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I love a good movie about food and chefs, and I fell in love with Big Night (1996) within the first five minutes. At the time of the film’s release, I had just started taking food and cooking seriously, though I still survived mostly on frozen dinners and fast food until I graduated from college. I hardly knew anything about real Italian food, but that first scene in the restaurant, when Stanley Tucci’s character argues with a couple dining in his restaurant about the proper way to eat the food he has served them, really grabbed me. I was hooked — not just on the movie, but on the idea of becoming more knowledgeable about food. I guess you could say Big Night is what sparked my desire to learn how to cook more than just bacon and eggs (but don’t tell my mom I said that).
Directed by Tucci and fellow actor Campbell Scott, and cowritten by Tucci, Big Night tells the story of two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci), struggling to keep their small Italian restaurant, Paradise, afloat in the 1950s. Primo, a brilliant chef, is frustrated that his American customers don’t appreciate and understand his food, and is considering giving it all up to go back to Italy. Secondo, the restaurant’s manager, shares his brother’s frustration but is more willing to cater to the domestic tastes of his customers and try different things to make the restaurant succeed. The brothers realize that if they don’t do something drastic Paradise will fail, much to the delight of their biggest competitor, a restaurant/nightclub across the street that’s owned by Pascal (Ian Holm), a slick businessman who’s been trying to convince Primo and Secondo to come work for him.
In a desperate attempt to save Paradise, Secondo goes to Pascal and asks for a loan. Instead, Pascal promises that he’ll arrange to have Louis Prima and his band dine at Paradise while they’re in town, which should raise the restaurant’s profile and boost business. Secondo is thrilled at the prospect, but Primo is dubious and needs convincing. Eventually he comes around and they begin planning the most extravagant meal possible, spending all the money they have left on preparations.
The brothers are having trouble in their personal lives as well. Secondo can’t commit to his American girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), mainly because of his affair with Pascal’s wife, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). Primo has a crush on a florist, Ann (Allison Janney), but lacks the courage to ask her out. Both of them decide to use the Louis Prima dinner extravaganza to make everything right.
Big Night sparked a desire for me to learn about food, but it also made me curious about the Italian music featured in the film. I got the soundtrack as a gift from my grandfather for my 19th birthday, and I listened to it nonstop the entire summer of 1997 alongside Portishead, Tori Amos, Beck, and Radiohead. Every song, including the excellent score by Gary DeMichele, adds to the story, and with the Louis Prima subplot the music becomes almost as important as the food. To this day, I can’t listen to a Prima track or Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano” without thinking of Big Night. The soundtrack album is out of print, but I think it’s definitely worth having, even if you already have some of these songs in your collection.
Claudio Villa – Stornelli Amorisi
Matteo Salvatore – Il Pescivendolo
Claudio Villa – La Strada del Bosco
Gary DeMichele – Art of Art
Louis Prima – Oh Marie
Rosemary Clooney – Mambo Italiano
Louis Prima and Keely Smith with Sam Butera & the Witnesses – Love of My Life (O Sole Mio)
Gary DeMichele – Dinner
Claudio Villa – Tic Ti, Tic Ta
Louis Prima & the Witnesses – Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days
Keely Smith – Don’t Take Your Love From Me
Louis Prima – Buona Sera
Gary DeMichele – Angular Dissent
Matteo Salvatore – Mo Ve’la Bella Mia da la Muntagna
Gary DeMichele – Pascal’s Waltz
Gary DeMichele – Big Night Theme