One of the great "food movies," Big Night (1996) was a surprise indie hit in 1996 and created something of a craze for its centerpiece culinary dish, Italian timpano. The whimsical, poignant comedy-drama is about two brothers (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub), Italian immigrants, who have opened a small restaurant called Paradise in 1950s New Jersey. They pride themselves on their authentic Italian cuisine and dining experience, but they can't bring in any customers because of nearby Pascal's, which is wildly popular with the locals despite its unsophisticated American take on Italian dining: spaghetti and meatballs, checkered tablecloths, candles in Chianti bottles, and singing waiters. One of the brothers comically scorns Pascal's as "a rape of cuisine. The man should be in prison for the food he serves!"
With Paradise about to go out of business, the brothers mount a last-ditch attempt to save their restaurant and keep from having to return to Italy. They've heard that jazz singer Louis Prima is coming to town, so they pour all their resources into preparing an extravagant party, in the hope that he will attend and draw attention. When he doesn't, the brothers instead invite over twenty friends to indulge in a spectacular, final dinner....
This is the surface storyline of Big Night, but the movie is really about deeper, more profound issues like assimilation and the immigrant experience in America, the clash of morality and culture between old-world Italy and 1950s America, art vs. commerce, integrity vs. selling out. Food is used as a way of exploring the differences between the cultures -- not just in the food itself, but in the ways it is consumed, with the Italians treating dining as a lingering social ritual in which friends and family, stories, and laughter are all vital ingredients.
Stanley Tucci, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced, also has pointed out the story's parallels to the filmmaking world, with Big Night a truly independent film struggling to succeed in a market saturated by often-bland studio titles. "The idea of assimilating and losing a certain amount of character or culture is something that is very much on my mind," Tucci said in 1996. "Being full-blooded Italian-American, it's sad to see the old ways die out. Don't get me wrong. I love contemporary stuff, but so many of the old ways are gone for good. Everything becomes very homogenized. The common expression you hear from people in the movie business is that they don't want the audience to have to work hard. Personally, I think the audience enjoys getting a little exercise."
Tucci wrote the script with his cousin, Joseph Tropiano, over the course of several years between acting jobs. "We set the film in the fifties," he said, "because that was a time when mass production was really shifting into high gear, things were becoming homogenized and, on the food side, fast food and TV dinners were coming in. We have these two characters who are trying to run a business where things are made by hand on a very intimate and human scale, while America is heading in the opposite direction."
Tucci brought on old friend and fellow actor Campbell Scott to co-direct, but in reality this was mainly for scenes in which Tucci appeared in front of the camera. By all accounts, the principal artistic vision for this film came from Tucci, who explained that he undertook the movie out of frustration with the weak roles he'd been getting: "I wanted to finally get a decent part for myself. I mean, if I'd been cast in enough good roles, I don't think I'd have gotten around to making this."
On a budget of $4 million, the independently-financed film shot for a total of 35 days on the Jersey shore, in parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and on an elaborate set which replicated a complete restaurant with a full working kitchen. There was a second working kitchen just off the set where the food stylist and her staff cooked all the food that was then "finished" by the actors on camera. Both Tucci and Shalhoub trained for many months with master chefs in New York and Los Angeles to hone their cooking knowledge and skills.
The finished film initially drew no interest from distributors. Then it got into the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered strong reviews and audience response, and won the screenwriting prize. Now the distributors were fighting over it; the Samuel Goldwyn Company prevailed, and released the film commercially that September. "It's funny," said Tucci at the time. "I made this little movie about the struggle between art and commerce and now I'm such a hot item."
Critics loved Big Night. Variety's Todd McCarthy deemed it "extremely well directed, a smartly made, delightfully acted period piece whose sensibility neatly straddles art films and the mainstream... There is a lightly poetic, bighearted, humanist approach throughout that reminds of early Fellini." Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film "has the simple, graceful arc of a short story... What's most affecting here...is the film's absolute faith in artistry and independence in a world that may not necessarily respect either one."
Critics also warned viewers not to see it on an empty stomach -- or at least to have plans for an Italian dinner afterwards! Big Night became a hit, grossing $12 million for a healthy profit. A clever marketing campaign led restaurants in some cities to devise tie-ins, enticing filmgoers to indulge in an Italian dinner like the one on screen -- or something close to it.
The climactic meal in the movie is a multi-course affair featuring mouth-watering soup, roast chicken, baked fish, asparagus, garlic cloves, artichokes, roast pig and more. But the centerpiece -- and the one item that drew the most attention -- is the timpano, a drum-shaped Calabrian marvel in which a pastry-dough torte is filled with delicate layers of pasta, meats, hard-boiled eggs and cheese, and then baked. Tucci later wrote: "Structurally and creatively, [the timpano] gave us the strong focus for the meal and had repercussions we never anticipated. During the first screenings we were amazed by the audience's reaction to this dish. They were exactly those of the characters in the film -- audible gasps of awe and wonder."
The timpano on-screen was made from a then-secret recipe courtesy of Tucci's mother, who served as an unofficial food consultant. (In real life, the Tuccis have timpano every Christmas.) In 1999, Mrs. Tucci published the recipe in the book Cucina & Famiglia, in which she and another chef shared recipes and essays on Italian cooking.
As impressive as the dinner sequence, with its timpano, may be, Tucci serves up a beautiful, wordless coda to the film, in which a breakfast staple is cooked ever so casually -- yet stunningly. As critic Todd McCarthy wrote of this elegant sequence, "Generally the direction is supremely confident, never more so than in the final, masterful long take in the kitchen in which the drama's primal conflict is quietly resolved."
By Jeremy Arnold
Margaret Coyle, "Il Timpano," in Reel Food, edited by Anne L. Bower
Steve Zimmerman and Ken Weiss, Food in the Movies