Stanley Tucci & How I Lost My Italian Heritage

by Leanne Ogasawara


Stanley Tucci begins his hit TV show Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, by reminding us that, yes, he is Stanley Tucci. But perhaps more importantly, that he is “Italian on both sides.”

Yeah, yeah, I thought I was Italian too.

Life was so much easier before DNA testing. I mean, in the good old days you could just make up any old story about your family heritage –and who was anyone to contradict you? Seriously, if you told people you were Italian, then you were Italian. Finito. And I actually do have Italian blood. On my grandmother’s side. My grandma’s grandparents on both sides came from Calabria, on the Italian peninsula near the toe of the boot. They could practically see Sicily.

That is where both sides of Tucci’s heritage comes from too. I never realized until recently how many Calabrese found their way to the United States. A huge percentage of all Italian-Americans are Calabrese.

Like Tucci, I even knew their names: Tripodi (classic Calabrese name) for one great-grandparent and Pelicano for the other. Sounds pretty Italian to me.

Never mind that every time I proudly told an Italian from Rome or Milan about my Calabrese heritage they seemed to be stifling the impulse to laugh.

And never mind that I also must have Irish blood in equal portions.

Or so I thought.

None of this other blood mattered to me in the least because I self-identified so completely with the Italian side. Not only did I believe myself to be of pure Italian descent, but I was certain my Italian blood contained a wonderful dash of Greek and Sardinian –maybe even Carthaginian. Why else would I have such a visceral love of Punic War history and the Aeneid? How else to explain my appreciation of pasta and opera? And Piero della Francesca. In my mind, this all made perfect sense.

That was until I received an DNA test for Christmas. One for me and one for my son.

I knew my mom’s results were only 47% Italian. She did have Sardinian too. And my son got 10% Italian… so how is it that I got 0% Italian?

My son, in addition to his 10% Italian, had 50% Japanese. I used to playfully roll my eyes at my ex-husband when he would discuss his “pure” Japanese heritage…

“Surely once in the Ogasawara family past there was an outsider…?” I said.


He seemed so sure of himself too. I patiently explained that we Americans loved our multi-cultural heritage. That it was the mystery and our surely exotic origins that we loved talking about.

It was his turn to roll his eyes at me.

So, I had my mom update her own DNA testing on the website and her percentage went down to only 34% Italian with the new data, but still I could not figure out where my Italian heritage had gone. I even called and still no answers.

Not only was there a lack of anything Italian, but I didn’t have all that much Irish either. My results were shockingly confined to a small area of the world map. I am almost totally a product of the UK (61% England and Wales and 21% Ireland). The rest is German–with the saving grace of 3% exotic French.

Would you believe I cried my eyes out? I couldn’t stop crying about my lost heritage. I hadn’t even realized just how much I had adored being Italian until the genetic rug was pulled out from under my feet. By this point, my husband was growing alarmed by my despondency and started blurting out how he had never really thought I was very southern Italian looking. And, he had always wondered about my overwhelming love of potatoes, which is true. He then tried cheering me up by calling me his English rose. This only made it worse.


But back to Stanley Tucci.

As much as I adore his TV show, I fell totally in love with his memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food. It is a poignant story about his childhood growing up with Italian-American parents in New York State. Each chapter is written around a scene with a recipe. In addition to his Italian-American upbringing, there are chapters about his adult life, covering the sad loss of his first wife from cancer and his new marriage to a British woman.

There is Julia Child and , of course, there is Timpano alla “Big Night.”

My mom’s partner passed away last year. this man was like a father to me –and was a beloved grandfather to my son. Losing GP (“grandpa”) punched a hole in our lives. Like Tucci, he was a proud New Yorker of Italian stock, on both sides! He had both Sicilian and Northern Italian blood. From traditional Sicilian cake (called cassata) for my birthdays –from Drago’s in Santa Monica– to the time he and my mom made a gorgeous Tinpano alla Big Night of their own, there are countless memories –of which so many revolve around food. In Tucci’s book, he talks about the traditional Italian (Italian-American?) custom of the “feast of the seven fishes” for Christmas. I had started making plans to buy a white tablecloth and try to somehow recreate this custom for Christmas in Pasadena with GP… It is something I have always dreamt of making for him. And now it is too late. (Never put things off! I tell myself again).

Pellegrino-Deconstructed-Cassata-mainI did once make him a “deconstructed cassata” for his birthday. It was a uber-modern rendition of cassata that failed completely. He told me to “stick to the basics!”

“Don’t mess with Momma’s tortellini, as celebrity-chef Massimo Bottura says he was told with his “deconstructed tortellini recipe.” Italians take tradition and food seriously, says Stanley Tucci.. And so did GP.

Not unlike Stanley Tucci, I have recently become a bit of an accidental memoirist myself. I am completing my certificate in creative writing at UCLA Extension. For my last class, I was planning to work on more personal essays, but receiving so many questions about my life in Japan, on a whim, I decide to try and write a memoir. A Japan memoir with a focus on language and translation, Dreaming in Japanese is supposed to be about my two decades there.

Playing around with the idea, I signed up for a class on memoir at Stanford Continuing Education with Rebecca Schuman, who wrote her own language memoir, called Schadenfreude, A Love Story. In the first lecture, we discussed the many kinds of memoir. Of course, there are the memoirs of famous people. Those are often autobiography, like Bill Clinton’s My Life or Gregory Peck’s An Actor’s Life. Our teacher said that the vast majority of celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten.

Another type is what she called narration of a trauma or defining event. Like Roxane Gay’s Hunger and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

There is finally a third type, which is basically a story by a more or less regular person…who “tells things in a compelling enough way to make you want to read about their life.” The last category of memoir are often voice-driven, since it is the telling of the story that is crucial, not necessarily what happened.

Thinking of Tucci’s memoir Taste, while it certainly falls under the first category, given how famous he is, his writing and voice are so strong in this book that I doubt very much that it was ghostwritten. He writes wonderfully. And idiosyncratically. I did not know this about him till reading the book, but he recently had a terrible cancer scare. I had to skip that chapter as I found myself becoming overcome with bad memories of my father’s death from cancer and then GP’s recent fight as well. For a man who loves food like Tucci, having to get radiation in the region of his mouth must have been traumatizing.

Maybe it was that brush with death, but I was struck by the great attentiveness in his book to life’s blessings. In my own limited experience in memoir classes, I have been surprised by how surreal it is to write about one’s own life like it is a work of art. Indeed, one of the popular types of memoirs are often described as “truth-based novels,” because of the scene and voice-driven writing style.

It is different from that of a personal essay, where one’s life experiences might be trotted out to make a point or illustrate a theme, but in memoir, especially in that third category of everyday people memoirs, it can be extremely fulfilling to think of one’s own life in terms of art, story, novel. It’s not necessarily that everyone has a story to tell, but more that in the telling, we open our eyes to the blessings of even the everyday.

I really felt that in Tucci’s writing. His love and gratitude toward his family and friends –especially what happened during shared meals. The story of the making of the pizzoccheri in Lombardy brought tears to my eyes. I had never heard of this simple, northern food centered on buckwheat pasta, potatoes, Savoy cabbage and some very expensive-looking cheese. Of course, now I am dreaming of little else…

A life told in a series of significant meals!!

I once tried to write my memoir in a personal essay about oranges.

Tucci believes, like I believe, that it is vital that families have sit-down meals together. The time spent with family and friends around the table is more precious than anything in the world. It does somehow seem sacred or at least what life is and should be about. For as Michael Pollan says in his film, Cooked, “This is more important than people realize.”

I couldn’t agree more.


As improves its algorithm, I fully expect to get my Italian heritage back… even if just a bit.

But then again, there is no “Italian” gene. We are all a mishmash.

Genetic results are mapped onto a data set of people who currently live in each designated ethnicity whose understanding is that their ancestors had always lived there. People in the Italy data set, for example, have a certain genetic profile and based on my results, I was given a percentage for any overlap–which in my case was 0%! Because the profile set is not very large, there are already two big problems. One is that the base set of data is not sufficient enough (it is too small) but the other is the practice of making these kinds of inductive claims regarding “ethnicity.”

I plan to try my luck with a second company. What I am expecting is to have my Italian back but at a much lower percentage than I ever would have expected before this debacle began. It is not wishful thinking alone either. Since my son was given 10% and that had to come from me, I am expecting the new results to confirm a small percentage of Italian. But still, the fact remains I am far less Italian than I ever imagined. And, I am far more British than I thought too…!

I really liked this article in Aeon last month called: Erik Erikson knew that self-invention takes a lifetime. It received some lovely comments as well. People grow. People evolve. The stories we tell ourselves change and morph. But somehow, over the course of our lives, if we allow ourselves to stay flexible and keep growing as human beings, these stories help create the story of our personal journeys of meaning. I feel silly that I was so sure and so proud of my Italian heritage. But it doesn’t change my love of the beauty that is Italy–any more than it changes my feelings for Kashmir or Japan, the other places to which I remain so very attached. Twenty-five years in Japan transformed me more than anything my DNA could ever describe. I suppose the point is to try and know oneself and to keep growing?  I am not exactly sure where all that English, Scottish and Welsh came from–but my Italian grandmother was not a kind woman. And so maybe I dodged a bullet? Silver linings?


After writing all this, I was notified that ancestry had an updated algorithm for me… yes, I have my Italian back (11% Calabria 6% Northern Italian).


Top picture by my son when he was in fourth grade… a picture celebrating his half Italian half Japanese heritage!!

Don’t miss: Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Brooklyn Italian’s Recipes Celebrating Food and Family
by Daniel Paterna


For anyone interested in the Venetian wine Venissa that Tucci highlighted in his show, please see section 4 of my Venice essay at Dillydoun.

My memoir in oranges at Gulf Coast Journal: For the Love of Oranges

My Food Writing at 3QD

Heaven And Hell–In Modena (about eating in Massimo Bottura’s restaurant)

Campari on the Rocks with Nietzsche

Boiling Fish (Bouillabaisse!)

Waiting For The Messiah: Derrida And The Philosophy Of Hospitality