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Revisiting ‘Big Night,’ the Movie That Made Me Fall in Love With Restaurants

Notes on a classic restaurant film, plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news

Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub take the Tiimpano, a giant pasta cake, out of its mold. Big Night/YouTube

A version of this post originally appeared on September 27, 2019, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives here.

Usually, this newsletter covers all the hot food TV shows du jour. But since this is actually my last installment of Eat, Drink Watch (more on that in a bit), I’d like to focus on a nostalgic favorite that, like Julie & Julia and Eat Drink Man Woman, brought the best aspects of cooking to the big screen, and inspired my own personal love of this genre. Let’s now turn our attention to a little movie called Big Night.

The ultimate movie for restaurant lovers

A large table full of people inside an Italian restaurant. Big Night/YouTube

Big Night is the rarest of all food movies: a tight, smart comedy with a big heart that captures so much of what we love about restaurants. I’m pleased to report that 23 years after its initial release, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s indie film is still as charming as ever, and its exploration of the tension between commerce and creativity in the food world still feels fresh and relevant today.

The movie tells the story of two Italian immigrants— chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub), and his maitre d’ brother Secondo (Tucci) — running a struggling restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Their business, Paradise, is perpetually upstaged by the flashier Italian restaurant across the street, Pasquale’s, whose owner, Pascal (Ian Holm), has designs on bringing the brothers into the fold. Facing foreclosure, Primo and Secondo take a tip from Pascal and decide to cook a blowout meal in the hopes of attracting jazz singer Louis Prima, thinking that his appearance might raise the profile of their modest restaurant.

The meal in the last act of Big Night is unquestionably one of the greatest culinary spectacles ever committed to film, but it’s the finale — a wordless scene where Secondo tries to repair the damage from the night before by cooking an omelet for his brother and the prep cook —that feels like the real heart of the film. It gets me every time.

Big Night is not always perfect: Tucci and Shalhoub occasionally verge on sitcom territory with their acting choices, and it’s a shame that co-stars Minnie Driver, Allison Janney, and Isabella Rossellini don’t have more to work with here. But the overall experience of watching Big Night is something akin to being presented with the timpano featured in the film: It’s a big jumble of stray ingredients that seamlessly blend together to form something totally unique.

I shamelessly picked Big Night for my final Eat, Drink, Watch newsletter because seeing this movie during its original run completely shaped my understanding of the restaurant world. I’d always had a passing interest in food and cooking, but after watching Primo and Secondo try to reverse their fortunes at Paradise, I became obsessed with the stories behind the restaurants I loved, and the unique relationships that exist between chefs, restaurateurs, diners, and critics.

Thirteen years after seeing Big Night for the first time, I got a job here at Eater covering the drama of the restaurant scene, and now, almost 10 years after my first Eater byline, I’m leaving this publication — and the food media world — to pursue a new, and very different opportunity at a Bay Area start-up. I’ve learned so much over the years, and I’m lucky to have worked with so many great people. And while part of me is sad to be departing the world of 24/7 restaurant obsession, I’m also looking forward to following all the action now as a reader and member of the Eat, Drink, Watch Facebook group.

It occured to me while rewatching Big Night that Hollywood’s interest in food has increased by leaps and bounds since the release of the film, and especially in the decade since I started working here at Eater. Now, if you want to learn about the inner workings of a restaurant or the secrets to good cooking, you don’t need to flip on the Food Network or hope to catch a movie like Big Night on TV — you instantly can summon Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Chef’s Table, The Great British Baking Show, Ugly Delicious, Parts Unknown, Taco Chronicles, or Eater’s series with PBS, No Passport Required. There may not be another indie gem like Big Night on the horizon — the movie business is so different now — but there’s no doubt in my mind that the food TV scene is just going to keep getting better.

Big Night is available to stream on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

In other entertainment news…

Have a great weekend everyone, and thanks so much for reading Eat, Drink, Watch.