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Stanley Tucci's Hollywood ending...with meatballs

Food has played a major part in the life and career of actor Stanley Tucci. From his role in films such as "Julia & Julia" to his Italian family roots, "The Tucci Cookbook" explores how food can build and bind relationships both professional and personal together.
/ Source: The New York Times

To appreciate how much food means to the actor Stanley Tucci and his extended family, you have to hear the stories about his maternal grandmother, Concetta Tropiano, who pickled her own tomatoes, canned her own pears, curdled her own ricotta, brewed her own beer and fattened her own chickens, rabbits and goats in Verplanck, N.Y., about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. You have to hear in particular about her doughy twilight, when death came knocking but she was too busy with focaccia to answer the door.

This was in the mid-1990s, when she was in her late 80s. A stroke mostly paralyzed her left arm, limiting her kitchen work. She nonetheless insisted on doing something as she recovered, and used the kneading of dough as therapy, the making of pizza — and focaccia — as rehabilitation.

About a year after the stroke, a devastating infection forced the amputation of her left leg. Relatives gathered to comfort her as she emerged from surgery.

“To cheer her up, we asked her to tell us, again, how to make stuffed artichokes,” recalled Joan Tucci, her daughter and Stanley’s mother. “She went through the whole thing.”

“I thought the nurse was going to die,” Mrs. Tucci added. “Only an Italian would talk about food at a time like this.”

Mrs. Tucci lost her mother in 1997, when Mrs. Tropiano was 88. But Mrs. Tropiano’s legacy endures, in part through “The Tucci Cookbook,” a paean to Italian cooking — and to Italian-American families — that is being published next week.

It includes recipes from the Tropiano and Tucci sides of the clan, both of which have roots in Calabria, in southern Italy. It reflects the year in the early 1970s when Joan Tucci and her husband, Stanley Sr., temporarily moved their children to Florence, became familiar with northern Italian cooking and fell hard for lasagne verde. It bows to “Big Night,” a 1996 movie, set in an Italian-American restaurant, that Stanley Tucci not only acted in but also helped write and direct. The movie, in fact, inspired a previous, shorter, less glossy version of “The Tucci Cookbook,” titled “Cucina & Famiglia.”

But beyond all of that, “The Tucci Cookbook,” in which the recipes are interlaced with reminiscences from two generations of Tuccis, suggests the meaty, saucy ways in which a love of food can bind and govern a family. That love has certainly shaped Stanley Tucci’s life and career, in which cooking and eating seem to be the glues for every relationship, the sidebars to every adventure, the grace notes of every achievement.

“Big Night,” an exuberant celebration of culinary obsession, helped put him on the map in Hollywood. More than a decade later, “Julie & Julia,” in which he played Julia Child’s husband, cemented his reputation as one of the movie business’s nimblest character actors.

He recalled that before that movie was shot he told Meryl Streep, who played Ms. Child: “You and I need to cook together. I don’t mean to be a nudge and I don’t mean to be Method-y, but we need to be in a kitchen together.” At Ms. Streep’s apartment in Manhattan, they prepared a proper French dinner, with a main course of blanquette de veau and, for dessert, a tarte Tatin.

Mr. Tucci, 51, is a proud and avid cook, and at his home in northern Westchester County, not far from Concetta Tropiano’s old stamping grounds, his arsenal of equipment trumps what many restaurants have on hand. In addition to the six burners and acres of counter space in his kitchen, there’s a mammoth stone pizza oven, made in Italy, on the patio outside, along with a gas grill as large as a Fiat, a free-standing paella pan the size of a wading pool, and a coffinlike wood-and-aluminum roasting box, called a Caja China, that can accommodate up to 100 pounds of meat. He likes his dinner parties populous and his friends carnivorous.

Widowed in 2009, he remarried in August, and when he and his bride, Felicity Blunt, 31, tell the story of their courtship, it’s a bloody, gristly narrative.

He first got to know Ms. Blunt, a literary agent, at the wedding on Lake Como, Italy, of her younger sister, the actress Emily Blunt, with whom he and Ms. Streep had appeared in “The Devil Wears Prada.” When he subsequently traveled to London to shoot “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Felicity, who lived there, showed him some of her favorite restaurants.

They occasionally stayed in an apartment above one of them, the Ledbury, and fondly remember retreating there once with two uncooked pheasants that a chef at the Ledbury had given them. For 90 merry minutes, the lovebirds plucked the feathers from the dead birds.

Later, when Ms. Blunt visited his home, they got a 26-pound suckling pig to roast and together used various household tools to sever its head before wrestling it onto a spit.

“It was like ‘Lord of the Flies’,” said Ms. Blunt, in a dreamy voice, as the couple sat on his patio on an afternoon not long ago.

Mr. Tucci recalled that he found her in the kitchen the morning after, in her bathrobe, using her bare hands to tear cold flesh from the piglet for a platter of leftover pork.

“How can you not fall in love with a woman like that?” he asked.

“It was the way the light hit the carcass,” Ms. Blunt said.

A few weeks after she and Mr. Tucci recounted their suckling-pig experience, his parents joined them to prepare a feast from “The Tucci Cookbook,” and Ms. Blunt was assigned the filleting of the branzino. Her in-laws complimented her on her deft knife work.

“That’s what I’m bringing to the marriage,” she said. “Butchery.”

Mr. Tucci’s parents live in Katonah, N.Y., which is where he grew up, only about 20 miles from Verplanck. He said he realized early on that his family paid an unusual degree of attention to food.

“I didn’t go to school with a lunch bag,” he said. “I went to school with a grocery bag.” Pungent and oil-dappled, it typically contained two or three Italian heroes stuffed with ingredients like peppers and eggs, potatoes and eggs, or eggplant parmigiano.

“He used to sell it — change it — for Fluffernutter,” Mrs. Tucci said, sounding insulted. Time hadn’t extinguished her ire.

“Only on occasion,” he assured her, “when I grew weary of the veal cutlet.”

While he was in college at the State University of New York at Purchase, he worked briefly as a busboy and bartender in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan that’s no longer around. It planted the idea for “Big Night,” which focuses on a beleaguered restaurant’s preparations for a potentially lifesaving visit from a special customer.

At the center of those preparations is an elaborate, enormous dough-encased drum of ziti, salami, provolone, eggs and tomato sauce called a timpano. It serves 16, and the Tuccis make one every Christmas. After the movie was released, they were constantly asked for the recipe.

It and scores of others appeared in “Cucina & Famiglia,” published by Morrow Cookbooks in 1999, with Joan Tucci and Gianni Scappin credited as its principal authors. Mr. Scappin had been the head chef at Le Madri, a Manhattan restaurant where Mr. Tucci did research for “Big Night.” (It closed in 2005.)

Mr. Tucci said that “Cucina & Famiglia” sold well enough, but what impressed him was what happened after it went out of print. On the Web he saw prices for used copies in the hundreds of dollars, and he kept being asked where to find it.

“The Tucci Cookbook,” published by Gallery Books, is his response. It lists him as the main author, reflecting his ever deeper immersion into the world of serious food. Last year he was the host of a short-lived PBS show about wine called “Vine Talk,” and he has become friendly with several prominent chefs, including Mario Batali, who wrote the foreword to “The Tucci Cookbook,” and Adam Perry Lang, the sire and former owner of Daisy May’s BBQ USA in Manhattan.

Apart from the timpano, most dishes in the book are uncomplicated Italian staples like basil pesto, potato gnocchi, linguine with clam sauce. A reader can compare and contrast meat-and-tomato ragùs from the Tropianos and Tuccis, and “Concetta’s stuffed artichokes,” with bread crumbs and pecorino Romano, are present and accounted for.

For the feast made from the book, Mr. Tucci, his parents and Ms. Blunt prepared not only the branzino but also steak oreganato, fettuccine with fresh tomatoes, grilled sardines, a celery salad, a carrot salad, pizza with goat cheese, pizza with mozzarella, peaches in red wine. They divvied up the tasks and caromed through the kitchen, bumping into — and occasionally bickering with — one another. Mr. Tucci nagged his mother for not slicing the steak more thinly. She nagged her husband for forgetting to take the clams out of the freezer for baking.

It was quite a spectacle, and Mr. Lang, who saw a version of it himself when he spent a weekend last summer at Mr. Tucci’s house, noted: “It’s in vogue now to say, ‘The whole family gathers in the kitchen.’ But they invented that. There are all these people by the stove sautéing things and dunking things and putting gravy over things.”

“And,” he added, “ there’s always the conversation, while they’re eating, about what they’ll be eating the following day.”

This article, “Hollywood Ending, With Meatballs,” first appeared in The New York Times