How Stanley Tucci’s Big Night helped kick off an American dining revolution

The 1996 Stanley Tucci film about an Italian eatery in the 1950 s is a cultural milestone, tells Mario Batali and it sees the future of the business

Theres this new restaurant you gotta try no one knows about it yet. Its called Paradise, and its Italian, real Italian, near the water in a little east coast port township a couple hours drive from here. The dining room is spare and simple, with a lovely curved wooden bar up front, an antique espresso machine, and charming paintings on the wall donated by some local artist, I think in exchange for dinner.

Yeah, a real mom-and-pop spot, except mommy and pop are two brothers from Italy who dont always get along with. But the food? They say the seafood risottos the equal of anything in Venice, and on special occasions theyll make timpano, this drum-size cake of pasta, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, sauce, and, well, magic. Unbelievable. You free Saturday?

One hitch: Paradise doesnt exist.

Or rather, Paradise exists, but only in Big Night, the great food movie starring Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Stanley Tucci. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 20 years ago on January 24, 1996 Big Night focuses on the volatile relationship between two immigrant restaurateurs, the uncompromising chef Primo( Shalhoub) and his younger sibling, Secondo( Tucci ), who runs the dining room and is trying urgently to keep the business afloat.

Thats a particular challenge because Big Night is set in the late 1950 s, when Italian-restaurant clients demanded spaghetti and meatballs , not delicate Venetian rice dishes. Over the course of a few days, the brothers cook, bicker, court females( Rossellini, Minnie Driver and Alison Janney ), and host a wild, hours-long feast for the musician Louis Prima, in an attempt to drum up the good press they need to stay alive. It is not exposing too much, I hope, to say that this big night does not go solely according to plan.


Big Night is set in the late 1950 s, when Italian-restaurant customers demanded spaghetti and meatballs. Photograph: Allstar

In the year after its premiere, Big Night got great reviews( 96% fresh, according to Rotten Tomatoes ), won multiple awards for its screenplay( written by Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano) and its co-directors( Tucci again, with Campbell Scott ), and earned nearly $12 m against its estimated $4.1 m budget, according to IMDb.

More important than that, Big Night helped kick off a revolution in American food culture. It wasnt simply that restaurants were changing, with authenticity the new watchword. How we looked at and thought about food changed, in both minor( the band Cibo Matto released its first album, featuring food-mad tunes like Know Your Chicken and White Pepper Ice Cream) and major routes.

In 1996, the Food Network dedicated shows to Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagasse, speedily establishing its dominance over the nascent world of food porn. While its impossible to say if Big Night is fundamentally responsible for these innovations, it did encapsulate them and in some way predicted the future of the business.

It was a culture milestone for me, said Batali, who says hes watched it approximately 40 periods since it came out, most recently over Christmas vacation. At the time of the movies release, Batali was making a name for himself as the chef at Po( where Tucci was a regular ), shooting Molto Mario, the Food Network prove on which he demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of Italian regional cooking and proving, as Big Night did as well, that there was more to the cuisine than red sauce.

The notion that the Italians had broken the snack into distinct antipasto, pasta, and farinaceous products, followed by a main course, was still news to Americans back in the 1990 s, Batali said this despite the efforts of restaurateurs like Lidia Bastianich, whod spent years gradually introducing notions of regionality, authenticity, and snack structure into her New York eateries. The movie, however, served that home, as Batali put it, in a way no single restaurant could.( It didnt hurt, he added, that Isabella Rossellini was so hot .)

In one of the films most famous scenes, Primo flips out when a customer, having ordered risotto, asks for a side order of spaghetti and meatballs. Who are these people in America? the mustachioed cook fumes, calling the customer a bitch, a criminal, a lowbrow. How can she want? They both are starch. Perhaps I should attain mashed potato for another side. Secondo, meanwhile, pleads with two brothers: Make the pasta. Construct it. Stimulate it. Make the pasta!

This idea that the kitchen was, versus the dining room, often at intellectual and physical odds was a new one as well, Batali said. American diners were always used to the idea that the front-of-the-house guy ran the whole store, and then they started realizing that the cook had an opinion. And maybe not only had an sentiment but was, like Primo, an artist, a heretofore-unheralded visionary. No matter how much you might sympathize with Secondo, when Primo rhapsodizes, To eat good food is to be close to God, you are virtually required by movie logic to side with the cook in all matters culinary.


Mario Batali calls the film a cultural milestone. Photo: BEI/ BEI/ Shutterstock

That widespread epiphany clearly benefited chefs like Batali, who became such superstars in the decade and a half in accordance with the cinemas release that its virtually hard for diners under 40 to imagine a food world dominated by maitre ds.

For a long time, and surely in part thanks to Big Night, the Primos have been prevailing , not only in the form of authentic cuisine but with lengthy savouring menus and an overall sense that diners should submit themselves to a chefs vision, rather than requiring a kitchen to live up to their own savours and expectations.

Recently, though, that dynamic has seemed to shift, with Secondos philosophy gaining ground among diners and restaurateurs alike.

This is kind of a bigger argument that everybody is talking about right now, right? Theyre sick of tasting menus and chefs dictating how you feed, told Sara Jenkins, the cook at Porsena and Porchetta, who grew up in Rome and Tuscany and has been cooking in the US for more than 30 years. I think most successful restaurateurs ultimately wind up becoming more accommodating , not less, you know?

Thats true at Del Posto, the serene palace of Italian fine dining that is one of simply five eateries to be given four starrings by the New York Times. Executive cook Mark Ladner, whos been cooking Italian since 1998, said he guess of himself as a Primo although I respect both sides of the conversation.

Despite the sophistication of the restaurant, which serves dishes such as slow-roasted Abruzzese lamb and a pasta with tuna belly and porcini, we still have people who expect spaghetti and meatballs, Ladner said. And after years of fighting against it, I realise I like spaghetti and meatballs as much as the next guy, and theres no reason not to sort of play with this tongue-in-cheek interpreting of some of these Italian American classics, because theyre classics for a reason.

Other restaurateurs, however, are natural-born Secondos. Take Mario Carbone, who in 2013 opened Carbone, a throwback Italian-American restaurant in the West Village that looks like a high-end version of Paradise, complete with tuxedoed waiters and Louis Prima on the sound system. Carbones a total Secondo, his partner Rich Torrisi a Primo.

Rich is the one who wants to know who ordered risotto while they want spaghetti, Carbone said. Im like, Can you simply fucking give it to them, please? Just give them the spaghetti. That is my relationship, me and my other business partner. He would wholly agree.

Regardless of which philosophy currently holds sway, perhaps the movies signal achievement was to bequeath the restaurant world this set of archetypes and references against which everyone from cooks and busboys to waiters and owneds can compare themselves. Am I a Primo or a Secondo? Is this the kind of client whod order risotto with spaghetti? How can we put one across a big night of our own and perhaps get some much-needed media attention? Numerous chefs told me about reenacting scenes from the movie in their kitchens, particularly the risotto-spaghetti combat and the other in which Primo sarcastically offers to set a hot dog on the menu. So powerful is the situate of references that both Del Posto and Carbone have utilized clips from the movie to train personnel( including at Carbones Hong Kong outpost ).

Did Big Night, I wondered, actually fabricate the phrase big night? Perhaps.

Originally, Stanley Tucci said by phone from London, the movie was to be called The Paradise. But, he said, this thing kept coming up, this phrase hey, the big night, the big night and we just believed why dont we call it Big Night?

The name stick, and so did the idea. The big night, two decades after Big Night, is what restaurateurs and diners alike seem to want. The San Francisco company that owns the restaurants Marlowe, the Cavalier, S& R Lounge, and Park Tavern calls itself Big Night restaurant group. And Carbone wants all meals to feel like the movies climactic feast. I give oranges and nuts at the end of the snack here, Carbone said, because I want it to be a total shitshow. I want wine stains, I want orange peels, I want nut cracks, I want crap everywhere. When someone leaves, it should look like a bomb went off at the table.


Apart from the big-night feast, theres not really that much food in the film. Photograph: Allstar/ SAMUEL GOLDWYN COMPANY

Nothing typifies the big night more than timpano, the epic cooked pasta dish that is the movies droolworthy centerpiece. Existing all over Italy in different versions, it often requires days to prepare its constituent elements: sauce, meatballs, eggs , noodles, and more. In recent years, as large-format dishes have become trendy again, timpano has begun to appear at New York restaurants.

On Sunday evenings at Sessanta, in Sohos Thompson Hotel, cook Jordan Frosolone makes a Sicilian rendition, dubbed Timballo di Zanghi ($ 42, serves 3 to 5 ), sheathed in eggplant shingles rather than pasta, with an interior of ring-like anneletti and pork ragu. Similarly, Del Postos version ($ 100, serves four) is wrapped not in noodles but in focaccia dough, utilizes escarole leaves to keep the interior moist, and is scooped out to serve, rather than dramatically sliced, as in the movie.

If it was to kind a slice, told Ladner, it would have to be so dry and bind with so much egg that it doesnt actually eat very well.

For that matter, Tucci said the movies own timpano was nasty: All the food was spat out by all of the actors. The audience strolled out of the theater starved, and the actors walked away from the situated sick.

Which brings up an odd facet of this food film. Apart from the big-night feast( tricolor risottos, a whole roasted swine, that timpano ), theres not really that much food in the film, and very few of the overhead, close-up, detail-obsessed shots that define present-day food porn. But what imagery is there has a realism to it, and its accessibility only deepens its appeal.

You didnt want to stimulate the food look too various kinds of beautiful. It only had to look appetizing , not beautiful, Tucci said, adding that hed induce significant changes if he were shooting today. Sometimes I think it seems a little too shiny, a little too posed. The timpano doesnt actually appear the route its supposed to look. But that said, thats only me being difficult, as usual.

Indeed, to watch Big Night today is to realize how vastly the food world has changed, and how speedily. In the late 1950 s, a small-town mom-and-pop eatery specializing in authentic Italian food seemed like a clear recipe for failure. Even in the mid-1 990 s, it was a risky proposition. In 2016, however, its brilliant. Who among us now is unwilling to travel for a bite of something incredible weve only seen on Instagram? In Camden, Maine, for example, Long Grain serves serious Thai food, using local seafood, mushrooms, and sometimes rabbit. In upstate New York, restaurants such as Fish& Game have turned the town of Hudson into a major culinary destination.

If Primo and Secondos Paradise were to open today in, tell, Keyport, New Jersey( where Big Night was shot ), beating the Yelpers to it would be a major takeover, Batali said. Having it truly be an unknown is kind of the dream of every gastronomic person that follows the world around. They want to be the first one to discover this traditional, authentic, magnificently perfectly run place that looks like it was art-directed by Stan Tucci.

Tucci, he said, was an prophecy. And Im inclined to agree: Big Night feels as real, and as relevant, as ever. But did it bring todays food world into existence? Or simply predict how we feed now, with food at the center of nearly every relationship? And does it even matter, as long as were eating well?

If you want to give me credit, Ill take it, Tucci told. All of us who induced that movie, well take the credit.

To horribly misquote another epic Italian American movie: take the credit, Stanley, but leave us the timpano.

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