“What’s this doing in here?” Tucci’s mother asks, finding the very cheese that she’d given to his grandmother hours earlier.
“But you like it,” his grandmother replies.
“So do you,” says his mother. “That’s why I bought it for you!”
“I got enough cheese,” his grandmother counters.
Among southern Italians, culinary generosity and culinary bullying look an awful lot alike.
Italy factors heavily into “Taste,” as Tucci keeps circling back there to sample and learn more about its food, though engaging scenes pop up all over the globe: in Vancouver, where an Italian restaurant becomes his home away from home; in Egilsstadir, Iceland, where he’s lamb-struck; in London, where he and his wife-to-be, Felicity Blunt, pluck the feathers from two dead pheasants from a local restaurateur, lending new definition to the phrase “lovebirds.” Tucci is a game, amiable tour guide throughout.
But the tour itself is a bit of a jumble. He toggles breezily between passages told in straightforward prose and anecdotes rendered in movie-script dialogue; between lessons on the composition of a particular pasta dish and mini-tutorials on important culinary figures; between recipes, menus and timelines; between salty language and fussy references (a martini is his “crepuscular tipple,” while his and Felicity’s newborn is their “sweet issue”). It’s easily digested but undercooked.
And it may leave you feeling slightly underfed. Oh, there are antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci aplenty, along with vini galore. Tucci is voluble about what, in a hedonistic sense, he shoveled and poured into himself. But he’s more reticent about what, in a spiritual sense, was already there. He provides less detail about his first wife’s early death or about his decision, after having had three children with her, to have another two with Felicity than he does about the preparation, serving and savoring of timpano, a gigantic drum of pasta made semi-famous by “Big Night.” It’s the focus of 10 pages. “Taste” asks for your time and attention and yet, in a manner too common among memoirs by celebrities wary of the public eye, holds you at something of a remove.
But Tucci’s celebrity has an upside: other celebrities, including but hardly limited to Streep. Here he is in Paris, shooting the Robert Altman movie “Prêt-à-Porter” and supping with the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni. Back home, he and the actor Oliver Platt try their uncertain hands at the roasting of an entire pig. And no less a heartthrob than Ryan Reynolds accompanies him to the extraction of his feeding tube, a procedure nearly botched because the physician is mooning over Reynolds. Tucci at one point apologizes for his high-level name-dropping, but he needn’t. It’s a spice that most of the “What I Ate” books don’t have.