“It’s not what I expected. It’s kind of a revelation,” says Stanley Tucci while standing in the middle of Palermo’s historic center during the Sicily “Searching for Italy” episode. And this, sums up my thoughts about the show. He had no idea how amazing, in the truest sense of the word, Sicily is. Americans and Italofiles have been traveling vicariously through Tucci’s CNN Sunday night show since mid-February. The six-episode season ended with his visit to Sicily, and of course, many have asked me about my impression of the show. Its placement as the last of the series speaks volumes to me. In other words, the producers saved the best for last. The quotation above says it all.
I’ve watched all six episodes of the program, and I think in order to understand this one—the finale—one must put a few points into perspective. This was made for CNN, a news channel, therefore it had to include current events and politics (which I think was an excellent choice.). Each program is only 45 minutes long. The producers did not know if there would be a second season (There will be!). In sum, I thought it was an excellent episode of Searching for Italy. Did it show the best of Sicily and its cuisine? No, not necessarily, but that is not the objective of Searching for Italy. This program is about discovering a deeper Italy, with food as a vehicle.
I think the Sicily installment showed a provocative introduction and the beautiful complexities of this land that I love, and here is why: Being somewhat familiar with television production (and again, this is meant for CNN, not the Travel channel or the Food channel), I think the producers tackled three big themes that exist in current events in Sicily and cannot be ignored—and certainly the highlights that Americans know (other than the €1 home sales): The mafia, immigration in the Mediterranean, and brain drain (i.e., young people leaving Sicily to go to economic centers for work reasons.). I think that the show did an excellent job presenting these in the short amount of time it had to dedicate to these massive topics. What happened surprised even the producers: Tucci was significantly moved by all three subjects during the segments. First, with the aristocratic family (His comment, “A very memorable evening,” was not about his obsession with timballo. It was about the understanding of class difference and how the disease of La Cosa Nostra pervaded everyone’s lives—rich and poor—and about the “Light of Palermo,” as the granddaughter of the princess so eloquently stated when accounting her impressions of the city in 2019—a magnificence that Tucci did not expect to find whatsoever.); Second, with the fisherman’s family on Lampedusa and the supper-club group in Catania (“The desperation has to be so profound,” he said, visibly moved by the reality of seeing the small boats (like the one pictured here at Punta Bianca on the coast of Agrigento province) that people take to cross the African Sea … and then the tragic story about Mustafa’s arrival on the beach at Catania.); And third, the winemaker Arianna Occhipinti (who does make excellent wines, but here, more importantly, her presence illustrated what can happen if brilliant young minds stay in Sicily against the odds and work hard to make things happen (And please don’t forget, it wasn’t easy before 10-12 years ago to do what she has done for anyone because of the grip of La Cosa Nostra.)).
I think Tucci, who before this was most familiar with Tuscany and Florence, had no idea what he would find in Sicily. He may have even had a negative idea about it, based on what northern Italians say about the south. However, what he did find was “the richest of cuisines,” “and eruption of flavor,” and personal stories that in my opinion, emotionally provoked him more than in any other episode of the series. There is no doubt that he enjoyed, as he said, “some of the best food I’ve ever had.” That is clear from his ecstatic reaction eating “spaghetTONY” at I Pupi, which is 100 steps from my family’s front door in Bagheria. But in the end, he discovered what those of us who love Sicily have known all along—that you will be attracted to Sicily for its outstanding cuisine, breathtaking seaside, and magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites, but in the end, what you take home are memories of Sicilians and their stories, their passion, and their spirit for life—the cumpari—who “always welcome [you] to join the feast.”
Come with me Experience Sicily … I’ll show you the way.
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