The Tucci touch

By Marshall Fine

The best meal he’s ever cooked? Actor-director Stanley Tucci is stumped. He can’t come up with just one.

But his go-to menu when he has to whip up dinner in a hurry? That’s easy.

“It would be some sort of pasta, with mushrooms and fresh tomatoes,” Tucci says. “I also make really good paella. I’ve started making it a lot. I make different versions once or twice a week, in a small pan. It’s so satisfying. I’ll put in shrimp or clams or chicken or whatever else I happen to have around. I just bought a big paella cooker. I can make paella for 20 people.”

When he’s not making movies, Tucci is often in the kitchen – or so it seems. Acting since the mid-1980s and directing films since 1996, Tucci admits that food is his avocation – as evidenced by his onetime relationship with Finch Tavern, a Croton Falls restaurant; “Vine Talk,” his brief PBS series about wine; and the recent release of “The Tucci Cookbook” (Gallery Books), in which he collects recipes from his own family and chef Gianni Scappin.

Food has featured in several of his other projects as well: “Big Night,” which he co-directed with fellow John Jay High School graduate Campbell Scott, was about the travails of a pair of restaurant-owning brothers. In “Julie & Julia,” he played diplomat Paul Child, the husband of cookbook and cooking maven Julia Child.

Tucci, who recently married Felicity Blunt (sister of actress Emily), got his love for and fascination with food from his parents and grandparents. Growing up in Peekskill and Cross River, he learned to cook (and eat) the various Italian delicacies that his grandparents (who hailed from the Calabria section of southern Italy) and his mother made at home.

“Growing up, you’d eat at friends’ houses – and it was never as good as what I got at home,” he says.

That includes the Tucci family recipe for timpano (timballo in some cookbooks), the drum-shaped dish that drew gasps from audiences when it emerged from the oven at the climax of “Big Night.” A giant dish that includes pasta, sauce, salami, meatballs, cheese, vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, it is baked in a large pot lined with a pie-like crust. When sliced after cooking, it can look like the strata in a cross-section of a geological core. It’s the recipe about which Tucci is asked most often.

And it’s at is at the center of “The Tucci Cookbook,” an expansion of “Cucina & Famiglia,” a 1999 cookbook he wrote with Scappin, then the executive chef at Le Madri restaurant in New York. The new book, co-written with his parents, Joan and Stan Tucci, “is very user-friendly,” Tucci says.

“My parents tested all the recipes,” he says. “It took them a year and a half.”

“Big Night” changed Tucci’s career. A character actor who was unhappy with the roles he was being offered – many of which were what he considered stereotypical Italian hoodlums – he co-wrote “Big Night” with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano, co-directing it with Scott and co-starring with pal Tony Shalhoub (TV’s “Monk”). The film went on to win several awards, including the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival where it debuted, an Independent Spirit Award as best first screenplay and an award as best first film from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Since then, Tucci has directed three more films. More important, he has become a popular and award-winning actor on film, stage and television, with an Oscar nomination for 2009’s “The Lovely Bones;” a Tony nomination for the 2002 revival of “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune;” an Emmy nomination for a 2006 episode of “Monk;” and Golden Globe awards for his performances in the HBO films “Conspiracy” (in which he played Adolf Eichmann) and “Winchell” (in which he played Walter Winchell).

His schedule is packed these days. He’ll be seen this fall in “The Fifth Estate,” a film about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; and “Catching Fire,” the second film in the “Hunger Games” series, in which he plays the flamboyant host of the competition’s TV broadcasts. He recently completed a role in “A Little Chaos,” directed by Alan Rickman. Before the end of the year, he’ll be working on several more films, including the next “Transformers” movie and the final two “Hunger Games” features.

But he still finds time to cook for wife and his three children with his late wife, Kate (who died from breast cancer in 2009). What does he always have at hand if you open the Tucci family refrigerator?

“White wine, goat cheese, prosciutto, vegetables – and peanut butter,” he says. He likes appliances from Sub-Zero and Miele. “They make good ovens,” he says of the latter.

If he has a favorite spice, it’s saffron.

“I love saffron. You’d be amazed what you can throw it into. I put it into mussels. A little saffron, maybe shallots, vermouth or white wine – it’s delicious.”

Tucci, who lives in South Salem – though he plans a move to London within the year, where Felicity is a literary agent – does most of his day-to-day grocery shopping at his local Stop & Shop. But he goes elsewhere for meats and vegetables, pointing to Ridgefield Organics & Specialty Market for vegetables (“She has nice stuff there”) and “a craft butcher in Westport we like a lot.”

“We took a butchering class there for a few hours one night,” he recalls. “We learned how to take apart a whole pig.”

He finds new recipes in magazines or while dining at new restaurants, particularly when he’s on location with a film.

“Because of movies, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of chefs,” he says. “I learn stuff from them. Felicity got me a series of Nigel Slater videos and I’ve been watching those. You pick things up wherever you can.”

When he’s cooking a new recipe, “I’ll follow it closely – the first time,” he says. “But you’ll see what they’re doing and think, ‘What if I did this instead?’ Last night, for example, I made a kind of chicken pot pie with a puff pastry. The recipe called for cream and I can’t really eat that, so I adapted and altered it a bit. And it turned out beautifully.”

Asked if he has a guilty-pleasure food, Tucci laughs and says, “It’s all a guilty pleasure. I particularly like excessive amounts of pasta – lots of carbohydrates.”

Pressed on the question, he says, “I don’t eat sweets, sugar or dairy, mostly because I can’t. But I always want something like a Napoleon.”

 

Mediterranean Pasta Salad with Arugula and Tomatoes

Penne con Rucola e Pomodori

I love any dish prepared with arugula – hot or cold. This pasta may be prepared a day in advance. Cover and store it in the refrigerator until one hour before tossing and serving.

1 pound penne

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 cups packed stemmed arugula, coarsely cut or torn

½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves

3 cups peeled and seeded ripe tomatoes cut into half-inch-dice (about four large tomatoes)

3 teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Freshly grated Parmesan or ricotta salata cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, following the package instructions. Drain and transfer to a wide serving bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the arugula, basil, tomatoes, the remaining five tablespoons olive oil, the salt, pepper to taste and the lemon juice. Toss well. Serve at room temperature, garnish with Parmesan.

Serves six to eight.

Wine pairing: Sparkling, light white and light red.

Variations: Fusilli, farfalle or conchiglie pasta may be substituted for the penne. Red or yellow cherry tomatoes, or a combination of both, cut in half, may be substituted for the whole tomatoes. (Note: You will need about 1½ pints.) Another great addition to this dish is half-pound diced fresh mozzarella. Toss it in the salad along with 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar for a zesty, hearty dish.

 

Eggs with Tomato

Uova al Pomodoro

As a kid I looked forward to this Friday night meal. Not only was it unusually beautiful, but its sweet flavor, thanks to the onions, would linger long after the last bite. This recipe uses a simple method of poaching the eggs in tomato sauce. It makes a terrific lunch dish, served with slices of bread for dipping in the sauce and accompanied by a tossed salad.

¼ cup olive oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1 cup canned whole plum tomatoes

4 large eggs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a medium-size nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hand or the back of a slotted spoon. Cook until the tomatoes have sweetened, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Gently break the eggs into the pan and cover. Cook until the whites are opaque and the yolks are moderately firm, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

Serves two.

Wine pairing: Sparkling and light white.

Photographer and food stylist: Francesco Tonelli.

 

String Beans with Tomatoes

Fagiolini al Pomodoro

My mother grew up with a large garden that came right up to the edge of the house. “My parents cultivated a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she remembers. “Everyone helped in the garden, turning the soil and planting in the spring, harvesting and canning in the fall. In fact, I have pictures of Stanley as a baby helping Pop in the garden.” Among the vegetables my grandfather grew were wide, flat Italian pole beans. He would pick a basket of beans, a few tomatoes and a small zucchini. My grandmother would cook them all together to create a light dish for lunch or dinner, followed by chicken or meat.

1 cup water

1 pound string beans, ends trimmed

1 small zucchini, cut in quarters lengthwise and chopped into half-inch-wide chunks

1 medium-size all-purpose potato, peeled and quartered

½ cup chopped and seeded ripe tomatoes or canned whole plum tomatoes, crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 clove garlic, cut in half

Place the water in a medium-size pot set over medium-high heat. Add the string beans, zucchini, potato and tomatoes. Stir in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic, bring to a boil, then cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Remove the vegetables to a serving dish with a slotted spoon. Spoon some of the sauce on top and serve.

Serves four.

Wine Pairing: Light red, medium red, and medium white.

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