Actor Michael Tucker, 62, has starred in dozens of movies, including the Barry Levinson films Diner and Tin Men, and the Woody Allen classics Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. He has had several recurring and guest roles on television, but Tucker is best known for playing tax attorney Stuart Markowitz on NBC's hit drama L.A. Law, which aired from 1986 to 1994. He and his wife, Jill Eikenberry (who also played his wife on the show), have long shared a passion for food and wine—so much so that they now split their time between New York and Umbria. The story of how Tucker and Eikenberry came to buy a house in the Italian countryside and dive headfirst into the food- and wine-rich lifestyle of northern Italy is chronicled in Tucker's new book, Living in a Foreign Language, to be released in July by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get into cooking, and what sorts of techniques have you picked up in Italy?
Michael Tucker: I started seriously cooking when I went to college and I got an apartment. And then when I got married the first time, someone gave us a book by a guy named Roy Andries de Groot called Feasts for all Seasons, and that really flipped me around. I realized how serious it could all be. But I think the older I get, the simpler it all becomes. I'm less interested in lots and lots of ingredients. Italy has simplified the whole thing for me. And I really think, for the first time in my life, that I've mastered grilling. I got this fantastic iron grill that feeds the coals from the back. You just have so much control over the heat this way, and the meat's good. That's everything.
WS: How would you describe your wine knowledge?
MT: I've gone through phases with wines. My first wine phase was French. I was buying what are now the great years of Bordeaux in the '60s for, as I recall, seven or eight bucks a bottle. That was my first dip into good wine, and then [I got] into American wine. [But now] I'm less fond of these big wines. Maybe that's a function of age, but also simplifying what I like to eat. Big tastes flying at me is not what I'm looking for anymore. It's all part of this Italian thing.
WS: So what do you drink there?
MT: The wines I drink in Italy are all local and fairly young, most of the time. And in my most recent trip I hit the mother lode. The contest among the people I know there is to find the best wine, cheapest. There's a vineyard called Fongoli. It's a small but very respected vineyard just outside Montefalco. They put out a Sagrantino and a Montefalco Rosso, which is a wine that I like--I'm finding the Sagrantino a bit big for my taste these days. They sell in the local stores and have some fairly decent distribution for a small vineyard, but they also sell in bulk. So if you bring your own jugs, you can take what looks like a gas pump--they call it a pistola--and fill up the jugs. You pay 2 euros a liter for what is extremely good Montefalco Rosso. It's 65 percent Sangiovese, 15 percent Sagrantino, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot. It was the only time in my memory that I had a gas pump in my hand and felt like I was getting a bargain!
WS: What kind of wine do you drink when you're in New York and you can't go to the gas pump?
MT: I play around. I have a friend who just got out of the restaurant business, and she always keeps her eye out for some great buys for me. She says, "Taste these three things and tell me what you like," and she keeps playing that game with me. So a lot of different things. I'm really looking to be under [$20] a bottle. But the one wine that I'll happily pay more for is a great Barbaresco. I think the best bottle I've ever had was a Barbaresco. We visited Pio Cesare in Alba, and it was like heaven.
WS: From your experience in Italy, and mostly drinking Montefalco Rosso, do you think Americans have the wrong impression of Italian wines or the Italian wine lifestyle?
MT: I do. What's big over here, the Barolos, I find to be too much for me. And it's very "American" because Americans are making these really big wines. There's a little too much alcohol. The super Tuscans are all really fantastic wines, but they overpower a lot of what you eat. It has to be synchronized with what you're eating, then it's really, really good. It's a cut above drinking a huge wine with the wrong thing. I think people miss the whole experience.
WS: What's one of the best food-and-wine combos you've enjoyed in Italy?
MT: I have a new beauty. A very local, seasonal specialty is raw fava beans, salt and pecorino cheese. There are even festivals with just those three things. You just put them out on the tables, and people shell the beans themselves, dip them in the salt, pop them in their mouths, and taste a little cheese. With that Montefalco Rosso, it's perfect. It's as local as you can get.
WS: Short of moving to Italy, what's the best advice you can give someone looking to develop their all-around appreciation of a relaxed, food- and wine-rich lifestyle?
MT: One of the great expressions I've learned in Italy is "Mi consigli," which means "Advise me." Go to a good restaurant and listen to the guy. Ask, "What wine would you advise me to drink with this?" I find so many people trying to impress the wine guy, which you don't need to do. You really just want to find the right wine for the food you're eating. Find the connection between wine and food, and you'll find you'll like what you eat more, and you'll like what you drink more.
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