Food & Drink

Searching For Italy: Stanley Tucci Visits Sicily

For many of us, Sunday nights won’t be quite the same. 

“Sicily,” the final episode of the hit food travel show, Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, will air on CNN at 9PM on March 21, 2021, closing out the first season. The timing of this six-episode series couldn’t have been more fortuitous. 

Anointed by pandemic pixie dust

Closed borders and raging COVID-19 infection rates have put travel to Italy (and most other parts of the world) on hold, indefinitely. Even dining options close to home have been limited by the pandemic-induced spate of restaurant closures and reduced capacity limits—encouraging more of us to dabble in the kitchen, sometimes for the first time. Forging new social connections—while staying socially distant—has been challenging, at best.

Then Stanley Tucci, the affable host of Searching for Italy, entered our lives. Each Sunday night for the last five weeks, he whisks us away to a different region, chatting with food producers, chefs, restaurateurs, historians, winemakers, locals, guides, and other experts as he explores various aspects of Italian life revolving around its food-centric culture. So far, the culinary journey has led viewers to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Bologna, Milan and Tuscany.

On these virtual trips, we are reminded of the joys of international travel—getting to know locals; learning about the history and traditions of a destination; and savoring new places through all of our senses.

An introduction to Stanley Tucci’s Sicily

If you’re been hooked on the series thus far, the finale, a foray to Sicily (the largest island in the Mediterranean), will not disappoint. 

Tucci explains that most Sicilian dishes rely on the riches of the sea and local ingredients harvested from soil so fertile that it’s sometimes referred to as “God’s Kitchen.” Regional ingredients and recipes reflect the mix of people that have conquered Sicily over centuries.

He takes viewers to the upscale, coastal resort town of Bagheria to meet with Tony Lo Coco, the Michelin-starred chef of I Pupi. The Palermo native prepares his signature dish, spaghetti alla Bottarga (dubbed “spaghetTONY”) with bottarga (fish roe), oregano and crispy capers.

In Vittorio, a baroque town in the province of Ragusa (where Italian writer Andrea Camilleri‘s fictional detective series, Inspector Montalbano is set), Tucci speaks with a 38-year-old artisanal winemaker, Arianna Occhipinti. While high rates of unemployment have driven many young Sicilians to study and work in more prosperous cities (like Milan, Bologna and Parma) Arianna decided to return home to the family vineyards to make organic wines with Frappato and Nero d’ Avola grapes. This area is one of the oldest winemaking regions in Italy.

Opening a discussion of the stark class contrasts that once existed between wealthy landowners and workers in Sicily, Tucci returns close to the center of Palermo to dine with a real princess, Princess Stefania di Raffadal. She and her family live behind massive wooden doors in a 13th century Gothic palace, an ornate “living museum” that has been in her deceased husband’s family for generations. 

The Princess and her staff, including a white-gloved waiter, serve up three magnificent versions of timbales. The dish (an encrusted pasta pie) is one that many will remember as having played a starring role in Tucci’s 1996 film, Big Night,

Next, Tucci visits the southernmost part of Palermo, Lampedusa, a seafaring island off the coast of Sicily known for its colorful beaches. He meets with a sardine fisherman, Beppe Billeci, and his wife, Rina, and they chat over a rustic dish of sardines in salsa verde and Sarde a beccafico (butterflied shrimp with breadcrumbs, raisins and herbs. 

Migrants from Africa have lost their lives in the surrounding waters, arriving in makeshift crafts seeking work to improve their lives. Their abandoned wooden boats occupy a “boat graveyard” on a nearby sandbank. Now, migrants are only permitted to remain on the island for 48-hours before being processed and sent to other locations in Italy. Although immigration is a polarizing topic in Italy, the country is one of the most migrant-friendly nations in Europe, which adds to its rich palette of different cultures and foods.

Pasta alla Norma is one of Sicily’s most iconic dishes. Tucci tastes this specialty at the Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Me Cumpari Turiddu, in Catania, the city that sits in the shadow of Mount Etna. While most restaurants in Italy typically close between lunch and dinner, this trattoria (a less formal restaurant), owned by Roberta Capizzi, stays open all day. Ms. Capizzi recalls the Sicilian adage: “The door of a close friend is always open and the food is really nice.”

The series doesn’t shy away from politics and grit. This episode includes mention of the chilling history of the Mafia in Sicily, including the assassinations of Sicilian prosecutors Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone. 

But the Sicilian journey ends with a heartwarming visit to a family, two theater actors, Emanuela and Mimmo, who foster migrant orphans in their home. A simple meal of plantain fried in coconut oil, chicken cooked in curry and ginger, and rice with peas and shrimp, reflect the global foods and spices that have enhanced their lives.

Waiting for the next season

Searching for Italy was renewed for a second season but viewers will have to wait for it to air, which isn’t likely to take place until 2022.

In the meantime, public health experts are hopeful we are approaching the cusp of a return to “the new normal.” Continued mask-wearing, hand washing and vaccines in arms promise to bring infection rates down and make international travel possible again.

Perhaps avid Italophiles and food enthusiasts will even get to visit some of Searching for Italy’s Season One locations before the airing of the second season.

Miss an episode?

All the Searching for Italy episodes are available on-demand after their premiere. The Sicily episode (episode 6) will also be available on-demand after it airs on Sunday.

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