restaurants under his belt, Hollywood actor-director and London resident Stanley Tucci knows his way around a plate of food
Why did you decide to write and release cookbooks?
After we did Big Night, which was the first film that I co-wrote and co-directed, I wanted to bring out a book that would include recipes from both my family and from Johnny Scapin, who was the chef-consultant on the film. He's from northern Italy, and my parents' families are from southern Italy, so I thought that it would be really interesting to have a combination of those two different kinds of cooking in one book.
We went to William Morrow, a publisher that's no longer in existence, and they said, "Yeah, great, we'll do it," and gave my parents and Johnny an advance. They worked for a year and a half putting this book together with another friend, and ended up with a book called Cucina Familia, which was the original title. It did really well, but then it went out of print after a number of years. Then I found out about six years ago that people really wanted this book – they were looking for it on the internet.
So I said to my now-wife Felicity, who's a literary agent, "What would it be like to try and reissue that book?" We had it reissued by Simon and Schuster – and it was really wonderful. And then as part of that, we did a deal where I would do another book for them. So that was the book we called The Tucci Table, which Felicity and I did together, and Orion published it here. So now the plan is for me to do another book with Orion. I'm not quite sure what the book will be.
Do you think restaurants are underused as settings for movies?
It's hard to do. I mean you can't set out to make a food movie, per se. One of the reasons we set the story in a restaurant was because my cousin who wrote it with me, we both love food – we grew up in the same family. To me, one of the parts of the overall story is about the role of the artist in society, and then the role of the Italian immigrant in society.
So where to place that? A restaurant seemed to me to make the most sense, because a restaurant is like the theatre. As a person who was trained in the theatre, it's the same thing. You have the backstage, which is the kitchen; you have the on-stage, which is the dining room; you have to do all this preparation in advance, prior to the performance, people walk in and sit down at the table.
And the performance is: what would you like to eat? You have everything prepared, you do the performance, and then it's over. Sometimes you do a matinee, sometimes you do an evening, and sometimes you do both.
It's so much like the theatre that it just made sense – to use that as a kind of conduit to tell the story. And also anything that takes place in an enclosed space that is somewhat claustrophobic, in a way, is really interesting, because the tension is greater. So when things really explode in the film – they go out to the beach and that's where everything happens – the landscape is an entirely new landscape, but all the stuff has been built up in this pressure cooker of the tiny restaurant.
Are there any other restaurant movies that you've enjoyed?
Well there are so many. I mean I think Chef is great. Jon Favreau did a really good job, and obviously he knows how to cook – you can just tell. I think Eat Drink Man Woman is wonderful, and Babette's Feast is probably one of the best, without question.
Where does your passion for food come from?
It comes from my family, and my heritage. Italians, if they're anything – if they're about anything – they are very much about food. And it's the kind of thing that binds them, from north to south.
How did you go about incorporating this into your film career?
I didn't even really mean to; it's something that just kind of happened. Once we made Big Night, all of these doors opened up: suddenly you were walking into a restaurant, and people were going, "Oh my God, you told my story." But you were walking into a Persian restaurant, or a French restaurant. And that's really interesting, because I've always felt that the more specific you make a film, and the more specific you make a story, the more universal it actually becomes.
You live in London now. What do you miss about New York's food culture?
I really like the Jewish delis in New York, I definitely miss those. I just heard that the Carnegie Deli is closing down, which is heartbreaking to me because that was a really fantastic place to go. Pastrami sandwiches, chicken soup, borscht and all the rest of it. I really love New York's Jewish culture. And that food is kind of amazing.
Are there any chefs or venues that have shaped your experience of London's food culture?
Heston Blumenthal is incredible, but that's a very rarefied kind of thing. Then you have somebody like Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis, who's taken the British menu and really heightened it. It's amazing. Also Francesco Mazzei, and then local pleasures like Riva in Barnes [where I live], which was AA Gill's go-to place. There are just so many places in London. It's like a food mecca, but I don't need to tell you that – it is.
Which Italian restaurants in London are you particularly fond of?
There are quite a few. There's Assaggi in Notting Hill; Riva, as I say; Francesco's place [Sartoria, on Savile Row]. There's a place in Richmond called Al Boccon di'Vino, and it's absolute madness – it's a tiny restaurant, there's no menu, you just walk in, sit down, and the guy goes, "Right, here's what I have; do you like that?" And you go, "Yeah." And then he goes, "Do you want some wine?" And he pulls out, like, an incredible bottle, and he says, "You want this?" There's no "This is how much it costs." And the thing is, you're never, ever going to get ripped off. You're going to sit down and sometimes you're going to get seven courses, sometimes you're going to get 12 courses – you just don't know. You have absolutely no idea at all.
And then inevitably he comes out after you've eaten for two hours – like we did in Big Night – with a suckling pig, and he parades it around the tiny restaurant, and then he goes back and everybody goes, "Yay, suckling pig." And then he goes back in, cuts it up, and everyone gets suckling pig. If you want it, eat it; if you don't, that's too fucking bad. That's your problem. And prior to that, he'll just serve whatever he decides to make that day. It's fantastic. But it is literally like you're in a crazy uncle's home in Italy.
If you have to be anywhere, don't go. Don't drive there because you'll definitely drink. Inevitably, he'll pull out the grappa or whatever at the end, and you'll have to drink it – he'll tie you down and pour it down your throat. It's just fantastic.
At Al Boccon di'Vino, the attitude is: if you want it, eat it; if you don't, that's too fucking bad. That's your problem
What is it about Italians and hospitality?
I think the Italians have two very distinct sides to them. They've been invaded so many times that they are incredibly hospitable, and they've been invaded so many times that they're also incredibly wary and mistrusting. So there's not really a lot in between. It's like 'as I am accepting you into my home, I am always keeping an eye on you. However, I will give you anything, and then I'm going to see how you react.' Being invaded constantly – Italy was only unified in 1861, and even then, unification is kind of iffy – is definitely a big part of the reason why they're so hospitable.
The Trussell Trust
Want to play your part in ending poverty-induced hunger in the UK? The Trussell Trust is a charity working hard to do just that, with more than 400 food banks around the country, as well as giving advice and support.
Stanley Tucci is a fervent and vocal supporter of the trust, who uses his profile to raise awareness for the charity whenever he can, as well as taking part in events, hosting charitable dinners, and donating all profits from his cookbook The Tucci Table to the charity.
For more information or to donate, visit trusselltrust.org
And also, communicating through food is a great way to find out about somebody. And it's also a great way to make a connection with somebody. It's a silent way of speaking; it's a silent connector. And it's one of the reasons why, by all accounts, you don't see a huge number of Italian writers: because if you wrote something down then it could well have been found by whoever had invaded at that point, so everything was spoken instead. And if it wasn't spoken then it became gestural.
So that's one of the reasons that Italians, they believe, gesture as much as they do. Because you don't know who that guy is who just came in and decided to take over your province.
How did you come to present the Evening Standard Restaurant Awards at Taste of London last year?
Somebody asked me to do it, and one of the reasons I agreed was they said, "We're going to pay you this amount of money," and I said I don't want the money; I want you to donate it to the Trussell Trust. Part of the reason that I'll do stuff like that is so that someplace like the Trussell Trust benefits. And also, it's fun.
Did any restaurants stick out?
One of my wife's clients, actually: Tim Siadatan, the guy who does Padella and Trullo. To me, Trullo is one of the best restaurants in London. And not because it's my wife's client, I swear.