Films for Foodies: Big Night Takes Italian Cuisine to Cinematic Heights

Categories: Food in Film

They've got one night to prove themselves with lots of delicious food...
Movie studios scramble to have big-name stars headline their films, but in many of my favorite movies food is the star. Few things are better than pairing a foodie film with a great meal so we can enjoy ourselves just as much as the folks onscreen are enjoying their own aliments. In this series, we'll highlight a movie in which food plays a leading role and suggest one or more local spots that can provide an accompanying feast for you. Pull up a table and dim the lights, the show's about to begin.

Big Night (1996)

On the Jersey Shore in the 1950s, two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), battle it out in the kitchen and the dining room to keep their failing restaurant afloat. Primo is the older brother and the chef, while Secondo manages the front of the house. Though the restaurant, Paradise, serves excellent, authentic Italian food, the mid-century American diners just don't get it, so the brothers must decide whether to cut their losses and return to work for a successful uncle in Italy or keep trying to make the restaurant work.

Secondo has a lovely and devoted girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), but because of his work woes, he's unable to commit fully to her. He ends up having an affair with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), the wife of a competitor, Pascal (Ian Holm). Pascal's eponymous restaurant is hugely successful, so the brothers turn to him for a loan. Pascal offers to hire the brothers at his own restaurant, but they are too proud to accept. In a gesture of apparent goodwill, Pascal finally agrees to bring the famous jazz singer Louis Prima to Paradise when he's in town, suggesting that a celebrity's endorsement could revive the restaurant. The brothers set out to prepare for one stellar evening to show Prima and everyone else what they're made of.

This, then, is the titular "Big Night."

Warning: Go directly to page 2 to avoid spoilers!

The brothers spend every last cent they have on food and preparations for the majestic meal. The invite a newspaper reporter, friends and, of course, Pascal and his wife to enjoy the bounty. Primo slaves in the kitchen all day creating masterpiece after masterpiece sure to wow the celebrity guest.

Once everyone arrives, Pascal says that Prima and his entourage are running late, but they should get the meal started anyway. The feast lasts for hours and shows the full range of Primo's culinary skills as he serves everything from pan-seared scallops, roasted quail, stuffed peppers and a whole steamed fish, but the pièce de résistance is the timpano, a complicated sort of pasta casserole with many layers. As the courses come out, two things become clear: This meal is incredibly expensive, and Louis Prima isn't coming.

Fed up, Secondo kisses Gabriella, and Phyllis catches them. She runs off and Pascal admits that he knew all along that Prima wasn't coming. He wanted to force the brothers out of business so they'd either have to work for him or return to Italy.

Distraught, the brothers erupt into anger with each other and engage in a heartwrenching, middle-of-the-night fight, jabbing at each other as only brothers could. By dawn, both are nursing their bruised egos in silence, unable to utter another word.

In the final long, single take, Secondo cooks a simple frittata, then shares it with his brother, a gesture of both hopelessness and forgiveness.

Location Info

Ciao Bello

5161 San Felipe St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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Fantastic article about a fabulous movie, reading it really put me in the mood to feast on some Italian food! Are we really pushing 20 years since 'Big Night' came out? Wow. Great soundtrack too.

For anyone looking for other Italian movies with food as a key element, I highly recommend the Italian comedy Mid-August Lunch (2008).


Fantastic article about a fabulous movie (which also boasts an outstanding soundtrack.


Isabella R = yum!


Since I saw this movie in the theater years ago, I've been yearning to dine on an authentic timpano, if there is such a thing. Anywhere in Houston? Anywhere in the world? Anyone know?


This movie is my food porn.  I salivate to it.



And if he does, you should invite me and my wife (seems like you had a crowd the last time). 

We aren't weird (ok, a little weird), and we are both very interesting people. Plus my wife makes killer pumpkin pie! And I'll bring 2 bottles of good wine.

Will probably be in Houston for Christmas . . . BTW, thanks for the info and video--interesting. 


@James.Brock2013 Oh, those do look good!  That could be a lot of fun for Christmas, though now that I rewatched the video, I may make my husband redo the timpano this year. That thing was delicious.  

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