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A 'Big Night' for Food Fans

Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 25, 1996

Cousins Stanley Tucci and Joe Tropiano share a lifetime of happy memories of wonderful Sunday dinners at their grandparents' house in Westchester County, N.Y. Chicken soup with tiny, delicately seasoned meatballs. Rabbit. Zeppole -- doughnut-shaped cookies made of twisted strands of dough.

Sunday afternoons. Food and family. That's what it means to be Italian, the cousins thought. A picture quite different from the sinister mafioso acting roles that Tucci was being offered.

So when writer Tropiano, 36, and actor Tucci, 35 and the brilliantly villainous Richard Cross on ABC's "Murder One," sat down in 1991 to write a screenplay, they wanted three things. The movie should allow Tucci to portray an Italian as a complicated human being, not a stereotype -- the kind of role he wasn't being offered. It should be "small," in the Italian film style, where character takes precedence over action or plot. And it should allow the cousins to explore what Tropiano calls "the difficult dance between art and money."

When they added up their wish list, they were right back where they had started: food and family. And with what the press materials call "the heartwarming story of two brothers attempting to save their failing restaurant business and attain the American dream."

Why did food seem the natural metaphor? "A chef's problems were a way of exploring that theme of art and money in a way people could access it," says Tropiano.

The happy result: "Big Night," a $4.2-million feature film that pits a 1950s forward-looking Italian restaurant against New Jersey Shore residents wedded to spaghetti and meatballs and canned antipasto. Tucci also co-stars in the movie, with Tony Shalhoub, and co-directs, with Campbell Scott. The script won Tucci and Tropiano the jury prize for screenwriting at last winter's Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

As delicate as the food they want to serve in their restaurant, the story focuses on the plight of Primo (the chef, played by Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci, the maitre d'), who are spiritually and financially undone by the runaway success of Pascal's, the overwrought red-sauce Italian restaurant across the street.

Rival Pascal won't lend Secondo the money he needs to fend off foreclosure, but he does offer the brothers one shot: Bandleader Louis Prima is performing nearby, and Pascal will invite him, and the New York newspaper columnists, to their restaurant; the publicity will do the rest.

Most of the remainder of the movie is the brothers' feverish preparations for a no-holds-barred banquet for the Big Night. But above the chopping and sauteing and pasta-making loom questions: Will Louis Prima really turn up? If so, will that do anything for the business? If not, will they go bust?

Some of the story threads get resolved, others not, but the plot sets the movie up for its centerpiece, the quick-step parade of platters -- from caponata and risotto to the temperamental timpano (see box at right) to the final, over-the-top roasted suckling pig, which leaves the dinner guests groaning and the audience happily exhausted.

Tucci and Tropiano turned to their family background, and those Sunday dinners, for insights into la cucina italiana that no amount of study could have provided. The stylish food in the film, of course, is not the food they grew up with: In the '50s, even the most advanced American restaurant-goers hadn't encountered much in the way of seafood risotto or pasta with garlic and oil or crostini with goat cheese or capon stuffed with pomegranates. Some of the movie recipes are included in the novelization, "Big Night" by Joseph Tropiano (St. Martin's Griffin, $9.95).

But the Tucci-Tropiano family's food was authentic, the kind of recipes passed on from grandmother to mother to granddaughter. And like the food Primo tries to purvey in New Jersey, it was food they didn't see anywhere else.

"It was very much a kind of Calabrian country cooking," says Tropiano. "Roughly assembled, but incredibly delicious and intense. It was its own kind of art form."

To be believable in the kitchen, the stars had to train -- Tucci at Le Madri in New York City, Shalhoub at Chianti in Los Angeles. There was considerable chopping, of course, and stuffing and baking and grilling and, perhaps hardest, pasta rolling and shaping. Shalhoub had to be able to turn out effortlessly perfect garganelli, a kind of little ziti. Raffetto's on Houston Street in Manhattan provided the pasta dough, but the chef's hands deftly working the eggs into the flour in the close-up shots are Shalhoub's, and the thin slices of eggplant are made by Tucci.

But if the actors' culinary aspirations seemed daunting, think of the film's poor caterers. Three different ones in the 35-day shoot. "We really felt sorry for them because they had to live up to the subject," says Tropiano. "But they actually did a pretty good job."

In the final, morning-after scene, the movie slows down to a kind of silent waltz. There, in real time, is Tucci as Secondo, cooking up eggs for the kitchen assistant, played by Marc Anthony, and himself, with a portion left over, presumably for Primo.

He cracks one egg, then another, a third, a fourth, a fifth. He scouts around and picks up a fork with which to mix them. Into the omelet pan the eggs go, and we, on camera and off, watch as they cook. Then we watch as they are eaten, still in silence.

And then we in the audience go home, feeling as full and nourished as any member of the Tucci-Tropiano family must have felt after a Sunday afternoon in Westchester.

(Eggplant Antipasto)

(6 appetizer servings)

This Tucci-Tropiano family recipe is a Southern Italian classic. To serve it as part of a buffet, you can prepare it several days ahead. Serve at room temperature.

1 large eggplant

1/2 cup olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 cup chopped celery

28-ounce can crushed plum tomatoes

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained

1 tablespoon pine nuts

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons wine vinegar

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Wash eggplant and slice in half. Salt generously and allow to stand for about 20 minutes. Then rinse and dry the eggplant and dice it into 1-inch cubes.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and saute the eggplant until soft and slightly browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Do not let the eggplant get too soft. Remove the eggplant and place in a large saucepan. Set aside.

Adding more oil if necessary, fry the onion in the original skillet until it is wilted. Add the celery and tomatoes. Simmer about 15 minutes, until celery is tender. Add the capers and pine nuts. Add mixture to the eggplant in the saucepan.

In a small saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar, add salt and pepper to taste, and heat slightly. Add the heated liquid to the eggplant, cover the saucepan and simmer over low heat until the tomatoes are cooked and the vegetables are tender but not mushy. Stir often during cooking. Allow to cool before refrigerating. This can be prepared several days ahead; it also can be frozen.

Per serving: 235 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 426 mg sodium

(Risotto With Shrimp and Scallops)

(4 servings)

This adaptation of the Tucci-Tropiano risotto is based on a seafood risotto from Marcella Hazan's "Marcella's Kitchen" (Knopf, 1995) and a squid risotto from "Risotto" by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman (Scribner's, 1987). The shrimp broth can be made ahead of time.

1/2 pound medium shrimp, cleaned and deveined, shells reserved

1/2 pound scallops, cleaned

Reserved shrimp shells

1 small onion, peeled and a bay leaf stuck into it with a clove

1 carrot, roughly chopped

1 stalk celery, roughly chopped

3 or 4 fresh parsley sprigs

1/2 cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium to large cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup chopped onion

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon unsalted butter (plus optional additional 1 tablespoon added at the end)

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 small tomato, peeled and diced

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

For the broth: Place the shrimp shells in a large saucepan. Add the clove-studded onion, chopped carrot and celery, parsley sprigs, wine, 5 1/2 cups water and salt to taste. Bring to a boil and then simmer gently over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes. Strain, reserving the broth and discarding the shells and the vegetables. Keep the broth warm over a low flame.

For the risotto: Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet, add half of the garlic and half of the onion and saute over medium-low heat for 2 or 3 minutes until the onion begins to soften and the garlic just begins to color, being careful not to let it brown. Cut shrimp into halves or thirds. Then add the shrimp to the skillet along with the scallops and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until the shrimp just start to look pink. Transfer the shrimp/scallop mixture to the container of a food processor and let cool for a few minutes. Then pulse just a few times to chop everything very roughly (medium-size chunks should remain). Set aside.

In a large pot (or the skillet the shellfish were cooked in if it's large enough), over medium heat, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the butter. Add the remaining garlic and onion and saute until wilted but not browned. Stir in the rice to coat it thoroughly with the oil and butter, saute the rice for a minute or two and then add the wine. Cook, stirring frequently, until the rice has absorbed the liquid. Add the diced tomato and 1 cup of the shrimp broth, stirring until the liquid is absorbed. Continue cooking and stirring, adding broth 1 cup at a time at the beginning and then in increasingly smaller amounts as the rice gets closer to being done, so it doesn't get too soupy. Cook until the rice is creamy and tender but still al dente. This will take approximately 15 to 18 minutes. Add the shrimp/scallop mixture and a liberal grinding of pepper to the risotto during the last 5 minutes or so of cooking. Add more broth if necessary to achieve a slightly soupy consistency, then stir in the cheese. An additional tablespoon of butter may be mixed in at the end for extra creaminess. Serve at once.

Per serving: 397 calories, 25 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 122 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 1029 mg sodium

(Veal Rolls)

(6 servings)

This dish can also be made with chicken cutlets if they are pounded thin enough. When rolled up, these veal or chicken topolini should measure 2 1/2 to 3 inches in length and 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The dish tastes best if prepared ahead and warmed slowly before serving.

After your guests have finished, you can inform them that topolini is Italian for "mice" (remember Topo Gigio?). The recipe is a Tucci-Tropiano family favorite.

6 cutlets (about 1 1/2 pounds) veal scallopine, pounded thin

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons finely diced provolo\ne cheese (optional)

4 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese

4 tablespoons chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley

Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup celery leaves

16 ounces (2 cups) chicken broth

Lay each scallop of veal out flat and place in the center a little less than a demitasse spoon each of garlic, provolone and pecorino cheeses (if using both) and parsley. Salt and pepper to taste. Then roll each veal scallop up and tie in a bundle with white kitchen string (or close each veal roll with a toothpick).

Place the olive oil in a large saute pan. When the oil is hot, brown the veal rolls evenly on all sides. Remove the veal and set aside. Add the wine to the saute pan. Scrape the pan to get all the browned bits off the pan surface. Add the celery leaves. Add the chicken broth, place the veal rolls back in the pan and simmer, covered, for about 30 to 35 minutes. Serve with pasta and/or a salad.

Per serving: 413 calories, 29 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 29 gm fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 681 mg sodium

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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