Popcorn and a Movie: Revisiting a ‘Big Night’

“To eat good food,” says Italian chef Primo in the 1996 film, “Big Night,” “is to be close to God.”

And truthfully, over the 20 years since I first saw this movie, I have said, again and again, that my idea of heaven was the kitchen where Primo, played by Tony Shaloub and his brother, Secondo, played by Stanley Tucci, worked miracles to be served up in their struggling restaurant, so poignantly named “Paradise.”

The kitchen is large and well-worn — with rattling plumbing — the industrial artistic space of the 1950s restaurant. Everything has a purpose and is in the proper place; pots hang above within easy reach, rolling shelves hold plates and other needed implements. There is ample work surface and ingredients — from herbs to bowls of eggs — sit in strategic locations to be at the ready when they are needed.

The restaurant is small, elegant and understated, perhaps too understated for the less-than-refined diners who seem to miss the artistry in the food. The place caters to patrons who do not appreciate the subtlety of the risotto and who pay for their food with paintings. Across the street, the flashier “Pascal’s” is a meat-and-potatoes-and-liquor-and-music type of establishment that seems to lure people in droves.

“Give the customer what they want,” Pascal advises Secondo, who is so desperate to save his ailing restaurant he asks to borrow money from his rival, “Then you can give the customer what you want.”

The well-connected Pascal gives Secondo hope in the offering of inviting the jazz great Louis Prima to perform at a special dinner at Primo and Secondo’s restaurant. As the brothers prepare for the festivities, the subdued Primo remarks, “They should come just for the food.”

His pragmatic brother replies, “They should come just for the food, but they don’t.”

The food alone is worth coming to this movie. As the preparations and the big night ensue, we are treated to a lively visual feast from start to finish. Among the dishes created for the night is Timpano, a meat and pasta layered “drum” encased in a pasta dough shell and baked in a large enamel tub.

As all hinges on the big night, partygoers drink and dance and are treated to food they cannot believe keeps coming from that humble kitchen. Primo, usually the more uptight of the brothers, begins to relax and enjoy the fact that the food, in fact, is the star of the evening.

Big Night” was written by Tucci and Joseph Tropiano (Tucci’s cousin) from Tropiano’s novel, and also stars Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm, Allison Janney, a very young Marc Anthony and Campbell Scott, who co-directed the film. All are superb, but it is Shaloub’s and Tucci’s portrayals of sibling love, rivalry and negotiation of each other’s differences that drive the story.

During an argument, Primo, who is less concerned with financial success than his brother and is unwilling to lower his artistic standards, tells him: “If I sacrifice my work, it dies. It’s better that I die.”

I expect a lot from movies, and in no small part, I expect them to save me. To pull me from blackness or mediocrity (a form of blackness) or doldrums; to inspire me forth and make me believe — in something, anything — again. I have to say that the uncompromising Primo and his supportive brother Secondo are among my favorite movie heroes of all time. They fight quietly and humbly, but they fight with the truth that is, what’s good is good, and there is no arguing against that. “Big Night,” is fun, funny, poignant, and in inspiring nudge toward all that makes life delicious and knowing that doing your best does matter, if only to you.

My popcorn recipe to watch “Big Night,” of course, has an Italian twist. A number of years ago,I infused olive oil with fresh rosemary and popped my popcorn in that aromatic oil. A finish of a little more olive oil, sea salt and sometimes a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Rosemary-Parmesan Popcorn

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
4 springs fresh rosemary
1 cup unpopped popcorn kernels
Sea salt or your favorite popcorn salt
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the 1/2 cup olive oil and rosemary sprigs in a large heavy pot. Once the olive oil is hot, turn off the heat and allow the oil to cool to room temperature. Remove the rosemary. Reheat the oil on medium high heat. When it is hot, add popcorn kernels and lid the pot. Let popcorn cook for up to 3 minutes, shaking the pan and waiting until popcorn popping slows, to turn off heat and remove pan. Put popcorn in large, festive bowl (Timpano tub?), drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt to taste and toss with Parmesan cheese.

I have not made the timpano from the film, but made a vegetarian version using eggplant slices as the “crust.” The recipe comes from Stanley Tucci’s mother’s cookbook, “Cucina & Famiglia” (1999). Tucci’s mother, Joan Tropiano Tucci, was the source of many of the foods featured in the film.

I channeled Primo and Secondo as I asembled this smaller timpano, filled with, yes, the most delicious rich pasta/veggie/cheesy/saucy concoction I have had in many moons (it could be eaten on its own as a dish). Layering the slices of eggplant proved an easy process (just what can’t eggplant do?)

I ended up with a dish that maybe could have been served at the dinner in “Big Night” (at the least it looked very similar to the photo in the cookbook).

Beyond appearance, the taste? Paradise.

Timpano di Vegetali/Vegetarian Timpano 
Adaptation presented by www.washingtonpost.com
From “Cucina e Famiglia” 
by Joan Tropiano Tucci and Gianni Scappin (1999)

Serves 12. 

You need a 10-inch springform pan. 

You can make sauce in advance, as well as eggplant. 

You can bake in advance, then reheat when ready to serve.

Cut lengthwise 3-4 medium eggplants, into 1/2-inch wide strips.
Sprinkle with kosher salt, let drain for about 2 hours.

Grease your pan with 2 tablespoons of butter. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup
breadcrumbs on bottom and sides. Set aside. 

Melt about 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan, whsk in 2
tablespoons of flour, then gradually whisk in 1 cup milk. bring to a
simmer and cook, whisking, until it thickens. remove from heat, cover
top of sauce with plastic wrap to avoid a skin . This is your bechamel

For the veggie filling: 

Prepare a pot of boiling water for 3/4 pound short pasta — penne, ziti,
fusilli, your choice.

In a large pot, saute with a bit of olive oil 1 cup diced onions and
about 2 cups diced bell pepper (yellow and red are good colors), until
soft. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup quartered and thinly
sliced carrots, 3/4 cup thinly sliced celery., stirring until soft. Stir in
approximately 3 cups halved and thinly sliced zucchini, 2
tablespoons chopped fresh basil and parsley,. Stir in about 2 cups
whole canned tomatoes, crushing with back of spoon as you add.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Cook for a bit. Stir in 1 cup
frozen or fresh peas and the bechamel sauce, cook for a few minutes.
Keep on fire while pasta boils.

When pasta is done, drain and add to sauce. Remove from heat,
transfer to a bowl to cool. When cool, add 2 cups diced mozzarella
and 1/2 cup fresh grated parmigiano.

At this point you can chill overnight or use right away.

Continue with eggplant preparation. Pat your sliced dry with paper
towel. Lightly brush with olive oil, brown under broiler or on grill,
about 5 minutes per side.

Preheat oven to 350. 

Line your pan with overlapping slices of eggplant, allowing each
slice to overhang the edge of the pan by about 3 inches. Line the
center of the pan with eggplant, overlapping with ends of side pieces.
You’ll need a few for the top as well.

Fill eggplant shell with your pasta/veggie mixture, pressing down with
spoon. Fold slices that are hanging over sides over the filling. Patch
any holes with eggplant. Cover with foil and bake about 15 minutes.
Remove foil, raise heat to 400, cook about 15 minutes. Remove from
pan, let rest for about 10. Then remove ring from pan and place on a
platter. Slice and serve immediately.

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