Big Night opens with an argument between brothers. Secondo, who runs the restaurant the two own, says that a customer would like a side dish of pasta with her risotto. Primo, the head chef, refuses the request, insisting that risotto, being a starch, should never be served with another starch. Secondo insists; he feels that, although it may not be to their tastes, they should always give customers what they want. Primo calls the customer a “philistine” and a “criminal,” and refuses to prepare the side dish of pasta.
And so one of the film’s main themes, “art versus commerce,” begins.
The film features many actors I love (Tucci, Shalhoub, Holm, Campbell Scott, and Isabella Rossellini, to name a few) and what I consider the only decent performance in Minnie Driver’s career. The real treat here is seeing Tucci and Shalhoub (who are usually relegated to memorable supporting performances) finally getting their chance to sink their teeth into leading roles that are worthy of them. The two performances convey such subtle emotional information about the brothers that the film is a master’s class in acting.
Stanley Tucci has said that he adapted the script for himself because he was tired of waiting for good parts to come along. His co-writer was Campbell Scott, who also appears in the film as a slyly obnoxious car salesman. Big Night comes from the novel by Joseph Tropiano; the book actually contains the recipes for some of Primo’s best dishes. As one might expect in a screenplay written by two actors, the dialogue is witty and well observed. Some favorite lines:
“Give the people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”
"A guy works all day, he don't want to look at his plate and ask, ‘What the fuck is this?’ He wants to look at his plate, see a steak, and say ‘I like steak!’"
Primo: “Give people time, they will learn.”
Secondo: “This is a restaurant! This is not a fucking school!”
“Do you know what happens in THAT restaurant every night? RAPE! RAPE! The rape of cuisine.”
“Sometimes the spaghetti wants to be alone.”
And especially: “Bite your teeth into the ass of life.”
Much of the second half of the film involves the preparation of an exacting Italian delicacy known as a timballo. According to the Wikipedias (which, if I understand correctly, is a series of wicker tubes), “the dish is prepared in a dome or springform pan and eggs or cheese are used as a binder. Rice is commonly used as an ingredient in the Emilia-Romagna region, where the dish is referred to as a ‘bomba’ and baked with a filling of pigeon or other game bird, peas, local cheese and a base of dried pasta. Crêpes are used as a base in Abruzzo, and other regions use ravioli or gnocchi. In Sicily, it's typically made with pasta and eggplant.” (the dish in Big Night is prepared with fish.)
Once you see the film, it will have you scurrying to the Internet to find the closest Italian restaurant that actually makes it. I remember when Big Night was still playing in theaters, a few enterprising Italian restaurants in the area arranged a cooperative crossover where patrons could attend the film and then immediately enjoy timballo in the restaurant. It takes many hours to prepare, and when it is done, it looks like this:
Big Night is currently out of print on DVD (a new copy will run you about $120 and I do not think it comes with a timballo) but is available on Amazon Instant Video.