After 20 Years, Big Night is Still Big

How Stanley Tucci's film changed the course of the American dining experience.

This article, written by Matt Gross, appears on The Guardian.

How Stanley Tucci’s Big Night helped kick off an American dining revolution

The 1996 film about an Italian restaurant in the 1950s is a ‘cultural milestone’, says Mario Batali – and it foresees the future of the business

There’s this new restaurant you gotta try – no one knows about it yet. It’s called Paradise, and it’s Italian, real Italian, near the water in a little east coast port town a couple hours’ drive from here. The dining room is spare and simple, with a lovely curved wooden bar up front, an antique espresso machine, and charming paintings on the wall donated by some local artist, I think in exchange for dinner.

Yeah, a real mom-and-pop spot, except “mom” and “pop” are two brothers from Italy who don’t always get along. But the food? They say the seafood risotto’s the equal of anything in Venice, and on special occasions they’ll make timpano, this drum-size cake of pasta, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, sauce, and, well, magic. Unbelievable. You free Saturday?

One hitch: Paradise doesn’t exist.

Or rather, Paradise exists, but only in Big Night, the great food movie starring Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Stanley Tucci. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 20 years ago – on January 24, 1996 – Big Night focuses on the volatile relationship between two immigrant restaurateurs, the uncompromising chef Primo (Shalhoub) and his younger sibling, Secondo (Tucci), who runs the dining room and is trying desperately to keep the business afloat.

That’s a particular challenge because Big Night is set in the late 1950s, when Italian-restaurant customers demanded spaghetti and meatballs, not delicate Venetian rice dishes. Over the course of a few days, the brothers cook, bicker, court women (Rossellini, Minnie Driver and Alison Janney), and host a wild, hours-long feast for the musician Louis Prima, in an attempt to drum up the good press they need to stay alive. It is not revealing too much, I hope, to say that this big night does not go entirely according to plan.

In the year after its premiere, Big Night got great reviews (96% fresh, according to Rotten Tomatoes), won multiple awards for its screenplay (written by Tucci and his cousin Joseph Tropiano) and its co-directors (Tucci again, with Campbell Scott), and earned nearly $12m against its estimated $4.1m budget, according to IMDb.

More important than that, Big Night helped kick off a revolution in American food culture. It wasn’t just that restaurants were changing, with “authenticity” the new watchword. How we looked at and thought about food shifted, in both minor (the band Cibo Matto released its first album, featuring food-mad tunes like Know Your Chicken and White Pepper Ice Cream) and major ways. Read more on The Guardian.

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