Food breaks down barriers. This is true in film and life. So when we see characters on screen digging into heaping plates of someone’s cooking, we’re brought to the table with them. It’s through food we find empathy, and sometimes even forgiveness.
When it comes to iconic food scenes in movies, spaghetti is a common thread twirling around some of the best stories put to the screen. Over the decades, pasta’s found itself as integral to plots as relatable characters and crisp dialogue (and, usually, bloodshed).
So with all due respect to Billy Murray’s contagious joy in his corn-eating performance in What About Bob?, here are 13 spaghetti-and-friends scenes from films where sauce-stained strands are woven in and out of the movie with the same force as death, sex, and money.
Early on in Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, a young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is drawn to a stove helmed by Clemenza. “You might have to cook for 20 guys some day,” Clemenza tells him. Corleone, a clean canvas at this point, is set on the blood-stained rails that will take him to mob boss. The gentle instruction between two killers shows a provocative duality between sustaining life and taking it away.
“You start by frying garlic in oil,” Clem explains. He walks Michael through the rest of the steps, albeit in a slightly unorthodox order. After he adds the sugar, “and that’s my trick,” he says, he runs his finger along the bowl and sticks it into his mouth, symbolizing an appreciation for the sweet things in life.
With great food comes great responsibility, and two Italian brothers with contrasting ideals struggle with the task on the Jersey Shore in the ‘50s. Struggle, that is, until Primo wins his brother Secondo’s heart with a glorious pair of timpani.
Timpano, an epic baked pasta dish comprised of hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, cheese, salami, and sauce, earns the oohs and awes of a newborn baby. The scene of it being made unfolds like a precursor to Chef’s Table; an early wave of food porn.
Secondo (Stanley Tucci) and the audience are coddled from doubt to disbelief when the timpano is revealed, then falls under croons of amazement as it’s inspected and devoured by elated guests.
This 1985 comedy about truck drivers, brawn, and noodles makes the list for its depiction of East vs. West in one of cinema’s most revered spaghetti scenes. A woman instructs a group of Japanese women how to eat noodles following the aristocratic Western etiquette, which is to say without slurping. All while a Western transplant one table over eats noisily and gratuitously.
Lady And The Tramp
The jovial love story that is the film Lady and the Tramp comes into our lives long before movies portraying deceit and violence. It is arguably the film from which our first spaghetti memories are shaped, and it’s a memory tied to love and flirtation. The audience is moved as much by the cupid-planted butterflies whirling between canoodling canines as it is the gratuitous plate of spaghetti and meatballs they share. Dining al fresco to the song Bella Notte, it’s not just the food we adore watching the pups eat, but also the world-famous kiss.
Die-hard fans can visit Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, where the scene from Lady and the Tramp was imagined, on Main Street, USA at Magic Kingdom Park in Disney World.
Miseria e Nobiltà
Mario Mattoli brought us this 1950s tale of love and money, and, well, poverty and nobility. The spaghetti high-water mark comes around a humble tablescape surrounded by two poor Southern Italian families. When a large dish heaping with glistening, sauced spaghetti is revealed, they inch their chairs forward with reservation before dancing on the table and stuffing their pockets with what they can’t finish.
The Sopranos did for HBO what the Godfather did for mob movies on the silver screen. During the pilot for the show, we’re introduced to family tensions and the vulgarity that would ensue over the next eight years and six seasons. Though there are other memorable food scenes throughout the show, it’s this first reference to pasta—specifically ziti—that paints the portrait of Sopranos things to come.
Food is an extension of the wealth and abundance afforded in the mob lifestyle. Prison is a harsh reality for the same life choices, but in this scene from the 1990 classic, we find food to be a temporary escape for those serving time for time spent acting against the law.
The razor blade slicing through garlic is a sharp, genius reminder of the fine edge between crime and punishment. Ray Liotta narrates the whole ‘system’ of producing an extravagant meal in prison, how “Vinny was in charge of the tomato sauce” and “Johnny Dio did the meat,” and we know a failed crime system outside is what landed the wise guys behind bars.
Far from the gore and guts and criminal lifestyle depicted in other films on this list is this 1960 rom-com starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Though lust and adultery are common themes in cinema and this list, this quick scene of an opera-bumbling Lemmon is a lighter one: preparing pasta in a cramped New York apartment kitchen, using a tennis racket as a colander for a meal in which the serve will be spaghetti and meatballs.
The film, a 2002 homage to wealth, art, and opulence, is symbolized in a single scene when Reeves, played by Ray Winston, demands more and more (and more) truffles shaved over his pasta in an elaborate European dining room. The scene is a testament to Reeves’s desire for more of the finer things in life. Though he appreciates them, as he does the plate of truffled spaghetti, which he sticks his nose into and mutters an appropriate response.
Eat Pray Love
In any globe-trotting quest for self discovery, food is likely to play an intimate role. From the 2010 film based on the book of the same name, a recently-divorced Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, finds herself through various media in different parts of the world.
Sitting outside at a restaurant table in Italy, she notices a young couple engaged in acts of public lust. Though when an immaculate plate of spaghetti pomodoro is set in front of her, we watch an operatic revelation unfold as Gilbert learns the utter perfection found in the matrimony of spaghetti and sauce, a union as rewarding as physical contact.
One of the great, and early, spaghetti scenes in film is from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 classic. Here, Chaplin, who composed the score, wrote, directed, and produced the movie, is at his slapstick finest. During a scene in an elegant dining room, Chaplin sits down to dinner amidst streamers flying every which way after the unveiling of a new monument. When he digs in to a plate of spaghetti, it just so happens a spaghetti strand ends where one streamer starts, and an oblivious Chaplin takes it into his mouth and continues to eat like a clown spewing scarves in reverse.
When Irish immigrant Ellis Lacey moves to Brooklyn in the 1950s, it’s only a matter of time before she’s introduced to the borough’s longstanding Italian-American traditions. And when Tony Fiorello, Lacey’s love interest, takes her to his home for the first time, there is an awkward silence born from first exchanges. But we find comfort and familiarity in the spaghetti dinner the family enjoys.
An American in Rome
The arrival of U.S. troops to Italy in the 40s leaves a lasting impact on Italian culture. Among the traditions brought and left in Italy are a slew of Western foodstuffs, which is to say yogurt, jam, milk, and mustard. When the impressionable Nando Mericoni, played by Alberto Sordi, sits down to enjoy such things, he’s quickly turned off by the foreign foods and, following a jolt of national pride, takes to destroying a plate of spaghetti.