Food Film Fiesta: Revisiting “Big Night”

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us that week to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

I’ve been meaning to make a timpano.

There have been many years of threatening to do so for the holidays but it’s a pretty formidable undertaking even by my standards and, to be perfectly honest, I’m scared to death of screwing it up. It’s a massive, San Onofre reactor-shaped beast of a meal. Within its baked shell lie pasta, eggs, sausage, cheese and/or a hundred other variations of ingredients, depending on whose kitchen gospel you adhere to. You really need a ridiculously big ceramic bowl to pull it off and so far that’s been my excuse not to build one. And that is a total cop out.

The timpano came into our popular American culinary lexicon back in 1996 with the release of Big Night. Upon Google-ing it you can experience the varying levels of success by the do-it-at-home crowd. The movie itself is a cult fave, both the food and indie film crowds ate it up (pun intended) but it didn’t move very far into the mainstream aside from the above-mentioned main course.


It may seem strange to talk about a 17 year old movie but a recent Facebook post prompted me to bring it up. I couldn’t believe the amount of my “in the know” food friends and associates that had never heard of the film, much less seen it. I was shocked. Starring Tony Shaloub, Stanley Tucci, Isabella Rossellini and Ian Holm, it is the story of two brothers who come to America and open their own small Italian restaurant in New York in the 1960’s.

The brother kitchen aspect of the movie really resonates with me and not just because of the obvious aspects. It’s no secret that I lost my younger brother Chris more than four years ago. Our culinary adventures together spanned more than two decades and I still can’t believe he is gone. There is a brotherhood in cooking and if you top that with actual brotherhood, well, you can fill in the blanks. That’s what I like most about this film.

Good food movies are based on the tension of partnership and Shaloub, playing Primo the older brother and Tucci, playing the younger more pragmatic Secondo pull it off perfectly. Primo is a culinary savant that brings the flavor of the old country with him and possesses a narrow but admirable view of food. He calls a guest who orders risotto AND spaghetti a “Philistine” in an epic use of the word. Secondo understands the nuts and bolts of the industry and his quote is spot on as well. His brother says “Give people time, they will learn.” His response? “I don’t have time for them to learn.” The two of them also have to struggle against clients expecting the watered down mid-century version of “eye-tal-ian” cuisine instead of the real stuff from the old country.

Throw into the mix Pascal, played by Holm, who owns the douchebag, uninspired Italian joint right across the street and you have the wild card in the mix. His place has a line out the door but as Primo puts it-“Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night? RAPE! RAPE!… The rape of cuisine!” But like most successful one-dimensional restauranteurs he reveals himself with the quote, “I am a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any time”.

The two brothers are in hot water and Secondo approaches Pascal for a loan. Pascal refuses but does offer to get Louis Prima to their place for a big dinner in order to help things out. I won’t spoil the ending but you can probably figure put what happens and who is responsible. The timpano scene is epic though. As the big party commences, with the brothers bringing out course upon course waiting for the arrival of Prima, the timpano comes last. The guests dive in and as they begin to eat Pascal slams his fist down on the table, gets up and says to Primo “This is so good I should fucking kill you!”

The final scene of the film takes place the next morning, after a huge argument the night before. Secondo effortlessly takes his time making some eggs in total silence. The two brothers sit down to eat, the camera going from a lockoff to a slow tracking shot. When the camera stops moving Primo puts his arm around Secondo as they both realize things will never be the same.

Big Night is not shot as slickly as others, sometimes pondering across the screen like a lost pet and it has a certain film school quality. I consider it the ultimate chef’s movie though, showing where the tender craft of cooking collides with the painful realities of The Biz like subatomic particles smashing into each other at CERN’s hadron collider. It also illustrates two things about the Biz that I believe most: 1) the restaurant you really should be at is just as likely to be across the street sitting all but empty of customers and 2) how busy a shop is probably has nothing to do with the quality of the food. If you consider yourself a “foodie” or have been in the industry for a bit, grab a bottle of red, make some pasta, plant your ass down on the couch and make a night of Big Night.

Follow @ocweeklyfood on Instagram! And check out Dave’s podcasts: Memphis Mondays and Fat Drunk And Happy!

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