Skip to main content

For Stanley Tucci, food is like religion — and cancer almost took it away

For actor Stanley Tucci, food isn't just sustenance; it's also a way to connect to his roots — to the backyard gardens of his Southern Italian ancestors, to the basement kitchen where his grandmother plucked chickens, to the delicious Sunday meals of his childhood. But three years ago, Tucci was diagnosed with oral cancer, and the cancer and its treatment nearly robbed him of his ability to enjoy food. Ater an intense radiation treatment, he is now cancer-free. His sense of taste has returned — and is actually heightened.

43:02
This recent segment plays exclusively on
Why is this?
Due to the contractual nature of the Fresh Air Archive, segments must be at least 6 months old to be considered part of the archive. To listen to segments that aired within the last 6 months, please click the blue off-site button to visit the Fresh Air page on NPR.org.

Other segments from the episode on October 5, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 5, 2021: Interview with Stanley Tucci; Review of The Many Saints of Newark.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest is actor, writer and director Stanley Tucci. He's appeared in more than 70 films, including "Big Night", "Julie & Julia", "The Lovely Bones", "The Devil Wears Prada", as well as countless TV and stage productions. But lately, it seems Tucci has been thinking more about food than acting. He's published two cookbooks, and he recently hosted a six-part series on CNN called "Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy". In each episode, he chooses a region in the land of his ancestors and talks to people who create and serve amazing food and, in some cases, those who raise the crops and livestock they come from. In the Bologna episode, he talks about the origins of Parmesan cheese and is treated to the opening of a huge wheel of the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STANLEY TUCCI: SEARCHING FOR ITALY")

STANLEY TUCCI: Milk is king in Emilia Romagna. The white cows are the Bianca Modenese breed unique to the valley of the River Po that runs through this region.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bravo. Bravo.

TUCCI: Emilia Romagna's medieval monks, hungry for a long-lasting cheese...

It's like a magic act.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

TUCCI: ...Invented Parmigiano. Thank God for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three, two, one. Open. Smell, smell, smell. This is - the smelling is unbelievable. The smell is unbelievable.

TUCCI: Oh, my God. Mama mia.

DAVIES: There's plenty of that kind of enthusiasm for food in the series and in Stanley Tucci's new book. It's a memoir not about his performing career, but about his experiences with and love for great food, starting with the cooking of his parents and grandparents, who not only served great dinners, but packed his lunchbox with offerings unique and delicious. The book also describes Tucci's battle with an illness that took away his sense of taste and smell and for a long stretch made it impossible to eat solid food at all. He's back to cooking and eating, we're happy to say, and he joins us to talk about his book, "Taste: My Life Through Food". Stanley Tucci, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TUCCI: Thank you so much. Thank you.

DAVIES: You know, having read this book, I think I want to relive your childhood just for the food. But tell us a little about your parents, where you grew up.

TUCCI: Well, I grew up in Westchester County - Katonah, N.Y., about 50 miles north of the city. And my parents were both Italian American, and their parents had come from Italy, and they were all great cooks. And so I grew up with really, really amazing food, but not only just the food, but it was also the sort of enthusiasm for food and the interest in food. Everything revolved around what you were going to eat that night, what you were eating for lunch, what you - so it couldn't help but become a huge part of who I am. And as you mentioned in the introduction, when I went - when I would go to school, you know, I went to the local school, I brought - you know, you'd bring your lunch. I never bought lunch. Maybe I bought lunch twice in, you know, 12 years. But I would bring whatever was left over from dinner the night before usually in some other form. So if we had veal cutlets or chicken cutlets, I would have those on a - have those as a sandwich. If we had eggplant parmigiana, it was - that was also incorporated into a sandwich, things like that. And I would bring a full - like a grocery bag was my lunch (laughter) as I got older because there was so much food in it.

DAVIES: Your mom, you say, was a terrific cook. Give us a couple of your favorite dinners you remember.

TUCCI: Oh my God, just about everything she makes is incredible. They would make - on a Sunday, they would make a classic ragu. This came from my father's family. And that was meatballs that were fried, but they're very delicate meatballs. They're not in any way heavy. They're - it's sort of half bread, half meat, but very delicately seasoned, too, and then those are put into the sauce at the last minute. It's a meat-based sauce. And we would have that with the - put in for the last like hour, and then that sauce would have been cooking for a few hours, and we would have that as a Sunday meal. But even during the week, as I said, we'd have delicious veal cutlets when veal was not as expensive as it is now. And there was always a salad. There was always some sort of vegetable, you know, whether it was just steamed, you know, green beans or something or sauteed zucchini. She also made a pasta with broccoli that was just one of the most delicious things ever. Really, really simple stuff - but to this day, some of the best food I've ever had.

DAVIES: And I love your description of the conversation around the table, including your father's repeated insistence, his repeated insistence that maybe this is the best she's ever made of this particular dish.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: We would have the same - you know, there was a very - you know, she would make, let's say, something like pasta con piselli, which is just a little pasta, little ditalini, little - or ditali, they're called sometimes. And that would be cooked in a very light tomato sauce with a - sort of extra onions for sweetness and peas. And you'd have it - it almost had a soupy-like consistency to it, and it was absolutely delicious. And my father, again, he would just say, my God, this is the best you've ever made. You know, we had just had it like two weeks before or a week before. But every time he said that, and he meant it, which I thought was funny.

DAVIES: You write about your maternal grandparents. Did they come over from Italy, or were they second generation?

TUCCI: No, no. They came over. They came...

DAVIES: Calabria, right?

TUCCI: Calabria, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. And you said your grandmother was a great cook and her - the kitchen was always very busy, but there was this auxiliary kitchen in the basement. What went on there?

TUCCI: Well, the basement was where she had this - well, my grandfather had, like, a little workshop down there because they had a big garden out back, and he was always sort of constructing things for the garden, whether it was a rabbit cage or, you know, fixing up a little shed he had built or something like that. And she had this auxiliary kitchen. So she had this gas stove - I believe it was a gas stove - downstairs. And it was a big table and a big sink, and then there was also, like, a washing machine, but one of the old washing machines that you roll, put the stuff through and roll it, like hand crank it. And that was where she did a lot of prep work. And if we had a really big party in the winter, we would often just eat down in this basement. And it was just fantastic. I mean, she would make her pizza dough down there. She would make her bread dough down there. And we - I remember cooking chickens with her down there, plucking chickens down there after, you know, she had, you know, decapitated them or basically strangled them. (Laughter) And it was just wonderful. Everything was about eating and cooking and preparing, preparing and enjoying food, growing food, everything.

DAVIES: I think one of my favorite descriptions, recipes, if you will, in the book is the description of your grandfather's making of tomato paste, which he would store in soda bottles down in the basement. You want to just give us how this worked?

TUCCI: Yeah. So, it's not a paste. So...

DAVIES: OK, sauce.

TUCCI: ...Basically, it's like a passata in a sense. So a passata is where you don't have any of the skin or the seeds, right? So what you're doing is, you're getting all - some of the tomatoes came from the garden, and some of them he would - they would buy. And they would take them, as far as I can remember - and they would take them, and you put them into pillowcases. And then you have, like, big, galvanized, you know, tens - drums, right? And you would squeeze them - all the tomatoes through the pillowcase. And what came out is this beautiful, beautiful red juice. Then you had soda bottles, probably - that were probably from the 1930s, I swear. And they were - you'd fill them up with this juice and put it in a bay leaf and a little bit of salt. And then you would put - you would cap it. They had a capper, you know? And then you'd - because you could buy the caps. And they used the same bottles every year. And then you would take that, and you'd boil it to pasteurize it. Or is that what it is, pasteurizing, I guess? Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. And you end up with these pillowcases that look like relics of the St. Valentine's Day massacre (laughter).

TUCCI: Yes, exactly as I wrote in the book. Yes.

DAVIES: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Now, your grandma - your grandparents emigrated from Italy. And you write that, you know, life was hard there and that the poverty they faced kind of shaped some habits around food that they brought over. You want to describe that?

TUCCI: Yeah, and which I think is the case of just about any immigrant who - you know, most people immigrate because they want a better life someplace else. I mean, obviously, that's why there are so many refugees today is that they need a better life. And, I mean, Italy was - southern Italy was incredibly poor, still is very poor in many areas. And there weren't the opportunities that America had. So what that does, of course, if you you're - everything - if you're growing everything in southern Italy and you're growing what you're eating, you can't - I think you can't help but sort of transplant that, those habits, when you move.

So many Italians always had a garden. No matter how big that garden was - the backyard was, you always had a garden. You were always growing something. And that's what they did. And they grew every kind of vegetable imaginable. They had - (coughing) excuse me. They had fruit trees. They had a fig tree, which you had to bury every year. So you bent it down, wrapped it in plastic and buried it because it couldn't sustain the winters. And they had rabbits. When my mother was young, they had goats. They maybe even had a cow or something (laughter). So you were - it was always about that. And so much of their food, they just got it out of their garden.

DAVIES: And the rabbits and goats would be slaughtered and eaten?

TUCCI: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.

TUCCI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: Did you come upon your grandmother once with a squirrel that a neighbor had provided?

TUCCI: Yeah. She was skinning a squirrel. Well, I never ate the squirrel. We never ate the squirrel. I don't know who ate it. But she was skinning a squirrel. Somebody had gone hunting. And they got a squirrel, so they gave her the squirrel (laughter).

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with actor Stanley Tucci. He has a new book, a memoir about his life with food called "Taste: My Life Through Food." We'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Stanley Tucci. He has a new book called "Taste: My Life Through Food."

We're not going to talk a lot about your movies in this interview. This is - I really loved the book about food. But I got to talk about "Big Night," which is a movie you made 25 years ago. You co-wrote, co-directed it. It's a story about two brothers, Italian immigrants, who have an authentic Italian restaurant in a town in New Jersey. And in the film, you're one of the brothers. You're the waiter, the front man, who's the businessman who's kind of willing to give customers a more Americanized version of Italian food if that's what they want. Your brother, Primo, the chef, is militantly committed to true Italian cuisine.

And we're going to hear a scene here where a couple is dining in the restaurant. And the woman has ordered risotto and isn't so sure about it and asks for a side of spaghetti. And you're a little reluctant here because they're two starches. They don't exactly go together, but really because you know that your brother, the chef, will object to this pairing as a desecration of Italian cooking. So what we're going to hear is you speaking briefly with the couple, you're the waiter. And then we'll hear you in the kitchen trying to persuade your brother, Primo, who's played by Tony Shalhoub, to make the spaghetti the woman wants. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIG NIGHT")

CAROLINE AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) I just - well, I'm just - I mean, it's just not what I expected. But I get a side order of spaghetti with this, right?

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Why? Well, no.

LARRY BLOCK: (As Man in Restaurant) I thought all main courses come with spaghetti.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Well, some, yes. But, you see, risotto is rice, so it is a starch. And it doesn't go really with pasta.

AARON: (As Woman in Restaurant) But I don't...

BLOCK: (As Man in Restaurant) Honey, honey, order a side of spaghetti, that's all.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, please, just come on.

TONY SHALHOUB: (As Primo) I want to know for who.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Just make the side order of spaghetti, please.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) Secondo, I want to know for who is it for.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) For the lady with the risotto.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) What? Why?

TUCCI: (As Secondo) She likes starch - I don't know. Come on.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) B****.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) I'll make it myself.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. Who are these people in America? I need to talk to her.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Oh, please, Primo, what are you going to do, tell the customer what she can eat? That's what she want. This is what the customer ask for. Make it. Make the pasta. Make it. Make it. Make the pasta. Come on. Let's go.

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) How can she want? They both are starch. Maybe I should make mashed potato for another side.

TUCCI: (As Secondo) Primo, look; don't - OK? - because they are the first customer to come in two hours...

SHALHOUB: (As Primo) No. She is a criminal. I want to talk to her.

DAVIES: It's still funny.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: Even I laughed.

DAVIES: Yeah. That's our guest, Stanley Tucci, and Tony Shalhoub in the film "Big Night." You know, it's interesting, as I listen to that, your voice is higher. Is - did you do that for the role? Or has your voice deepened over the years?

TUCCI: No. I was - Jesus, I think I just got old.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TUCCI: I think I got old, and my voice got tired (laughter).

DAVIES: Well, I - you know, if people in the audience haven't seen this film, find it and watch it. I tell you, I still remember scenes after 25 years. It's very much about food. You really were committed to this project. This was close to your heart, wasn't it?

TUCCI: Yeah, very much so. And I had wanted to write something about a restaurant 'cause I was fascinated by the structure of a restaurant, the way a restaurant worked or didn't work and - because I had worked in restaurants. And I loved the idea of telling a story about Italians that didn't involve the Mafia. So I started writing, and I was writing a whole bunch of stuff over a period of years. And then I asked my cousin Joe Tropiano to write with me. And over - oh, my God, it took us quite a while 'cause we were both - had - you know, I would go do a job, and he had a steady job. And so we ended up with this script, and - but a lot of that really came - a lot of that stuff - 'cause we shared a maternal grandmother. You know, a lot of the recipes were - or just the love of food and the understanding of food and sort of Italian behavior was very much, you know, from our childhood.

DAVIES: You know, the other connection that I wanted to bring out when we heard that scene about the woman doing this awful thing of trying to eat spaghetti with risotto is that...

TUCCI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...In your descriptions of a lot of these recipes and your family's practices, there's a little bit of a hard edge here about what you do and don't do with Italian cooking. Like, one of the things you hate is seeing just any pasta paired with any sauce, that there has to be - you know, you got to have the right kind of pasta. Like, what's an example of a bad coupling of pasta?

TUCCI: Well, you wouldn't put, like, a Bolognese with star pasta. OK? That's just weird and gross. It'd just be mush. So you need something formidable that's going to stand up to that sauce, the sort of richness of that sauce. And you would use - in Bologna, they'll use, like, a homemade tagliatelle. They might use pappardelle. But certainly, you're also going to use that in - you're going to use lasagna and make a lasagna with it. So those are - they're good, strong pastas. Not quite as strong as a dried pasta - right? - because they're fresh pasta, but to serve - even with a Bolognese, you'd serve, like - maybe you would do it with - or you could have it maybe with a rigatoni or something like that.

But so - I mean, and this is the way it is in Italy. It's one of the reasons I wanted to make the TV show about, you know, regional cuisine is because, yes, it's regional, but it's also - each person is incredibly specific about (laughter) what they're going to make and then what pasta goes with it or what sauce goes with - I mean, that's the way Italy is. That sort of very specific, almost dogmatic way of thinking regarding food is what I was brought up with.

DAVIES: You wrote that bread was not eaten with pasta, just...

TUCCI: No, never.

DAVIES: Just after - no, never.

TUCCI: Never. Never. No, it couldn't - you wouldn't - you just couldn't do it. I mean, you just wouldn't do it (laughter). And butter was never put on the table. Right? So butter was only put on the table when we had meatballs that were fried on a Friday night and - but they were fried. There was no sauce. They were just fried in olive oil, and they were absolutely delicious, and you'd have those with bread and butter. It was a really nice combination. And then you'd have a green salad afterwards. And that was your meal.

DAVIES: You know, you write that your father would often cook on Friday nights to give your mom a break. And by then, like, the budget was stretched a little thin. Sometimes those were a little spare. And one of the first recipes in the book is a very simple dish of your father cooking pasta with garlic and oil. It - really tasty. But the last instruction on the recipe is cheese is not allowed. (Laughter) Now, why would this be? A lot of people would love to grate some Parmesan on there.

TUCCI: Yeah, you would, but it changes the flavor profile of the entire dish, becomes a completely different dish - maybe not in a bad way, but you'd - what you would need - you'd want something more to help it. You would want to add some of the pasta water in and toss it up with the cheese in the pan. Do you know what I mean? So - because otherwise, it would just be claggy and kind of not good. But what you really want is that kind of strange freshness that you're getting from the little sprinkle of paprika if you use it and just the utter simplicity of garlic, oil and salt. It couldn't be simpler.

DAVIES: And you never cut your spaghetti. This drives you crazy when you see a grown person cutting spaghetti on a plate, right?

TUCCI: I mean, that's just - what is that? That's just ridiculous.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TUCCI: I don't even understand that, you know? I (laughter)...

DAVIES: Well, I think it's because they - it's so awkward sometimes to have a big string of pasta hanging from your mouth. So it's to avoid embarrassment or spills, maybe.

TUCCI: Yeah, but it's more embarrassing to cut your pasta.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: All right, we need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you again. We're speaking with the actor Stanley Tucci. His new book is "Taste: My Life Through Food." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "LEMON TWIST")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today is actor, writer, director and food enthusiast Stanley Tucci. He's appeared in many TV and stage productions and more than 70 movies, including "Big Night," "Julie & Julia" and "The Devil Wears Prada." He recently hosted a six-part series on CNN called "Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy," each episode exploring one region of the country and its distinct cuisine. Tucci has written two cookbooks, and he has a new memoir about his lifelong interest in great cooking. It's called "Taste: My Life Through Food."

I wanted to talk about the illness that you suffered because it definitely had to do with your ability to enjoy food. You know, your first wife, Kathryn, died in 2009 from breast cancer, and you married Felicity Blunt, who happens to be the sister of Emily Blunt. And you write in the book about how with both you had a lot of mutual interest in great food. It's really a throughline in your life. So you have this wonderful set of relationships with food. And then a few years ago, you end up being diagnosed with a kind of oral cancer. This began in the saliva gland. Is that right?

TUCCI: No, no. It began - it never was in the saliva gland, but my saliva was severely compromised - basically, for all practical purposes, disappeared - during the treatments and for a long time afterward. I still don't have all my saliva back. It was at the base of my tongue, but it manifested itself - the pain was referred pain up in my jaw - at the back of my jaw. So you know, they thought it was a tooth. They thought it was trigeminal neuralgia. They thought it was a million different things, except for what it was, which was cancer.

And so I was misdiagnosed for two years. I did acupuncture. I tried a whole bunch of different things, and nothing worked. And finally, the tumor became so large that it was quite visible to this one doctor here who happened to be a salivary gland guy. And so he looked. He goes, look, this is what you have. This is what you're going to do. And I was horrified. I was terrified. Luckily, it had not metastasized, and that was a really, obviously, good thing.

But the treatment was brutal - brutal. And after three years, you know, I'm cancer-free. But after three years, you know, I'm still not back to normal. Because the other is the extremely high dose of radiation they had to give me.

DAVIES: Heavy radiation and chemotherapy - and while this is happening, what happened to your sense of taste and smell and...

TUCCI: Disappeared - not that it - I can't say it disappeared. It didn't disappear. I wish it had. What happened was everything tasted like you know what. And everything smelled like that, too. And that went on for months and months and months and months. My mouth was so compromised, you know, it becomes just completely ulcerous. I had to have a feeding tube for six months. I couldn't even drink - during the treatment and even a bit afterwards, I couldn't even drink water because it burned my mouth so much. And still, to this day, I can't really eat spicy things at all. And only recently have I been able to drink carbonated water because carbonation really just - it's so hypersensitive, your mouth. It was horrible. I was basically bedridden for six months.

DAVIES: Right. And you had small children. You actually - your daughter, Camilla, was actually born at the...

TUCCI: Yeah, she was born in the same hospital where I was getting treatment in New York. And it was at Mount Sinai, and these doctors were absolutely incredible. I feel very, very lucky to have found these doctors, and - one of whom has become a friend of ours. And I just feel so, so lucky that - well, that I had them, and that they were able to heal me.

DAVIES: You lost a lot of weight and some hair.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: I lost my facial hair. But that's grown back for the most part - not fully down on the neck. But yeah, there was one day it just all fell out. And then one day when I woke up about - I don't know how many months later - eight months later or more - even more - I looked, and it was all blue underneath my nose. My upper - you know, my upper lip was all blue. And I was like, what is that? And then I realized my hair had grown back. My mustache had grown back, like, literally overnight. It was weird.

DAVIES: Yeah.

TUCCI: And my daughter said, Dad, what do you have under your nose?

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: And I said, it's my hair. It's coming back. And then the rest of it slowly came back.

DAVIES: Oh, man. The other odd thing about it is the effect that it had on your metabolism and the food allergies you'd had. What happened?

TUCCI: Well, it increased my metabolism. I already had a fast metabolism, but it increased it. So I was down to about 134 pounds or something like that. And I think I had weighed about 165, -67 or something, which actually was a bit too heavy for a person my height and age. So it took a long time for me to gain the weight back. So I'm about, like, at 153 pounds now, which is fine with me. But it took - it's taken three years to do that. And any allergies I had to dairy or to wheat or to, like, bananas disappeared - completely disappeared.

DAVIES: Wow. It's like you rebooted.

TUCCI: Yeah, I rebooted.

DAVIES: Yeah.

TUCCI: You reboot your - you know, it's like they say - you know, if you - when you go to, you know, a gastroenterologist, they'll cut out - you know, or a dietician - they'll cut food out of your diet to see if you have an allergic reaction - to see what you're allergic to. And then you slowly reintroduce them.

DAVIES: Wow. So now do you - I mean, you said that you don't - you can't eat spicy food. You don't have quite your normal amount of saliva. But does food taste like it should? Can you enjoy the spaghetti with zucchini?

TUCCI: Absolutely. Food tastes, yes, like it should. Except sometimes fruit tastes odd. I don't know why. But so that's odd. But everything else, no, it tastes - in fact, it's almost heightened now. So I can smell things that I couldn't even - that I never would have been able to smell before. And I can taste things much more quickly. Like, I'm much - hyperaware of what things taste like now.

DAVIES: You know, you write that you chose to tell the story of the illness in the book in part because the experience taught you how important food was to you, not just as sustenance or, you know, sensual pleasure, but that - a comfort, a challenge and a way of connecting with people you love, including generations that have gone before. You know, when you eat these meals of your ancestors and when your parents are gone, people will know them in some way through that. And this struck me as a lovely insight, and it also struck me as - it kind of reminds me of the comforts and connections that many people get from religion and religious ritual, to connect to generations and people through it.

TUCCI: Yeah, it is (laughter) - I suppose it is a kind of religion for me. I'm not a religious person, but if there is one thing that's holy, it would be food.

DAVIES: I'm going to reintroduce you once more. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with actor Stanley Tucci. His new book is "Taste: My Life Through Food." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is actor Stanley Tucci. He has a new memoir about food. It's called "Taste: My Life Through Food."

Well, Stanley Tucci, you know, we try to prepare thoroughly for interviews here on FRESH AIR, and for this - and this weekend, rather than watch another movie of yours, I decided I would make one of the recipes in your book.

TUCCI: (Laughter).

DAVIES: And I did this last night. And the one I picked was the spaghetti con zucchini alla Nerano. There's a story behind this dish which you tell in the book and in the CNN series. You want to share that with us?

TUCCI: Yeah. We went to - it's a dish that comes out of the region of Campania, and Campania is where Naples is in the Amalfi Coast - so really beautiful, beautiful area, but a very poor area of Italy and still, actually, quite poor, even though you have the sort of very ritzy places like Positano and all that. But this dish was a revelation to me. We had - we were on a boat that a friend of ours had for a few days, and we went to this restaurant called Lo Scoglio, which is right on the coast. And it - I ordered that dish. At the time, I couldn't really - I was having - I couldn't really eat meat because of the treatments I had had. So I had to have something really soft and simple. And I ordered that dish, which is spaghetti with sauteed zucchini - really, rather sort of fried zucchini, but not fried to - yeah, fried, I suppose would be the word - and basil and salt and olive oil. That's it. And I tasted it, and I'd never tasted anything like it. I said, there has to be something else in this. And they were very insistent that there wasn't. And of course, it has, like, a little Parmigiano also.

So I became obsessed with it, and so did my wife. So we came back home, and we started making it. When I was doing more episodes of the series, the last two series, we were going to do Campania, and I said, we have to go to this restaurant. And we went to the restaurant, and they made it there for us. And the only thing that differed was - 'cause I kept saying, there's got to be something else in this. And then I found out there was a little dollop of butter. But, frankly, it doesn't really make that much difference. It is absolutely the most delicious thing you'll ever have. And everyone who has it feels the same way about it. It's a dish that fishermen's wives used to make them because that was what you had. The fish was sold, but you were - for the most part, but you were - you had to eat something. So that's what they made.

DAVIES: I don't know that I did it all as they would have at the restaurant, but it was delicious.

TUCCI: Oh, it's delicious.

DAVIES: Yeah.

TUCCI: Did you - so it came out?

DAVIES: Yeah, it came out. You know, the - you slice this zucchini really thin. You want small zucchini. And then you're kind of deep-fry it. And then when - the problem - the only problem I found is that when I put it together, the zucchini tended to want to stick together rather than, you know, mingle among their friends in the spaghetti, and so they kind of tended to clump a little bit. But it all worked out, yeah.

TUCCI: Did you put a little bit of the pasta water in?

DAVIES: Absolutely. I mean, that was critical.

TUCCI: Yeah.

DAVIES: That and the Parmesan gives it the...

TUCCI: Yeah, they do - they...

DAVIES: ...Wonderful, creamy sort of thing, yeah.

TUCCI: Yeah, it's gorgeous. I know. It's gorgeous, yeah. Yeah, sometimes they do kind of stick together.

DAVIES: You know, you mention movies in passing in this book - not a lot about them, sometimes in a slightly disparaging way. You'll say...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: ...You know, I had to spend all this time on a movie that nobody should see. You do have an entire chapter on the catered food that gets served to actors and crews. You know, but I wonder if acting is now kind of a craft that you know and you use from time to time and - but you don't feel the same passion for?

TUCCI: I feel passionate about it when - if I see something and I really want to tell that story and be a part of that story. I do - the only thing, really, for me about acting is waiting. I love - when the camera starts rolling, it's fantastic. But (laughter), you know, 80% of being on a movie set or more is just waiting if you're an actor. And that's very boring. You - it's very hard to concentrate on anything else because, you know, you never quite know when you're about to go on set. And you need to reserve your energy, besides. So it's really just about that. And I think for somebody who likes to do a lot of things, like I do, I find that idle time really frustrating. So I think that's my (laughter) - that's really my problem with it.

DAVIES: Do you audition these days? Or do you just get roles?

TUCCI: No, no, no.

DAVIES: No.

TUCCI: No, not for many, many, many years. Thank God.

DAVIES: A recent role was - you starred with Colin Firth in "Supernova," a film called "Supernova," where you're a couple dealing with the fact that, you know, one of you is suffering from early onset dementia. And it's a really touching look at how this affects this relationship. You and Colin Firth are old friends, right?

TUCCI: Yeah.

DAVIES: And I read that you were originally cast in the opposite roles, and you talked to each other and decided it would work better to switch.

TUCCI: Yeah, yeah. I mean, this is very rare that that might happen. But because we're such good friends, you know, we could talk about it. And it was - and when he said it to me, he proposed it. And I said, you know, I'm glad you said that because I was thinking the same thing. There's just something about it. So we read both. We did it both ways for Harry, the director. And he went, yeah, OK. Let me think about it overnight. And then he was like, no, you're right. You're right. It's better this way. And we don't really know why. It just - there was something rhythmically better about Tusker for me and, you know, Sam for Colin.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I mean, you just - you know, you've had some relevant life experience here. I mean, you had to take care of your wife, Kate, for a long time while she had breast cancer. And then there was that long stretch while you were dealing with it. And in a busy house, you're lying in bed kind of incapacitated, and others have to be your caretakers.

TUCCI: Yeah. I didn't like that, but yeah. I'm not very good at - I hate even - I mean, the thing is I very seldom got sick. I mean, I might get a flu every now and again, maybe. But if I got ill, it would pass very, very quickly. You know, I'd be sick for about 24 hours, and that was it. I very seldom even got colds. So when this happened to me, I was horrified. And I don't - you know, I like to get up and do things. And to not be able to even climb up a flight of stairs was really, really hard.

DAVIES: Yeah. How did you deal with the depression?

TUCCI: I looked at Pinterest. I'm not kidding. I looked at Pinterest. And I would just try - I would actually get up and cook even though things would smell really gross to me (laughter). I would cook anyway. And Felicity said, actually - she goes, you know, some of the times when you cooked during that period, she goes, your cooking was really good.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCCI: But I think it's because I was messing around - I wasn't messing around that much. I was just cooking it and letting it go and trusting it.

DAVIES: I read that you kind of always had an ambition to open a restaurant - true?

TUCCI: Yeah, I do. And - but every time I say it to my wife, she goes, what are you - out of your mind? I said, if we walk by a little place you see that's - you know, a little place right where we live, I go, oh, my God. Now, that space is amazing. She goes, don't even think about it. It's not happening. So it's not happening. Let's face it. I was part-owner of a restaurant many years ago, but I really didn't have very much to do with it.

DAVIES: Well, and you have young children to raise, too.

TUCCI: Yes. I mean, my God. My house is a restaurant. I don't need to open it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Well, Stanley Tucci, it has been fun. Thanks so much for talking with us.

TUCCI: Oh, well, thank you so much. It's been really great. Thanks.

DAVIES: Stanley Tucci's new book is "Taste: My Life Through Food." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "The Many Saints Of Newark," HBO's movie prequel to "The Sopranos." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NIGHT FOR SWINGING")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Sopranos," which ran from HBO from 1999 until its infamous finale in 2007, is back with a movie prequel called "The Many Saints Of Newark." It launched simultaneously last Friday in theaters and on HBO Max. The stars include Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini, playing a teen version of Tony Soprano, the mob boss his dad played in the original series. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Fans have waited a long time for another chapter in the Sopranos' story - so long, in fact, that it's been 22 years since the series launched and changed TV history by putting a sinister character at the center of its ongoing story. And it's been 14 years since that unforgettable finale when the narrative of Tony Soprano didn't so much end as it just stopped. "The Many Saints Of Newark" gets around the finale problem by presenting a prequel set years before the events in "The Sopranos" took place, but it still has another problem which is coming up with a movie-length drama that works both for people who remember the events and characters in "The Sopranos" and those who don't. And on that count, "The Many Saints Of Newark" is a very mixed bag.

It's a tricky balancing act. The best movie prequel to a TV drama series remains David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" film "Fire Walk With Me." The best prequel period is the "Better Call Saul" series offshoot from "Breaking Bad," one of the many excellent shows to follow the path "The Sopranos" trailblazed. Vince Gilligan's brilliant TV drama showed a man getting more and more evil as the story progressed.

This new "Sopranos" story does that, too, following Tony as a youngster and a teen as the movie starts in 1967 and, halfway through, shifts in time to 1971. But it starts with an awkward and unsatisfying framing device, visiting a cemetery and having us listen to voices speaking to us from beyond the grave. One of them is the voice of Christopher Moltisanti, supplied by original "Sopranos" co-star Michael Imperioli.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) I met death on Route 23, not too far from here. But that was much later. Back in 1967, the man wearing the hat was my father. In those days, he didn't have a son.

BIANCULLI: But that man, Dickie Moltisanti, is played by Alessandro Nivola. Tony's uncle Dickie turns out to be the central character in this movie, but he's not one of the real standouts. In addition to Michael Gandolfini, inheriting his father's role as Tony and doing it very well, the real standouts would include Ray Liotta, who brings equal intensity to two different tough-guy roles, and Michela De Rossi, who is fiery and formidable as Giuseppina, an Italian immigrant who figures in the lives of several men in this story, and my favorite, Vera Farmiga, who plays a younger version of Tony's abrasive mother, Livia, and absolutely channels the spirit of Nancy Marchand, who originated the role in "The Sopranos." Here she is as Livia, meeting with a school guidance counselor to discuss young Tony. Talia Balsam plays the counselor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

TALIA BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) On the basis of the Sanford-Binet, he's high-IQ, and you know that.

VERA FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You can't prove it by me. He's got a D-plus average.

BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) Well, that's because he doesn't apply himself. But he is smart.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) There's a big difference between a smart person and a smart alec.

BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) I also administered the Briggs-Myer (ph) personality inventory just now, and the results tell us he's a leader - enthusiastic, insightful, playful.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You're talking through your hat.

BIANCULLI: Tony as a teen is played by Michael Gandolfini, and a bit later, mother and son get to share a scene in which both players get to sound and act uncannily like the actors who preceded them in their roles. We even get to hear Livia's unforgettable trademark phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You smoking marijuana, I suppose.

MICHAEL GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Mom, I'm on the team.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Your sister is. I'm almost sure of it.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) This hamburger's great, ma.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Ah, go on. I went to all that trouble just so we could have a nice conversation for once, and for what? How am I supposed to enjoy a Broadway show with my children and their pot?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Ma, I don't smoke pot.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Well, your sister comes in here smelling like a gypsy.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Well, I'm not my sister. I'm always being accused.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Ah, poor you.

BIANCULLI: But that famous catchphrase is caught only by those fans who remember it. The real joy of "The Many Saints Of Newark" is seeing glimpses of "Sopranos" characters as they pop up. There's Paulie Walnuts and Tony's sister, Janice, and Carmela. But all of those characters are underused. What's worse, what happens in this movie prequel has no real sense of clarity. It's a confusing narrative, and it's not at all easy to keep track of the relationships among the characters.

One of the things that made "The Sopranos" such a superb dramatic series was its subtlety. Characters rarely, if ever, said what they really thought, even in therapy. In this new movie, intentions and motivations are revealed, often overtly. "Sopranos" creator David Chase, who wrote the script with Lawrence Conner, seems to have no problem embracing this more obvious approach, which is unfortunate. Director Alan Taylor is good with his cast. The performances are the best aspect of "The Many Saints Of Newark." But his visual flair tends to show itself only when there's a dead body to focus on, which, in this "Sopranos" prequel, is often. This new drama shows, over time, how Tony Soprano broke bad - just not with the same flair and grace notes we've come to expect from "The Sopranos."

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the movie prequel of "The Sopranos" TV series called "The Many Saints Of Newark."

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, Terry speaks with Fiona Hill. She became famous for testifying at Trump's first impeachment hearing, condemning the false narrative that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the election. She served as the top Russia expert in the Trump White House. In a new memoir, she warns we might be headed towards authoritarianism. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

A more moderate Taliban? An Afghan journalist says nothing has changed

Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power. Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue