Big Night (1996)

“To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Big Night is one of my favourite food movies, and though the focus is on those gorgeous Italian dishes (risotto tricolore, timpano…) the story also serves up truths about how much to sacrifice and settle for in life, as well as some ups and downs of the immigrant experience.

Brothers Primo and Secondo run a restaurant called Paradise. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the uncompromising, shy, genius chef whose main concern is the quality of his cooking, while Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has to deal with the eatery’s big financial problems. Paradise is going bankrupt, and instead of a loan, the successful competitor across the street, bombastic Pascal (Ian Holm), offers to send over “his pal” the great jazz star Louis Prima, who will dine at Paradise to generate some much-needed publicity. Prima never arrives, but the evening is nonetheless a momentous occasion, a glorious once-in-a-lifetime meal that leads to revelations about romance, life goals and the bonds of brotherhood.

One of Paradise’s big problems is represented by the hopeless couple that complain about their order early in the film. The man ignores Secondo’s guidance and overloads his pasta with Parmesan, while his wife scatters and smears her risotto all over her plate, searching for the seafood she expected to find in obvious chunks. Disappointed, she orders a side of spaghetti and meatballs, despite Secondo’s polite warnings about too many starches, delicate balances and superfluous ingredients. It’s OK to not know something, but customers like these are unwilling to try or appreciate something new, insistent that they don’t like what they’ve never even tried, oddly smug in their stubborn ignorance, and dismissive or defensive when a connoisseur tries to guide them out of their comfort zone.

That’s why Pascal’s place is doing so well; he’s not aiming to change tastes or introduce new things. As he tells Secondo, just give the people what they want and can easily recognize, because most folks are allergic to anything demanding or challenging. There’s a place and time for comfort food, even when it’s inauthentic and overdone like a lot of Pascal’s “Italian,” but over at Paradise we will see what a shame it is to go through life without the curiosity and desire to expand tastes, to miss out on the thrill and joy of something classier, deeper, more fulfilling.

Primo is understandably frustrated with such Philistines, and refuses to cater to their closed minds and reaffirm their so-called tastes; he wants to teach people to like real, divine Italian food or else he’ll go back overseas where his talents are wanted. Secondo reminds him they need the paying customers and a restaurant is a business, not a school. Both are right, and so goes their volatile relationship, as well as the greater argument over how to keep art pure, personal and aspirational vs. how much to alter and dumb it down to something commercial and mainstream. How much of that compromise is selling out and rewarding the mediocre masses?

For Primo especially, that integrity, his recipes, the restaurant’s personality, direction and success are about being true to his roots. These concerns (along with a fun scene about ESL and literal translation getting in the way of punch lines) reflect the immigrant’s struggle with assimilation: how much of adapting to life in a new country is necessary adjustment, and how much is abandoning and forgetting the heart of one’s heritage? How long do you hang in and try to fit in after failure that’s linked to who you are?

Big Night’s food is the most direct form of communication when other ways are too awkward. Primo is bad a small talk and courtship but impresses his love interest, florist Ann (Allison Janney) with a taste of his cooking. A simple fritatta, prepared in silence (and one nice take) the morning after the big brotherly blowup, becomes a peace offering and moment of bonding. Like the food at Paradise, nothing in this movie is excessive; just presented in lovely simplicity. Few films so delightfully capture mouth-watering meals, the love and skill that goes into preparing them, and the importance and joy of sharing them with people you care about.

This post is one of the courses in The Food in Film Blogathon, hosted by me and Silver Screenings. Please click here to taste more! 

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15 thoughts on “Big Night (1996)”

  1. I love this movie. I saw it when I didn’t know who anybody in the film was; I had just heard it was good so I tried it. I think this might have been the first Stanley Tucci film I saw. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

    1. Same here for pretty much everything you said–love this movie! Somewhere around that time I remember watching Tucci on Murder One on TV, he was fantastic. Thanks!

  2. “Big Night” is such a wonderful film. “Mouth-watering,” indeed. I still dream of one day savoring Timpano. Great write-up on one of the ultimate “Food in Film” movies.

  3. I think I might actually like this film. I only knew it was vaguely about some bigwig showing up at a restaurant. I also didn’t know (or maybe just forgot hearing ) that “Monk”‘s Tony Shalhoub was in it. (Although I did remember Stanley Tucci’s name… go figure.) I feel I could sympathize with Primo because I am an adventurous diner. I will try anything just so I can say I at least tried it. Still searching for a place that has escargot on the menu so I can say I tried that. There’s a Cajun place in Austin that serves what turns out to be excellent frog legs, so I tried that. I’m pretty sure my library has this and when I have a free night I’ll check it out. Great review.

    1. Especially easy to relate to Primo since we watch him working so long and hard on the perfect risotto, to have it rejected like that is just the worst! (I’ve tried escargot, hope you get to!). Thanks!

  4. This sounds like a wonderful movie and just my cuppa tea. Can’t believe I haven’t seen this – and with Stanley Tucci in it, too!!

    Movies that show food in a beautiful way always inspire me to be a better cook. After I watch “Big Night”, I know I’ll be busy researching new recipes!

    1. Great food, great story and I’m sure you’d enjoy. They’re so natural, not at all like acting when they cook. Also Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini (which my spellcheck wants to change to tortellini!) are in this, if you need more reasons to check it out!

  5. Your article made me hungry! I remember my parents mentionning this film on several occasion, so it made me curious to read your article, which was by the way excellent. I understand that this film seems to approach food in a pretty worthy way. I’ll make sure to put it on my to-see list!

    1. Thank you, it’s just a nice movie, nice character study, wonderful performances, etc. Hope you see it and enjoy! also I see you posted so thanks for joining us for the blogathon 🙂

  6. Italian food is so yummy on film! And, oh my God, I almost didn’t recognize Stanley Tucci! I hope I have the chance to see this film soon.
    Thanks for co-hosting this delicious event!
    Kisses!
    Le

    1. He has a knack for being totally unrecognizable in some movies, great actor! See the film, then look for places you can eat the wonderful foods 🙂 Thanks so much for being part of this.

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