Sometimes the Spaghetti
Likes to be Alone
About a third of the way through the 1996 indie-classic Big Night an unamed, barrel-bellied grocer holds a bottle of red wine to his lips, looks straight down the lens of the camera and mouths the opening lines of Rosemary Clooney’s camped-up Mambo Italiano. This signals the start of the epic night of the film’s title. For the next 20 minutes plot and character development are forgotten as we embark on an indulgent blow-by-blow depiction of what is, quite possibly, the best ever filmic portrayal of an Italian feast. Silent-movie style chapter cards introduce each course as a long table sighs under the weight of whole salmons, Italian flags of vibrant risotto,platters of roast birds, bowls brimming with globe artichokes, wine-doused pan-fried grapes and a glistening suckling pig. We watch close-ups on the diners’ softporn faces as they voyage on a journey from curious confusion to climatic ecstasy to rosy-cheeked exhaustion. As the meal comes to a close a female diner weeps into her plate of grapes and biscotti – “My mother was such a terrible cook.”
This is Primo (Tony Shalboub) and Secondo’s (Stanley Tucci) exquisite swan song. A moment in film that taught me a fundamental truth of life – modern notions of success don’t mean jack when pitted against the beautiful dignity of doing something simple really well. Primo and Secondo are two Italian brothers who have left their beloved homeland to come to small-town 1950s New Jersey. Their failing restaurant, Paradise, means something very different to each clashing brother. For chef Primo, it is his opportunity to educate American philistines to the joys of authentic Italian cooking. For maitre d’ Secondo it is a symbol of the boundless possibilities of the American dream. They are each losing their battle to the trashy glitz and deepset mediocrity of the rival Italian joint down the road.
Co-written, co-directed and starring Tucci, he describes his cinematic baby as a portrayal of the conflict between art and commerce. Here, of course, food is art. It is the complex thing that will unite two brothers and will also tear them apart. They have come to the Promised Land in search of fortune and recognition and now have to decide how much of their integrity they are willing to sacrifice in order to succeed.
In the opening scene – one that Anthony Bourdain describes as a no-holds-barred ‘gut punch’ for chefs – two brash locals sit in the near-empty restaurant awaiting the usual bastardised Italian-American staples that they’ve come to know and love. There is a heartbreaking sadness in Secondo’s eyes as he explains, for what feels like the thousandth time, that double-starching is a no-no – there’s no need to order pasta with his brother’s perfect seafood risotto. When the customer ignores his advice and orders a side of spaghetti he must explain, to her chagrin, that it doesn’t come with meatballs – “Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.”
The brothers remain steadfast in their loyalty to the holy principles of Italian cooking. They make a colossal Timpano as the centrepiece of their blow-out feast. Timpano is a traditional Italian celebration dish meaning ‘horn of plenty’. It is baked in a large mould, with thin sheets of pasta encasing a pick ‘n’ mix of decadent ingredients. As the brothers slowly corkscrew their creation from its tin, they check it like concerned doctors – tapping the sides, putting an ear to its skin and gently kissing the top. This is just one of the many glorious food-related ceremonies that punctuate the film, some entirely solitary whilst others are communal.
In the film’s iconic closing scene, a simple morning ritual beloved to chefs across the globe says everything necessary about the brothers, their relationship and their future. A stationary camera captures a directorially brave five minutes that is carried out in virtual silence. We return to the kitchen the morning after the climactic night before – the brothers didn’t leave things on the best of terms. Secondo enters and silently begins to cook an omelette for himself and the sous-chef (a young Marc Anthony). As a shell-shocked Primo enters, he is served a slice of omelette that had been waiting for him in the pan. The three sit in resigned silence, the two brothers with their arms around each other’s shoulders. With three eggs, a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt, reconciliation is complete. Our heroes may have lost their girls and their business, but they’ve kept the dignity of the highest order – the dignity of food.
Stanley Tucci [ST]: Stanley Tucci is an American actor, writer, film producer and director. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for performance in The Lovely Bones, and won an Emmy Award for his performance in Winchell. A lover of food and cooking he is the author of The Tucci Cookbook.
The Gourmand [G]: Where is your favourite restaurant and what is your favourite dish?
ST: I have no real favourite anything, be it food, film, or drink, but here are some of my preferences: In NY: Babbo, La Scalinatella, Bar Boulud, Benoit, and the Carnegie Deli. In London: The Ledbury, L’Anima, Dinner, Barbacoa and Quo Vadis. As far as favourite dish, this is impossible to answer. Just about everything on the menu at all of them.
G: Where is your favourite place to enjoy a coffee?
ST: Espresso in bed in the morning in my home or by a window overlooking the Grand Canal at the Gritti Palace in Venice.
G: Where is your favourite bar and what is your drink of choice?
ST: In NY: Café Luxembourg. A very dry vodka martini, straight up, stirred, with a twist (Grey Goose or Tito’s vodka). In London: the upstairs bar at Quo Vadis, (same drink).
G: Where is your favourite food/groceries shop?
ST: In NY: Eataly, Zabars, Citerella, the Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. In London: Portobello Road, The Barnes Farmers Market, Whole Foods.
G: What is your signature dish?
ST: I wish I had one, but I would like it to be whole roasted Branzino and lemon saffron risotto.
Stanley’s cookbook: The Tucci Cookbook is available to purchase on Amazon and in all good book shops.