En español | Two years ago Lorraine Bracco was restless for adventure and ready to take on a new challenge when a news alert caught her eye: ITALIAN TOWN OF SAMBUCA IN SICILY SELLS HOMES FOR A DOLLAR.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is just fake news. This is crazy!'” recalls the actress, 66, in her trademark husky-whiskey voice, over the phone from Bridgehampton, New York.
The sale price was actually 1 euro, about $1.20. And the offer, she discovered, had a catch. Devised by the mayor to lure new residents to the dwindling, historic town (population 5,878), it required potential buyers to renovate their centuries-old purchases within three years.
"I thought … How bad could that be, right?” she says.
Bracco, known for her Italian American turn as Jennifer Melfi, the psychiatrist in The Sopranos, didn't speak a lick of Italian and had never been to Sicily. But her paternal grandfather was born in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, she says, an hour's drive from Sambuca. The region was in her blood.
“I could see myself there,” she says. “Like I belonged there.”
Within weeks, the actress was on a plane heading beyond the toe of Italy's boot with a camera crew to document every step of the undertaking for a new HGTV show, My Big Italian Adventure.
Her journey had a breathtaking start. The drive to the medieval hilltop town took her through a picturesque landscape of “green olive trees, vineyards, sheep and goats,” she says. “A dream come true."
The homes for sale? Not so dreamy.
"They were disasters!” she hollers into the phone. “No plumbing, no water, no electricity. They barely had four walls. Many were destroyed in an earthquake and hadn't been touched in 30, 40, 50 years!"
But, after an enchanting day spent with the mayor that included a stop at a pasticceria for dessert, “I said: ‘This is good for me.'"
(Dieting in Sicily? Fuggedaboutit, says Bracco, who wrote a health book in 2015 extolling gluten-sugar-eggs-dairy-free eating. “I gave it all up when I went to Italy,” she sighs. “The food was amazing, amazing, amazing — they take pride in their food, and my waist shows it.")
After viewing a number of derelict buildings, Bracco decided on a crumbling, 1,075-square-foot, 200-year-old corner property “with French door windows and a lot of light” and got to work with a contractor, architect, translator “and all their childhood friends who were plumbers, electricians, construction workers and stonecutters."
For the next year and a half Bracco flew to Palermo at least once a month to oversee the progress and kept a close watch on developments via FaceTime when she was in New York. The renovating odyssey was rife with laughter, tears and anxiety, she says.
The scaffolding “was so rinky-dink it was scary,” and the day the refrigerator was hoisted in, “I thought we were going to die,” she says. That was one of the days “I learned a few swear words in Italian."
Most days, “I wanted to kill [the contractor] 400,000 times because he kept breaking the house down,” she says. “They took everything out — the floors, the ceiling. There was nothing left. I broke down. I'm an actor, what do I know?"
She soon learned that Italians build homes the way they create food — “They do everything by hand,” she marveled. “They have no big machinery — they mixed cement in somebody's parking lot and used a hand pulley for everything. They've done this for thousands of years."
No matter how grueling the work, they balanced it out living la dolce vita.
"I had singing workmen!” Bracco says of the folk songs and arias they crooned under the hot Sicilian sun. “It sounded like church music. It was beautiful."
Bracco rewarded them with cold beers and watermelon, while the Italian mammas in town made it their mission to fatten up the lean actress.
"The little old ladies would come and talk to me in Italian and bring me coffee and food and say, ‘Mangia mangia! I made this! Eat, eat!'”
The cheese lady at the market became Bracco's new BFF, as did the woman who owned the aforementioned dessert place, Caffe Beccadelli.
"She would see me walking by and call out, ‘Are you going to eat lunch?’ And I'd go, ‘Yes!’ And she'd put on the pot for pasta."
Bracco was only recognized by fans during jaunts to Palermo — and surprisingly, not for The Sopranos or Goodfellas.
"They knew me as Mamma Rizzoli!” she laughs, of her role as a police detective's overbearing mother in Rizzoli & Isles. "It was a big hit in Italy!"
By February of this year, the plumbing was installed and the house was finished … just as COVID hit Italy and just before the world shut down.
“I haven't even slept one night there yet,” Bracco says with a sigh. “The house has been sitting by itself for almost a year. I hear the mice ate my pasta."
She estimates the cost of her renovations totaled $250,000. But at least she returned to America with a suitcase stuffed with herbs, olive oils, cheese and olives — which she's been nibbling on all year while learning Italian online and planning her return to Sambuca in 2021.
"I can't wait. My heart leaps up at the thought,” she says.
Meantime, she's got some wise, Dr. Melfi-like advice for those brave enough to undertake the same 1 euro home adventure she did.
“Take a deep breath,” she says, “take a Xanax, and be ready to make 5,000 decisions.”
My Big Italian Adventure premieres Friday, Oct. 30, at 9 p.m. ET on HGTV.