Session 3.3: Big Night: An Analysis of a Deeper Conflict between Italian Cultures

Tony (Yuhao) Yang, University of Toronto Mississauga

          During the 1950s, America received an influx of Italian immigrants. For many of these Italians, immigrating to America meant a new world full of possibilities, opportunities, and fresh starts. Sadly, it also meant abandoning older cultural traditions rooted in the Italian Renaissance in order to better adapt to and succeed within their new Italian-American environment. In spite of this, many Italian immigrants still clinged to their roots and retained a deep sense of nostalgia for their homeland, yearning to return to Italy. This desire to hold onto one’s roots stood in conflict with their equal desire to move forward within their new fast-paced environment, resulting in a break between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. In the 1996 film Big Night, this conflict is subtly explored. Taking place in New Jersey in the 1950s, Big Night centers on two brothers from Italy: Primo and Secondo, who together own a restaurant called Paradise that is on the verge of failure. In an attempt to save it, Secondo plans to host a big dinner for Louis Prima, a famous guest whose patronage he hopes will give Paradise enough publicity to draw in more customers. Through the inclusion of specific foods, songs, and works of art; portrayal of its main characters; and clever presentation of certain scenes, Big Night explores and challenges the many differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures so as to demonstrate how truly deep this conflict ran among Italian immigrants arriving in the US during the 1950s.

          Since Big Night is a film that centers on a big dinner, it should come as no surprise that food, music, and art all make an appearance. While their appearances may at first seem random, they are in fact carefully selected and used to establish differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. To begin, several foods are served throughout the film that illustrate a clear difference in American tolerances towards traditional Italian and Italian-American cuisine. One such notable food is risotto. Originating in northern Italy, risotto is a dish comprised of rice that is usually cooked in a broth or cream and mixed with either seafood, vegetables, or meat. In its first appearance in the film, the risotto is made with Arborio rice, shrimp, and scallops, and it is served to a female customer at Paradise. Due to how it is prepared, however, the risotto fails to meet her expectations, resulting in a humorous exchange between the customer and Secondo that highlights the different expectations that Americans held towards Americanized Italian cuisine in the 1950s. Risotto is shown to be one such Americanized Italian dish and its appearance in the film illustrates how Italian-American recipes were often preferred over their traditional Italian counterparts. Timpano (also known as timballo) is another notable dish that appears in the film; though it originates in Italy, recipes tend to vary from region to region. The timpano that features in Big Night consists of eggs, meatballs, and pasta encased in a dough crust, which is served to the guests at Louis Prima’s dinner. Unlike the risotto, the timpano is presented to the guests as a completely new dish, implying that it had no Americanized equivalent to be compared with. The overwhelmingly positive response of the guests to the dish suggests that, in spite of the American preference towards Italian-American cuisine, traditional Italian cuisine could still be appreciated by American diners. Such examples of food in the film emphasize the vast difference in cuisine between the two opposing cultures, with Italian-American dishes often enjoying far more success than traditional Italian dishes in America during the 1950s.

          As with food, art similarly makes select appearances in Big Night to establish differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. Featuring prominently inside Paradise and its rival restaurant Pascal, the two restaurants are notably distinguished from one another by the quality of art on display. Paintings on the walls of Paradise are explained to have come from either Primo’s family or from an artist who paid for his meals with paintings. As both Primo and this artist come from poorer backgrounds, Paradise’s paintings are low in both quality and value. By contrast Pascal, who is Primo’s antithesis in both business and culture, adorns his namesake restaurant with large paintings, grand statues, and decorative vases, implying that he holds art to a higher standard of quality than Primo. Given that money is needed to purchase high quality art, one can correlate the quality of the paintings in either restaurant with the financial success of that restaurant. And if the success of both restaurants is found to be in correlation with the dishes they serve, then it can be concluded that Primo’s traditional Italian dishes are the reason why Paradise is unsuccessful while Pascal’s Italian-American dishes are the reason why his restaurant is very successful. Hence a contrast emerges between the financial successes of traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures during the 1950s, one that shows traditional Italian cuisine to be largely unprofitable and Italian-American cuisine to be very profitable.

           In addition to food and art, music is also used in the film to distinguish traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. This is especially apparent during scenes intended to showcase a particular culture, which often features a song by a popular artist of the respective culture playing in the background. One example of this is the scene entitled “I Secondi” that takes places during Louis Prima’s dinner (Big Night). During this scene, Primo and Secondo prepare and serve to the guests a number of traditional Italian dishes, accompanied by the song “Tic Ti, Tic Ta” by Italian singer Claudio Villa. This choice selection of music not only helps distinguish traditional Italian culture from Italian-American culture within the film, but it further provides insight into specific differences between the two cultures and their values. Apart from one song, most of the songs by traditional Italian singers in the film have a slower rhythm than those by Italian-American artists. Such a difference in rhythm reflects the pace of life associated with each culture: the slow-paced Italian music reflects a penchant for a traditional and perhaps less hectic way of life, whereas the faster tempo of the Italian-American music reflects the fast-paced lifestyles of Italian Americans in the 1950s. In summation, food, art, and music each make select appearances within the film that highlight differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. Through the use of traditional Italian dishes like risotto and timpano, the high and low quality paintings hung in Paradise and Pascal’s, and the select choice songs overlain atop important cultural scenes, the film develops a contrast between these two kinds of Italian cultures that illustrates just how deep such a conflict ran for Italian Americans in the 1950s.

          In the same way that Big Night uses food, music, and art to illustrate this cultural conflict, the film’s portrayal of its two protagonists Primo and Secondo serves to emphasize the difference in worldviews practiced by traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. At various moments in the film, Primo and Secondo make decisions that reflect the mindset and values of a particular culture. Primo, on the one hand, subscribes to the traditional Italian culture. Throughout the film, Primo’s traditional Italian dishes are contrasted with his rival Pascal’s Italian-American dishes in that the former’s are made with both appearance and taste in mind, whereas Pascal is content to serve simple and uninspired dishes to his customers. This suggests that Primo is a chef and artist first and a businessman second, cooking with attention to appearance, taste, and exoticism rather than just simplicity and popularity. It is this same mindset that causes Primo to refer to Pascal’s dishes as a “rape of cuisine” (Big Night). Furthermore, Primo’s traditional approach to cooking hearkens back to Renaissance Italy—particularly to its culture of courtly banqueting, where the presence of exotic, aesthetically pleasing, and carefully prepared dishes was an expression of the host’s power and sophistication. Conversely, the presence of simple dishes was a sign of poverty and barbarism in the host. Using this connection, it can be suggested that Primo’s approach to cooking is based on values inherited from the Italian Renaissance and, by extension, from a more traditional Italian culture than that of his Italian-American rival.

           In addition to his cooking, Primo also demonstrates material values that are in line with traditional Italian culture. During one particular scene, a customer is unable to pay for his meal in money and apologizes to Primo, who responds, “What would I do with money?” (Big Night). Primo’s lack of regard for money can potentially be read as pointing back to Italy’s fascist era, during which many Italians were extremely poor and had to make do with little to no money. In this same scene, Primo is then shown accepting a painting as payment for the meal, once again hearkening back to Renaissance Italy where art functioned as an indicator of one’s social class and ideals. Finally, Primo’s attempts to persuade Secondo that they return to Italy, where things were easier, can be interpreted as a desire to return to a simpler time—a key recurring value in traditional Italian culture all throughout its history. In short, Primo’s actions in the film seem to reflect the rich history of his homeland and its resulting cultural identity, which can be said to inform the very essence of the traditional Italian lifestyle.

          On the other hand, Secondo’s actions throughout Big Night align with Italian-American culture. His desire to find success in the New World and faith in its potential reflects the mindset of many Italian Americans that immigrated to the US during the 1950s. Secondo’s willingness, if not eagerness, to replace his brother’s traditional Italian dishes with Americanized Italian dishes demonstrates how he begins to regard traditional dishes as unfashionable and unfavourable, just as many Italian Americans did post-immigration. In fact, Secondo’s desire to change the menu mirrors how Italian-American business owners in the 1950s adjusted their own offerings in order to succeed. Both of these character traits represent Secondo as focused on leaving behind the past and moving towards the future, an ideology embraced by many American immigrants and central to Italian-American culture. A clear example of Secondo’s distaste for the past can be seen in his exchange with the car dealer, who comments that Italy has “a lot of history,” prompting Secondo to respond, “In Italy, there is nothing but history” (Big Night). Secondo’s response indicates that he regards Italy and its long history to be commonplace and unprofitable, a view that emphasizes his focus on the future rather than the past. It can even be said that Secondo’s inability to commit to his girlfriend Phyllis and his consequential infidelity with Pascal’s wife Gabriella are further evidence of a mindset that is constantly moving away from a boring past (symbolized by Phyllis) and towards an exciting future (represented by Gabriella). Hence Secondo’s actions demonstrate the extent to which he values and is motivated by the possibility of a better future, a mindset that solidifies his representation as a man invested in the Italian-American culture of the 1950s.

          The stark differences in the values that Primo and Secondo hold expose a deep rupture between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. Whereas Primo has inherited his values from the rich history of traditional Italian culture, Secondo draws his values from a belief in the possibility of a greater future as promised by Italian-American culture. Through its treatment of such differences, then, Big Night reveals a clear divide between these opposing traditions that successfully illustrates the two competing cultures at conflict in America during the 1950s.

          Having established opposing lifestyle representations through Primo and Secondo, the film shifts to exploring what drives this divide between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures through scenes that involve the two brothers interacting with other key characters. Such scenes serve to further reinforce the brothers’ beliefs in their respective cultures or further divide their distinct lifestyles. One particular scene near the start of the film has Secondo falling into a dispute with Primo over his brother’s refusal to prepare a side dish of spaghetti for an American customer who had already ordered a main dish of risotto. The brothers’ opposite responses to the customer’s order highlights a difference in Italian-American and traditional Italian expectations towards cuisine. Primo’s refusal to make spaghetti for the customer arises out of an inability to understand why anyone would want to eat spaghetti following risotto, which overturns the usual sequence of courses practiced in traditional Italian meals. While Primo responds with incredulity and outrage, Secondo is far more rational and accepting of the customer’s unorthodox request. Unlike Primo, Secondo adheres to the Italian-American lifestyle and is not bound by tradition; as a result, he is much more willing to accommodate the customer. Their different impulses toward the customer’s order cause the two brothers to bicker, implying that these two cultures cannot be reconciled and thus creating a sense of conflict between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures.

          Another scene in Big Night that showcases the conflict between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures occurs when Primo and Secondo debate whether risotto should remain on the menu. In response to the previous exchange with the customer, Secondo tries to convince Primo to remove risotto from the menu, who sarcastically suggests that they replace the dish with hot dogs. This scene is notable for the tension that falls upon the restaurant when Secondo makes the suggestion to Primo, which then shifts to a sense of hope as the older brother appears to offer his support of the idea, only to restore the tension as his sarcasm is revealed and the brothers fail to come to an agreement on the issue. Such violent shifts in mood symbolize the impossibility of the traditional Italian lifestyle coexisting with its Italian-American offshoot. Just as the brothers internalize opposing mindsets that cannot be reconciled, Secondo’s attempts to persuade Primo of his investment in the Italian-American way is only met with false diplomacy, suggesting that true diplomacy between these two cultures is impossible. Likewise, Primo’s sarcastic suggestion that they serve hot dogs in place of risotto expresses his disdain for American (and by extension, Italian-American) fast food culture. Their different lifestyle views are further emphasized when Primo explains, “If you give people time, they learn,” to which Secondo bluntly responds, “Well, I don’t have time for them to learn. This is a restaurant, not a fucking school” (Big Night). In this exchange, each brother uses his own personal outlook on time to help the other see his opposing point of view. For Primo, time is a bountiful resource that eventually brings about change, which relates to traditional Italian culture as an accumulation of gradual changes across Italy’s history. This significantly differs from Secondo’s perspective, which regards time as a limited resource that he and his brother simply do not have the luxury of wasting, once again reflecting the fast pace of the Italian-American lifestyle. Primo and Secondo’s contrasting viewpoints therefore paint a picture of conflict between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures that hinges upon a common element—time—but one that is experienced in very different ways.

          A final example of the conflict between these two opposing Italian lifestyles is seen when Secondo visits the restaurant of their business rival Pascal, who, unlike the brothers, is successful in spite of (and as a direct result of) the uninspired dishes that he serves to his customers. This is especially emphasized in the advice that Pascal gives to Secondo, explaining,

 A guy goes out to eat in the evening after a long day in the office, whatever; he don’t want on his plate something that he has to look and think, “What the fuck is this?” You know? No, right. What he want: “Ah, steak! This is a steak. I like steak!” You know? “I’m happy!” Do you see what I mean? (Big Night)

          The fact that Pascal’s restaurant is successful because of his decision to follow Italian-American expectations of cuisine while Paradise is failing because of Primo’s insistence to serve traditional Italian dishes illustrates just how differently the two cultures fared in America during the 1950s. From the fact that one restaurant succeeds while the other fails, one can draw the conclusion that these two cultures are in direct opposition to one another and that it is the different values held by Italian-American culture that ultimately enables it to succeed over traditional Italian culture. To summarize, then, Big Night uses scenes involving the two brothers and their interactions with other key characters to highlight the competing values and resulting conflicts between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. Whether it is the scene in which Primo and Secondo argue  over changing Paradise’s menu or when Secondo reaches out to Pascal for business advice, the film successfully establishes clear differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American lifestyles through its clever use of scenes and character dialogue.

          In the 1950s, an influx of Italian immigrants arrived in America prepared to abandon old traditions in exchange for a new future. Through this immigration, a conflict was born centering upon the stark differences between traditional Italian and Italian-American cultures. In the 1996 film Big Night, these differences and the ensuing conflict are explored in many interesting ways. Through select appearances of food, art, and music; the portrayal of its protagonists Primo and Secondo; and its clever use of character dialogue within certain scenes, Big Night subtly brings to light important differences in notions of success, outlooks on life, and personal ambitions held by these two opposing Italian cultures. It is through such meaningful consideration that Big Night succeeds in its attempt to explore the deeper cultural issues that impacted Italian Americans in the 1950s, thereby demonstrating how incredible of a film it truly is.

Works Cited

Big Night. Directed by Jonathan Filley, Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1996.