If you haven’t yet seen Stanley Tucci’s new food travel show on CNN, Searching for Italy, you’re missing out big time. Because… Stanley Tucci = awesome. Italy = awesome. Italian food = out-of-this-world awesome.
Let’s start with Stanley Tucci. I think the first thing I ever saw him in was the 1996 movie Big Night. Ironically, that movie was also all about food. Annnnnnnd, it also starred Tony Shalhoub, so yeah, if you haven’t seen that yet either, stream it now. Such an underrated film.
Anyway, ever since I saw that movie, I just seemed to be drawn to anything Stanley Tucci was in. Kind of like how I always knew I would like whatever Philip Seymour Hoffman was in, or Jennifer Lawrence, or Cate Blanchett. Even when he’s playing a bad guy, Stanley Tucci is such a likeable dude. Maybe the reason I like him so much is that he’s short, bald, and wears glasses. Yeah. That could be it.
So Italy is the first country that I ever visited overseas. It was 2005, and Jodi and I were ready for our first big foreign adventure. We booked ourselves on a two-week guided tour sponsored by the American Horticultural Society. Jodi wanted to see incredible gardens, I wanted to see Italy, and we both wanted to eat amazing food that we didn’t have to cook.
For our first trip to Europe, it was perfect for us. All the details were taken care of, we had a guide so no need to worry about any language barrier, and neither of us would have to drive or navigate anywhere. So there we were, in a little bus with a bunch of old people. We were the youngest people on the bus by something like 20 or 30 years. And we were completely good with that, because for the most part, those people behave themselves. Except the cranky ones.
We saw the most amazing places. The coolest buildings. We used bathrooms that were just a hole in the ground, and somebody to mop around the edges of the hole after each person. (Actually, I probably could have done without that.)
In short, Italy is incredible. We loved it so much that we booked the same kind of trip to a different region of Italy 2 years later.
At the end of those two trips, we had seen Venice, Milan, Verona, Padua, Turin, and lots and lots of other places, including my favorite spot of all, Lake Como.
If I ever get the money to retire anyplace in the world that I want, Italy is at the top of the list.
Best Thing I Ever Ate
Just ask someone, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?” They might be able to tell you their favorite “kind” of food, but very few people can point to a specific meal that is the very best thing they’ve ever eaten. And until we went to Italy, I definitely couldn’t have told you either.
Now, I’ve eaten a lot of really good things in a America. But let’s face it, this is a culture that, when it comes to the culinary arts, mostly prides itself on price and serving size.
I haven’t been to nearly as many other countries as a lot of other people have. I think I’m up to 11 (Canada, Mexico, Italy, England, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Spain, China, and France). What I found out in traveling to these different places, is that all of them have a ton of pride in certain things about their countries. When it comes to food, Spain and France are definitely full of pride. But I have never. Ever. Never ever been anywhere that took as much pride in its food as Italy.
And if I had a top 10 list of my favorite meals, I would bet that at least 5 of those (maybe more) would have taken place in Italy. I can without any hesitation tell you that the best pizza I ever ate was in this little restaurant in Milan. And that’s not even the pizza capitol of Italy! That would be Napoli. I gotta get myself to Napoli one of these days!
But as for the absolute best meal I’ve ever eaten, well that didn’t even happen at a restaurant. It was at a private villa somewhere in Italy. I don’t even remember the exact location. You see, in Italy (and other countries) there are all of these incredible castles, estates, and places owned by people with titles (conte, contesses, barons, baronesses, dukes, dukesesses?, esquires, esquireitesesses?). And to be able to afford to maintain these places that have been in their families for centuries, they have to rent them out and entertain tourists (even frumpy ones from America!). But you already knew that, didn’t you?
This is the place. It was right at the top of those steps, and just inside door. Best thing I ever ate was right there.
So on these trips to Italy, sometimes we’d go to some big freakin’ castley place, and you’d be greeted by lovely older contessa whose great-great-great-great-great grandfather was probably pope of the world at some point. And she’d give you a tour, and graciously answer all your questions. And then at the end, there she’d be again at the register in the gift shop ringing up little plastic doodads for a retired bookkeeper from Tuscon.
And it was at one of these villas that I ate the single best meal of my life. It was a baked pasta, and looked like a cake. I wish I could describe it. I can’t. It was indescribable. Just soooooooo good. And I turned to Jodi and actually said the words, “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
So my advice to you is that if you want to eat the best thing ever in your life, go to Italy. And find one of these villas with an aging contessa. And beg them to make you something to eat. And it wouldn’t hurt to have Stanley Tucci with you.