"Big Night" - One of the Top Five Cooking movies ever
A story about cooking, love, and grabbing a piece of the American pie
Big Night is the story of two immigrant brothers from Abruzzo, Italy who are trying to make a living by running a restaurant in a small town on the Jersey Shore during the 1960’s. While both of the brothers are committed to making and serving authentic and traditional cuisine from their province, Primo (the ‘first’) is passionate about cooking, while Secundo (the ‘Second’) is passionate about thriving in America, becoming successful. Primo is constantly discouraged by the ignorance and vulgarity of their patrons when it comes to eating simple yet delicious food, and Secundo is disturbed and aggravated by the success of their cross-street rival, ‘Pascals’, whose proprietor is first generation Italian as well, but is willing to pander to American taste by serving mediocre food in a festive atmosphere. It is a classic dichotomy of risking being true to yourself versus being true to an image of what is expected of you. Secundo internalizes this struggle, and the drama of it is played out in his every look and action. He finally relents when he realizes that their money is gone and no more loans are forthcoming. This revelation results in the ‘Big Night’. It is an opportunity for Primo to showcase his passion and amazing ability, knowing that spending the last remaining penny on cooking for all of their friends will allow him to return home and cook with his uncle. For Secundo it is a last shot at revitalization of their business, especially when his competitor promises the presence of Louis Prima, the Italian singer of the time.
This movie is my second favorite cooking movie by only a very slim margin (meaning it could easily be in first place.) The actors in this movie are some of my very favorites: Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, and Alison Janney. The kitchen is large, simple and beautiful. Unlike so many movies that you see about cooking and restaurants, the lack of employees (albeit a young Marc Anthony hangs about a bit, washing dishes and smoking in the back) makes the cooking of Primo stand out even more. It showcases the beautiful simplicity of the food he cooks. And oh, does he cook. Risotto, pasta con olio e aglio, roasted meats, and Primo’s timpano, a complicated layered baked pasta dish which when sliced displays beautiful layers of zucchini, pasta and chicken striped with tomato sauce.
I have a recipe for Timballo di Capellini in my favorite Italian Cookbook, “Italian Family Cooking, Like Mama used To Make”, by Anne Casale. I must confess that I have never endeavored this classic and very complicated dish. Instead, I will offer up to you a delicious recipe for Risotto, plain and simple, just like the one Primo cooked in the movie.
Serves 4-main course
¼ tsp. saffron threads ½ tsp. salt
1 cup dry white wine ½ tsp. freshly milled white pepper
5 cups chicken broth 1 c. freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
¾ cup finely chopped yellow onion 2 T. finely minced Italian parsley leaves
2 cups Arborio rice, picked over
Combine saffron and wine in a small saucepan. Place over very low heat and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the threads dissolve in the wine, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
In a 4-quart saucepan, bring broth to a broil. As soon as the broth comes to a boil turn heat to low and keep it barely simmering over low heat.
In a heavy 5-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir with wooden spoon over low heat until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 minutes (if some of the juices from saffron have coated inside of small pan, add about 2 Tablespoons of the chicken broth to pan, swirl around and pour into rice). Add 1 cup of the simmering broth to the rice and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 to 5 minutes; watch carefully so that rice does not stick to bottom of pan. Continue adding broth 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly and waiting until each addition has been absorbed before adding more. When rice has finished cooking, the risotto should have a very creamy consistency. Test by tasting a few grains; it should be soft on the outside and just a little bit chewy on the inside. Total cooking time will be approximately 30 to 35 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add Parmigiano cheese and 1 Tablespoon minced Italian parsley; mix well with wooden spoon.
To serve, transfer to a heated bowl, garnish with remaining parsley and serve immediately with additional freshly grated Parmigiano cheese.
Anne Casale, Italian Cooking Like Mama Used to make, 1984