Actor Stanley Tucci, who co-wrote, codirected (with Joseph Tropiano and Campbell Scott, respectively), and costarred in Big Night, has been chewing on the concept for years. It was his mother’s doing. More accurately, it was her cooking: her caponata, her shrimp risotto, her eggplant with mushrooms. Geographically, Tucci grew up in suburban New York. Gastronomically, his home was Calabria, in southern Italy—land of big family get-togethers and “dinner parties that went on forever.”
All of which served as fodder for this, Tucci’s first film. As mouthwatering as it may sound, however, this isn’t just a food movie. It is about dreams and passion, betrayal and integrity, the restaurant business and family. It is the late 1950s, and Primo and Secondo Pilaggi, two brothers from Italy, are struggling to keep their restaurant alive in a sleepy New Jersey shore town. Primo (Tony Shalhoub), the elder, is a purist, a shy but obstinate chef. Secondo (Tucci) is the ambitious manager, all too willing to compromise. Times, however, are tough, and with a foreclosure looming and a prosperous Italian restaurant across the street, the future of the place hinges on one big make-or-break night. So the brothers plan a blowout banquet, starring that barely manageable timpano. “My mother was such a terrible cook,” moans one woman in the movie, in the afterglow of what can only be called an orgasmic dining experience. Thankfully, Tucci was much more fortunate.