Might Stanley Tucci Fill the Bourdain-shaped Hole in Our Hearts?

On his CNN series Tucci proves himself an engaging and knowledgeable guide to the regions of Italy.

Can actor/director/foodie Stanley Tucci carry on in the spirit of Anthony Bourdain? After watching just a few episodes of “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” in its first season on CNN, I’m persuaded by Tucci’s mellifluous voice, his New Yorker chutzpah (though now a denizen of London), his obvious love of food and his own cooking chops (he’s written a couple of cookbooks, one with his wife, Felicity Blunt), and his curiosity about the world.

You want your travel guide to be more than superficial but also to go down easy? Tucci can deliver illuminating historical context and out-of-the-way walking tours with something of the verve and humor of Rick Steves.

But it is mostly Bourdain I’m reminded of. And the real value of what Bourdain did, beyond his trenchant writing and his talking up of fresh street foods versus the mostly wretched “fast foods” of the West (and generally warning us off the hollandaise), was in humanizing the “other” in a world where many have become professionally adroit at dehumanizing them. Tucci could very well carry on this always pertinent work.

The well-known Mark Twain passage on travel at the end of his first book, The Innocents Abroad, comes to mind: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

As he notes in his introduction, Tucci is Italian on both sides. And though he has traveled through Italy—after living in Tuscany with his family for a magical year when he was twelve—he has not lingered and really explored many of the 20 regions in the country, diverse in their geography, food, and politics. In fact, geography dictates much, as he notes in the episode on Lombardy, where he visits not only Milan but Sumirago, for an elaborate lunch with the Missoni family, and the Bitto valley in the Orobic Alps, for some cheese tasting. As the Alpine grass affects the milk that makes the cheese, so do the rugged mountains and isolated villages affect the political thinking of the citizens. (Something he did not mention, which Bourdain likely would have, is the dangerous amount of air pollution in the region, caused by industry, cars, and animal breeding and fertilizers. Satellite photos from the European Space Agency show a large stain over the entire Po Valley.)

Anthony Bourdain did his best to bring the world to the American viewer, on “A Cook’s Tour” (2002-3),  on the Food Network; “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (2005-12) and “The Layover” (2011-13), both on the Travel Channel; and then “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” on CNN. The reach of CNN in terms of infrastructure to get reporters to remote and dangerous areas of the world was what intrigued him. His approach was empathetic, and he encouraged his fellow liberals to not be so smug, to try to put themselves in others’ shoes. “Understand people first: their economic, living situation,” he said in a 2016 interview with Reason, a libertarian magazine. And this was, for Bourdain, as true in West Texas or Appalachia as it was in Myanmar or Ethiopia.

Did Anthony Bourdain do a fantastic job at it? Yes. Yes he did.

Could we all take a lesson from that? Yes. Yes we could.

One thinks of the episode in which Bourdain explored Iran and felt incredibly welcomed; the one in which he and chef friend Éric Ripert searched Peru for wild cocoa; and the one where, on a rainy day, he waited outside a noodle house on the periphery of Hanoi for a certain someone to arrive, and that someone turned out to be President Barack Obama.

It may not be difficult to connect with citizens of a wealthy Western city like Milan or even a region where George Clooney owns a fabulous getaway house (on Lake Como), but in that episode Tucci notes the conservative (anti-EU, anti-immigration) bent of many in the north and gets into Bourdain territory while fishing with a man, William Cavadini, who supports the far-right authoritarian political party The League—and manages to almost make a conversation about it before both men gratefully turn to share their simple repast, a local favorite perch-and-rice dish, while it was still hot. But even then, having turned from political talk, the two are in the same room, communing in their own way. As he drives away, Tucci ruminates over the encounter.

Our younger daughter, Nora, spent a semester abroad in Rome and inexpensively travelled as much as she could. When I told her about the series, her take was that Europeans naturally have a much broader view of others because they are more able to travel to other countries than we are. On top of that, she noted, “Europeans don’t grow up attending schools that tell children that their country is the greatest in the world.”

Does Tucci have the necessary charisma? I’ll just say that my wife loved Anthony Bourdain beyond measure (and is still mourning his passing). She also loves Stanley Tucci and has ever since seeing his wonderful 1996 film with Tony Shalhoub, Big Night. It’s almost annoying.

I look forward to following Tucci into the many other regions of Italy in upcoming seasons, once travel is possible again. Let’s hope Tucci’s tour is then extended beyond Italian borders. As we learned in the episode centered around Milan, schnitzel may actually be a product of northern Italy. Who knew? The world has been linked by the pandemic (which appears to have culled the first season down to six episodes), and through that experience we have learned more about how essentially alike we are. To play with the Twain quote, we may not be able to travel right now, but we can grow interesting vegetables in our own corner of the world. We can try to break down the borders between us, through our love of food and a shared culture. And we can travel virtually, with more confidence than we would normally do, with the likes of Stanley Tucci at our side.

Stanley Tucci is, of course, not Anthony Bourdain, but he might be able to help fill the Bourdain-shaped hole in our hearts.