My Big Night

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In order to inspire her students to sign up for their juries (quarterly review of musical skills via performances in front of faculty; think Hunger Games, maybe), my wife got into the current play-for-play spirit sweeping this great nation and bribed them.

Which is bad enough, I think we all agree, but she made me a witting, if unindicted, co-conspirator by offering them my cookies. The shame.

But I made up a batch of dough a few days ago, stuck it in the fridge, and promised her cookies because I'm that kind of guy. I texted her yesterday about when she needed them, and promised to bake them last night, but y'know. Movie.

...

When my friend Wayne posted his annual piece yesterday about getting the email from his previously-unknown daughter, I made a comment about how it needed to be turned into a TV series (since he lives in L.A. and wanders in that show-biz world). I was speculating, just joking, and we tried to come up with casting ideas, etc. You know.

But that started me thinking about Stanley Tucci, a favorite, and my favorite Tucci film, 1996's Big Night. And living in this century, I figured I could find it online, and I did.

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It's not my favorite film about food (several others to choose from, especially Babette's Feast), since Big Night dips into period and cultural details (Italian immigrants, trying to make a go of a restaurant in the 1950s). It's just my favorite Tucci film.

Anyway. I ended up watching it on Starz, which is a platform that always surprises me. I could subscribe to any number of streaming sites and find a film or two once a month, maybe. Netflix is fun and useful, but it's a utility now; I've had a Netflix account for 20 unbroken years and it's not going away.

Amazon Prime has a ton of films, particularly the back catalog-ish portion, and Amazon lets us subscribe to premium streaming channels without leaving their site (how convenient for both of us), including Starz.

And whenever I look at their offerings, I'm amazed at the titles I find myself considering. They're mostly older, at least a few years, and mostly I've already seen them, but they pull me. Since I can grab a month of Starz for 9 bucks, and just set a reminder to cancel in 30 days unless I really, really use it, it's an easy call. I'll easily be able to watch 10 films over a month if I'm interested, and that's a fine deal.

But the movie distracted me, and it wasn't until my wife showed up last night after 10pm, home from a day of teaching and then an evening with her students at the symphony, that I remembered. So I fired up the oven just when I'd normally be heading for bed, and fought rock-hard cookie dough to get 18 cookies baked and cooling by 11:30 or so. Enough for her students.

C'mon. Two tired people, talking about the day's events, the news, what's happening on Facebook, the usual suspects, and those cookies are just sitting there, all warm and soft and I imagined her explaining to her students how I made the cookies, I really did. You can see where this would end up.

And I was reminded about some other cookies, a few years ago. I took a fresh dozen out of the oven and set them on the cooling rack, and a bit later I walked in to find my son standing over them, hands and face just covered with chocolate, and with a few missing. His mouth full and sticky, he managed to get some words out.

"This isn't what it looks like," he said.

Moderation kicked in last night, helped along by exhaustion, and we each had one. I got up early, bagging a whole five hours of sleep, and made another dozen.

It was just the image of us stuffing our faces with chocolate at midnight that cracked me up. It's a pretty telling image.

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 Tucci and Shalhoub as the co-owners of Paradiso.

Tucci and Shalhoub as the co-owners of Paradiso.

Big Night shows us two brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci), Italian immigrants who came to America because hard work pays off here. Primo is special, a cook whose leaves his soul in the kitchen every night. He's stubborn and exacting and exactly as he has to be, and nobody really shows up.

Tucci is maƮtre d', business manager, and his brother's line cook, and while the genius fusses over his creation Secondo supplicates to the bank and then their fellow Italian-American restauranteur down the block, whose place focuses on the lowest common denominator and is always hopping on Friday nights.

I've read some commentary claiming that Big Night helped spur the Italian cooking renaissance in the U.S., augmenting The Food Network and others. It's interesting, at any rate, to learn that Italian cuisine was little known or understood in this country for decades following World War II, when GIs returned home with a taste for tomato sauce. For years, it was just pizza and spaghetti, all the way down.

This is where Big Night shows up, a stranger in a strange land, and Secondo gamely tries to define risotto to a clueless customer who really, really just wants meatballs. Where's that Boyardee fellow when you need him?

The brothers argue and struggle and clash, and eventually pin their dwindling hopes on a trope, the famous person certainly, almost surely, possibly, improbably going to show up at their establishment on a certain date and push them into success. Seen it, heard it. Understand where it's going.

The supporting cast are quirky and just wonderful, including Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, and Isabella Rossellini, but the surprise this time around was realizing that a small but key character in the film was played by an unknown Allison Janney, who was marvelous as always.

 Allison Janney and Minnie Driver

Allison Janney and Minnie Driver

A pleasure, then. I'm not much of a cook, and certainly not an Italian cook, but as I did my usual slow cooking of chicken yesterday, just to have some shredded stuff always around for tacos, I took a little extra care, dipping my finger lightly in the sauce as Primo does and touching it to my lips. Yep. Barbecue sauce all right, but you understand.

And I took special care with those cookies late last night, spending 20-25 seconds on each ball of dough, carefully pressing the chips down to keep a smooth surface, weighing each of them to get a standardized 45-gram dough ball, baking for exactly 11 minutes and cooling gently in stages. It rubbed off, this film.

Chuck SigarsComment