Big Night

Did you ever go to a small, inexpensive, unheralded trattoria and leave feeling as if you ate like a king? "Big Night" is the cinematic equivalent, a feast of a film done on a low budget with a menu featuring top-grade acting, writing and direction. It's the tastiest dish around. Set in the late 1950s, the story focuses on two Italian-immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), who nearly go broke by opening a restaurant, the Paradise, in New Jersey.

Primo is the purist; he despises customers who expect spaghetti and meatballs when he serves an epicurean risotto. Secondo is almost ready to sell out with checkered tablecloths and Chianti, like Pascal (Ian Holm), who runs the lucrative eatery across the street by carrying out what Primo calls "the rape of cuisine." Still, it's Pascal who says he'll arrange for bandleader Louis Prima to bring his entourage to the Paradise for a big night that could make the restaurant if the brothers spend their last dime on the blowout meal. But Pascal might be lying. He'd like to punish Secondo for cheating on Phyllis (Minnie Driver) with Pascal's girl, Gabriella (a marvelous Isabella Rossellini).

Plot takes a back seat to atmosphere in this pungent meditation on art and business. The whole movie is a family affair. Tucci (Richard Cross on TV's "Murder One") wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, drawing on their family roots in Italy. And Tucci co-directed with childhood pal Campbell Scott, who plays the small role of a salesman. Shalhoub (TV's "Wings"), another friend, joins Tucci in an unforgettable acting duet that is as richly authentic as the food, including timpano, a mouthwatering special dish. In the final scene, done in silence, the brothers make and share a simple omelet in a moment of reconciliation that subtly pierces the heart. You're in for a rare treat.

From The Archives Issue 744: October 3, 1996
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