Posted on November 24th, 2012
I once read a scathing restaurant review that began, “This is basically the bad Italian restaurant from Big Night.” I put the movie in my Netflix queue, where it sat for six months before I decided to watch it.
Big Night is an intimate film about food, art, family, and business told through the story of two restaurants: one good, one bad.
The good restaurant — aptly named the Paradise — is run by Primo and Secondo, Italian immigrant brothers. Primo is the (quintessential) chef’s chef: gifted, cantankerous, and obsessed. His younger brother, Secondo, handles the business side of running the restaurant.
The Paradise has just a few tiny tables and only one waiter. However, the food that appears on those tables is something special and rare — the kind that makes us ramble, rant, rave, and fall into a deep sleep, thinking, “How could someone make something so wonderful?”
Despite hard work and talent, they are struggling.
The bad Italian restaurant in Big Night — the one the review mentioned — is Pascal’s. Think: red and white checked tablecloths, flashy neon signs, and plentiful cheap wine. They serve the type of Italian food you find in banquet halls and Olive Gardens (the phrase “Would you like french fries or mashed potatoes?” comes to mind). Pascal’s does, however, make money. When Secondo expresses frustration with his customers’ philistine tastes, Pascal replies: “A guy works all day, he don’t want to look at his plate and ask, ‘What the fuck is this? He wants to look at his plate, see a steak, and say ‘I like steak!’”
Pascal and Primo represent the two ends of the restaurateur spectrum: the ruthless businessman (for whom food is a medium for making a living) and the virtuous artist (who refuses to compromise his gift).
Secondo begs Pascal for a loan to cover their debts until the restaurant takes off. Pascal refuses, but offers to convince a friend of his — Louis Prima, a famous jazz musician — to have dinner at the Paradise. Secondo knows this PR stunt is his last chance to save the restaurant from foreclosure.
The brothers scrape together the very last of their borrowed money and throw a lavish feast for their special guest. Primo prepares the dinner’s centerpiece (a fancy baked timballo) with keen focus and unmatched skill. The result is spectacular — a meal-to-end-all-meals — but Louis Prima never shows.
As the evening comes to a close, Pascal coldly asserts that the whole scheme was a lie designed to bankrupt the Paradise and force the brothers to work for him or return to Italy. Betrayed and despondent, the brothers explode in anger at each other. Secondo shouts into the air, “This place is eating us alive! This place is eating us alive!”
There’s no eleventh-hour rescue for the brothers; this is a real-deal downer ending. As the film comes to a close, the brothers silently cook an omelet, sharing it between each other and the lone waiter.
Perhaps we’re left to wonder why Primo bothers with crafting the perfect risotto when it can’t guarantee subsistence, much less success.
But we already know the answer. Primo does it for the same reason as any artist: because life is cruel and hard, full of betrayal and unfairness. And when you can make something — a story, a song, or even just a bite of heaven — that’s better than the world we live in, you have to do it.
If even to tip the balance from bad to good for just a single, perfect moment.