Life imitates art imitates life imitates art.
Case in point: Ray Romano of "Everybody Loves Raymond" used to take his Forest Hills family to the Jersey shore every summer. Even after Hollywood success, he wasn't interested in seeing Europe or other cultures. But "Raymond" creator/showrunner Phil Rosenthal knew better. He'd ended up in Italy on a courier gig in 1983 after graduating from Hofstra: "I was practically penniless, and I had the time of my life."
So two decades later, Rosenthal wrote episodes in which Ray's TV family traveled to Italy, sending the nine-season CBS sitcom overseas to shoot them. "And what I saw happen to Ray the character happened to Ray the person," reports Rosenthal. The visit opened Romano's eyes to local food, classic architecture, timeless art and, most of all, the people and ways of a distant land. Romano, it turned out, had the time of his life.
Mission accomplished, says Rosenthal. "But then another lightbulb went off. What if I could do this for other people?"
Prepare to feel wanderlust. In the second episode of Rosenthal's engaging new series, "I'll Have What Phil's Having," he ambles through Italy Monday night (WNET/13 at 8), to immerse us in its renowned food, art, history, food, landscape, and people with whom to share food. (Did we mention food?)
"We go to another great city every episode and show you where to eat. That's the surface," Rosenthal says by phone. "But below it is this mission statement: to get you off the couch, to get you to travel. There's no more mind-expanding thing. And naively, I actually think the world would be a better place if people could experience other people's experiences.
"Hopefully, you watch, and you're entertained, and it motivates you," says the former standup comic, whose keen timing enlivens both his show and any interview. (His native Queens accent doesn't hurt.) "I want your heart to ache. I want you to go, 'Oh, God, I really gotta go!" And then go. Plan it. You don't get it until you're in the room with it, until you walk in the streets that are a thousand years old."
Rosenthal's zest is infectious. Add his good humor to his boundless curiosity and open heart, and you see how he charmed audiences in 2010's "Exporting Raymond," the feature documenting his Russia trip to launch a sitcom in that quite different culture. (It's now streaming on Netflix.) The same attitudes turn "I'll Have What Phil's Having" into a funny food interview travelogue/home movie/reunion kind of thing. Rosenthal has the sharp eye and ear it takes to translate your own visit into someone else's visceral virtual adventure.
On Monday's episode in Italy, you can practically taste the just-made gelato, smell the hillside grill's searing steak, and fear the fury of a bistro owner discovering his friend has patronized the bistro owner across the street. Next week, Phil goes to Hong Kong, with Paris, Barcelona and Los Angeles on the way. (Last week's Tokyo trip streams at pbs.org/what-phils-having.)
It's clear Rosenthal's "Raymond" production company wasn't named Where's Lunch? for nothing.