Big Night instantly became a favorite for me when I first saw it on its initial release, back in 1996. Although I didn’t see it a second time until today, it is a film that I have often thought about over the years. My very first job at the age of 15 was washing dishes in an Italian restaurant owned by a couple straight from Sicily and managed by their two first-generation American sons. I was only washing dishes, but I got to see a lot of heated arguments between the old man and his sons, usually resolved in a few words by the petite, always-smiling Mama Rosa. I regretted that I quit after a few months to go work at Pizza Hut, where they were paying 25 cents more per hour. The kitchen of the Italian restaurant had been a much more interesting environment. A few years later, I went to work at another Italian restaurant, owned by the brother of my first employer. Here I also worked for a while washing dishes, but worked my way up to a bus boy and then to an assistant waiter. Since I could not trace my heritage back to the old country, I would have never been allowed to make anything even as simple as a crostini, but I was always interested in the drama stewing in the kitchen. The owner, also born in Sicily, had retired from cooking to become the maître d’, and his American-born son ran the kitchen. I thought I had seen some arguments at the first restaurant, but these two would get into shouting matches, in the middle of a busy kitchen that would often involve the slamming down of plates, pots, and even defenseless vegetable. These arguments could have been about business, or could have been over the details of how to properly prepare a certain dish. Most of us had no idea, as they mostly shouted in Italian, with only a few words and phrases in English thrown in here and there to give a clue as to what they were going on about. I had just got out of the Italian restaurant for good when Big Night was released, and found the film to be speaking of something I knew well.
Set in the late 1950s, when TV and its bastard offspring TV dinners, was changing the way Americans ate, the film tells the story of two brothers who represent the conflict of food as an art form and food business. For the older brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub), food actually surpasses art. “To eat good food,” he tells the town’s florist, on whom he has a crush, “is to be near God.” Primo has little time for Pascal, a flashy showman who has a successful restaurant down the road, selling Italian food bent to the taste of philistine Americans. “You know what happens in that restaurant every night?” screams Primo. “Rape! The rape of cuisine!” His younger brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is much more practical. He has to be, as he is charge of the business side of their restaurant. When Secondo recommends they simplify the menu by dropping risotto, which is expensive to prepare and which Americans don’t understand anyway, Primo says they may as well just start serving hot dogs. When Secondo attempts to request a side order of spaghetti for a lady who has already been sent an order of risotto, Primo can hardly believe it. The ongoing battle between the brothers is destined to come to a head, as the bank is set to foreclose on the restaurant by the end of the month.
Secondo seeks help from the devil, going to see Pascal (Ian Holm in a very funny performance). After a failed bid to get Primo to come work as his chef, Pascal offers help not as a cash loan, but in the form of Louis Prima, the boisterous ‘50s Vegas lounge singer. Pascal plots to send the crooner and his band to the brothers’ place, promising it will generate enough publicity to turn them into an overnight success. Primo begins preparing a meal to end all meals, including Timpano, a secret recipe which, as he explains to his brother’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) is “pasta shaped like a timpani drum, and inside are the most wonderful things in the world.” The brothers bicker, argue, and then actually wrestle in the course of the stressful day, but Secondo returns to defend his brother against the businessman who would only exploit, and probably ruin, his genius. While the guests of the Big Night are overwhelmed by Primo’s cooking, it is implied that in the New Country culinary artistry will probably not win out over the showmanship and cut-throat ruthlessness of the business world.