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When Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown debuted on on CNN nearly eight years ago, it was seen as a righteous gamble by the cable news giant. Coming off a heated (and highly rated) presidential election, CNN was betting that its viewers would want an escape from the news cycle, and that Bourdain would be the one to deliver it.
The gamble paid off. Parts Unknown became the biggest hit in the CNN original series arsenal, maintaining a regular presence in CNN’s lineup until Bourdain’s untimely death in 2018. The channel has stayed away from the food/travel genre since then, and leaned into the heavy, Trump-driven news cycle to record ratings.
Now, however, CNN executives are betting that once again its viewers will want a reprieve, and that actor Stanley Tucci — joined by wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, a famed pizzaiolo, and a DJ who goes by the stage name “Don Pasta” — is the key to viewers’ hearts, or bellies.
Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy is set to premiere on CNN on Feb. 14, seeing the actor travel to a different Italian region in each of the season’s six episodes, exploring the food culture along the way. It also marks CNN’s return to the genre, after two years exploring other concepts.
“I knew Tony a bit, he was an incredible mind, a real raconteur, and a great explorer,” Tucci said over Zoom in late January. “The show that we are doing is distinctly different than his: I am not nearly as adventurous as Tony was, not nearly. Or as brave. But what he did is open the doors to all of us who were interested in food, and travel, to explore in our own ways. He was, and still is, and always will be, a hero of mine. He was an extraordinary writer, a nice person, and a great explorer of the human condition through food.”
For CNN and its original series team, led by executive vp talent and content development Amy Entelis, it is also an affirmation of the strategy that Bourdain kickstarted.
“The Bourdain show was a big experiment at the time, but it quickly became clear that our audience was very interested in stories beyond breaking news, but that were interesting, substantive, thought-provoking stories about food and culture around the world,” Entelis says. “There was never a question in our minds about whether we would return [to the genre], it was going to be, what is the right show, who is the right person, what is the right time in terms of launching something new. I think we feel really good right now about putting this show out in the world.”
When Bourdain joined CNN, the move was viewed with skepticism and uncertainty. At the series premiere party in 2013 at Porter House in New York’s Time Warner Center, he expressed excitement to me at the possibility of CNN’s resources getting him places he couldn’t access before, and trepidation in acknowledging that his show’s format was a departure from what CNN was known for.
Ultimately, of course, it became an award-winning staple of CNN’s lineup, and helped build the CNN Originals brand: “Sunday night is our night, Sunday night is a night we have built for shows of very high quality on CNN,” Entelis says.
For Tucci, the show is the fulfillment of a concept that he has long had.
“The idea of Searching for Italy was something I have had in any mind for a very long time … I am fascinated by the culture, the profound history, and of course the food,” Tucci says. “I wanted also to show that Italy isn’t just pizza and pasta and spaghetti and meatballs. It is an incredibly complex and varied cuisine.”
Each episode will see the actor speaking with chefs, academics, artisans and others (like Don Pasta), and making and tasting the specialties of each region.
“Once you meet the people who have been making [the food] for years, and learning it from their parents and grandparents, that is when your life, and your kitchen, completely changes,” Tucci adds.
And it’s a story that Tucci is only just beginning to tell.
“When Stanley and I first met, he told us there were 22 regions of Italy, and that he wanted to do each one. So for obvious reasons we selected some of the more well-known regions as a start, but I know Stanley has a lot of regions left to take us to in Italy,” Entelis recalls, adding that the concept could work for other countries as well.
Asked if he would be interested in continuing the series beyond the six episodes, Tucci responds in the affirmative. “I think we can envision; it is up to Amy if she wants to pay for it.”
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