Films for Foodies: Big Night Takes Italian Cuisine to Cinematic Heights

Movie studios scramble to have big-name stars headline their films, but in many of my favorite movies food is the star. Few things are better than pairing a foodie film with a great meal so we can enjoy ourselves just as much as the folks onscreen are enjoying their own aliments. In this series, we'll highlight a movie in which food plays a leading role and suggest one or more local spots that can provide an accompanying feast for you. Pull up a table and dim the lights, the show's about to begin.

Big Night (1996)

Synopsis On the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), battle it out in the kitchen and the dining room to keep their failing restaurant afloat. Primo is the older brother and the chef, while Secondo manages the front of the house. Though the restaurant, Paradise, serves excellent, authentic Italian food, the mid-century American diners just don't get it, so the brothers must decide whether to cut their losses and return to work for a successful uncle in Italy or keep trying to make the restaurant work.

Secondo has a lovely and devoted girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), but because of his work woes, he's unable to commit fully to her. He ends up having an affair with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), the wife of a competitor, Pascal (Ian Holm). Pascal's eponymous restaurant is hugely successful, so the brothers turn to him for a loan. Pascal offers to hire the brothers at his own restaurant, but they are too proud to accept. In a gesture of apparent goodwill, Pascal finally agrees to bring the famous jazz singer Louis Prima to Paradise when he's in town, suggesting that a celebrity's endorsement could revive the restaurant. The brothers set out to prepare for one stellar evening to show Prima and everyone else what they're made of.

This, then, is the titular "Big Night."

Warning: Go directly to page 2 to avoid spoilers!

The brothers spend every last cent they have on food and preparations for the majestic meal. The invite a newspaper reporter, friends and, of course, Pascal and his wife to enjoy the bounty. Primo slaves in the kitchen all day creating masterpiece after masterpiece sure to wow the celebrity guest.

Once everyone arrives, Pascal says that Prima and his entourage are running late, but they should get the meal started anyway. The feast lasts for hours and shows the full range of Primo's culinary skills as he serves everything from pan-seared scallops, roasted quail, stuffed peppers and a whole steamed fish, but the pièce de résistance is the timpano, a complicated sort of pasta casserole with many layers. As the courses come out, two things become clear: This meal is incredibly expensive, and Louis Prima isn't coming.

Fed up, Secondo kisses Gabriella, and Phyllis catches them. She runs off and Pascal admits that he knew all along that Prima wasn't coming. He wanted to force the brothers out of business so they'd either have to work for him or return to Italy.

Distraught, the brothers erupt into anger with each other and engage in a heartwrenching, middle-of-the-night fight, jabbing at each other as only brothers could. By dawn, both are nursing their bruised egos in silence, unable to utter another word.

In the final long, single take, Secondo cooks a simple frittata, then shares it with his brother, a gesture of both hopelessness and forgiveness.

Why this is a foodie film Unlike the previous film I highlighted (The Silence of the Lambs), Big Night is overtly about food and what goes on in the kitchen and behind the scenes of a restaurant. Not only is the preparation of some of the dishes filmed in such a step-by-step manner that the footage could almost be used as a recipe, but it's also an interesting look into some less well-known traditional Italian cuisine, like the timpano.

The fictional timpano is related to the timballo, which means drum, and is constructed in a variety of ways depending upon the country and region. In Big Night, it's an old-school Italian recipe that includes a thin layer of puff pastry, pasta, tomato sauce, meat, and hardboiled eggs layered one on top of the other and then baked like a casserole-lasagne hybrid. The scene in which the timpano is finally served is now a classic, thanks to Pascal's terrifyingly hilarious line at the end (see below).

Also notable is the fact that if the film employed a food stylist, he/she chose not to overdo it with the glitz and glam often found in food on the big screen. The dishes look as if they were prepared in a modest kitchen (albeit by a master chef). Rather than creating items that look too good to eat, the chefs prepare food that make viewers want to reach through the screen and grab a bite for themselves.

Best food scene These scenes track the production of the timpano, followed by its service to the hungry crowd. The first clip shows -- masterfully -- how it's assembled, while the second scene builds tension. Is it as perfect as it should be? Will the people love it? Check it out:

What you should eat Though I don't know of any restaurants in Houston that prepare the equivalent of a timpano, some of the best, most awe-inspiring Italian food I've had in town has come from Ciao Bello.

I always dine in at the chic Galleria-area restaurant, but I've seen many people order meals to-go from the bar, and they look perfectly packaged to make it home hot and ready for dinner. To get in the full spirit of Big Night, you're going to need lots of wine, for starters. Perhaps a nice Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Pair that with some bruschetta di scamorza, osso buco ravioli and parmesan-crusted red snapper ravello.

Not quite the same as the jaw-dropping timpano, but molto bene just the same.

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