Actor Stanley Tucci has created his second cookbook. He tells Tim Adams that food is a great way of expressing love.
One of the pleasures of lunch with Stanley Tucci is that it gives me the excuse, beforehand, to rewatch his film Big Night, easily the best movie ever made about running a restaurant. It's 20 years since Tucci co-wrote (with his cousin), co-directed and starred in his homage to the Italian immigrant experience in New York but the battle lines - between the two brothers, Primo and Secondo, purist chef and drowning maitre d' at their restaurant Paradise - remain as fresh as ever. "People should come just for the food!" Primo (Tony Shalhoub) repeats, as a mantra, refusing to compromise his cooking for American tastes. "I know that, I know," Secundo - Tucci - mutters, desperate, "but they don't."
"It always seemed to me," Tucci says, when we talk about the genesis of that film, "that running a restaurant is kind of accidentally poetic. I don't have a brother or anyone in my family who worked in the restaurant business, but that idea of expressing love through food has been and is an important one in my life."
Also he says, Big Night was his personal antidote to the prevailing cinematic idea of Italian Americans. "I wanted to tell that story without the mafia being involved in it. I mean, I grew up in that community, I never met anyone in the mafia. None of my family ever met anyone in the mafia. That kind of violence was never a feature of our lives."
We are having this conversation at a table at the back of the tiny, inspired restaurant, Ducksoup, in Soho, London, just a long bar with stools and a few tables front, back and downstairs. Tucci came here first a year ago with his wife, literary agent Felicity Blunt, having been unable to walk past somewhere that shared a name with one of his own favourite films. He has been coming back ever since.
"I would have liked a place like this when I was young," he says. "If anything, this is too big. You come in every day and cook what you want. And people who come and eat get a surprise." Co-owner Rory McCoy tells us that chef Julian Biggs is having a kind of Middle Eastern week - the menu has a sumac and bulgar emphasis.
The occasion for our lunch is the publication of the polymathic actor's second cookbook, The Tucci Table. The first, The Tucci Cookbook, was the collected recipe wisdom of three generations of his family, but mostly the preserved memory of the culinary flavours conjured by his maternal grandmother ("I don't think I ever saw her out of the kitchen," he says, "except picking things from the garden.").
This one celebrates a new family (literally, as his and Blunt's son, Matteo, was born in January) and a move to England - his spaghetti vongole and uova da raviolo meets Blunt's yorkshire pudding and sausage rolls.
It is made partly, too, in memory of Tucci's first wife, Kate, mother of his three older children, now in their teens. Kate died after a long struggle with cancer in 2009. In the introduction Tucci suggests that for the book he and his children have done their best to recreate some of the dishes she cooked and that "although they were delicious what made them truly special was that they were of her and she made them for us".
Tucci met Felicity at the wedding of her sister, Emily Blunt, with whom he had starred in The Devil Wears Prada. Over the weekend at George Clooney's villa on Lake Como in 2011 they talked favourite recipes and, when they subsequently met in London, Tucci "bore witness [in Felicity] to a passion and appetite for food and wine that rivalled my own (and perhaps those of Henry VIII and Bacchus combined)". As they left the restaurant Blunt popped the fateful question: "Where do you want to eat tomorrow?"
If he had his choice now, Ducksoup might, I guess, come quite high on that list. Tucci orders with just a hint of the exclamatory gusto that he takes to illogical extremes in his portrayal of talk-show host Caesar Flickerman in the films of The Hunger Games.
"Wow!" he says to McCoy. "You have lardo!"
And: "Deep-fried artichoke, blood orange with almond aioli! Come on!"
And "Those great mushrooms!"
And: "Lamb shoulder cooked in milk!"
And: "Dates and this strange and wonderful yoghurt!"
We decide to share. "I shouldn't be eating the lamb shoulder or the yoghurt," Tucci says, "because I can't eat dairy or gluten, but I'll eat some anyways."
Is that an allergy?
"No, it's a total pain in the ass!"
The lardo arrives. "Oh my God!"
Tucci is similarly omnivorous toward the wine list. McCoy offers a still prosecco, to taste. "That's really good. Shall we have a glass?"
He suggests there is also a fine gewurztraminer from Alsace. "Let's have a glass of that, too."
Tucci converses with concentrated animation. At first, at my prompting, about his film Joe Gould's Secret, in which he played New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell, the great chronicler of the maritime margins of the city. "It is so easy in New York to forget you are living on an island," Tucci says.
One of the things he loves about living in his part of London, Barnes, is the constant reminder of the river.
"When I walk over Barnes Bridge to go to the gym the river is just fantastic every time," he says. "I'm tempted to get a metal detector and get down on the beach with those guys. I was looking at a history of London book I have and there's this big Roman sword they found on the beach at Putney. How amazing it would be to find a sword!"
Is London home for good now?
"I have a place in Florida. I sold my house in New York. I was in Westchester about 30 miles north, you know it was very hard to be there after my wife passed away. It seemed like a good time to be here. I love it here and the kids are settled. I always wanted to live in Europe."
He describes his workload as "quiet". For him this involves only a movie, Spotlight, about the investigation of paedophilia cases in the Catholic church by the Boston Globe, and another, Patient Zero, a thriller about the hunt for a cure to a global pandemic, about to start. He starred in the television series Fortitude, shot in Iceland, and has another box-set TV project on the go, "about which I cannot speak". The fourth Hunger Games film is also in post-production.
Later this year - hopefully - he will be filming a movie that he wrote about the artist Alberto Giacometti, with Geoffrey Rush playing Giacometti, and himself directing. "It has taken a decade to get to this point, the usual f***ing nightmare, but if we get the rest of the money we can start it finally."
He likes to keep busy?
"Yes, otherwise you are waiting for someone to give you an acting job you like. It's not enough for me. I have a bunch of scripts I've written that are languishing. They plague you to get out into the world."
Tucci locates his creative impulse in his childhood. His father was a high school art teacher for 40 years. He could do everything, drawing, ceramics, jewellery making, sculpture. His parents moved to Florida recently and as soon as they unpacked, Tucci says, his father was making sculptures out of the cardboard packing cases. "To me that is what art is. You take whatever is in front of you and make it into something else. It is the same with food. I have a chilli, an eggplant, a leek and some rice, and I have to feed four people. What do I do? You take what comes. Acting is like that. Directing is like that. Being a parent is a bit like that too."
How is he finding fatherhood, fourth time around, at 54?
"Well," he says. "I was very nervous, kind of gun-shy. I knew Felicity wanted children and I wasn't sure I could do it again." He laughs. "I mean I knew I could do it again ... But anyway, we did it. And of course he is adorable and it is fantastic. I know what is coming of course. But it's like as a young actor you think you have to make all this effort to show people how good you are. As you get older you realise most of it is just showing up and telling the truth. Parenting is the same. Listen to them, be kind, tell the truth, be there as much as you can. And try to enjoy it all."
Tucci smiles at the prospect. He is, likeably, not an either/or kind of lunch companion. McCoy wonders if we would like some red wine with the glorious lamb. There's a grenache from the Roussillon, or a chilled beaujolais.
"Let's try a glass of both," Tucci says.
The Tucci Table by Stanley Tucci and Felicity Blunt (Hachette $55) is out now.
- Canvas, Observer