Lick the Plate

Movie food scenes can be downright mouth-watering

I have to start this column with an experience I had more than 10 years ago that involved the movie “Big Night” and a restaurant that was recreating a portion of the menu from the movie to experience after the movie. It was in Seattle and the theater was called Seven Gables and the participating eatery was Ristorante Mama Melina, which just so happened to be directly below the theater. Seven Gables is often described as “that house above the Italian restaurant” because of its cozy exterior of dark, shingled sides and the notorious gabled roof. It’s also set up more like an intimate screening room so I knew when I walked in I was in for a treat. What I did not realize was that while we were watching the movie, the aroma from the food being cooked below would be wafting through the theater. And not just any food, but much of what was being cooked in the movie. It was like experiencing smell-o-vision and it was at times, insanely pleasurable and frustrating as I literally wanted to jump on to the stage and scream “feed me now.” Finally, at the end of the movie, we bolted down the stairs to have our own Big Night feast ready for us to indulge in.
The movie itself was about Primo and Secondo, two brothers who have emigrated from Italy to open an Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Primo is the irascible and gifted chef, brilliant in his culinary genius, but determined not to squander his talent on making the routine dishes that customers expect. Secondo is the smooth front-man, trying to keep the restaurant financially afloat, despite few patrons. The owner of the nearby Pascal’s restaurant, enormously successful (despite its mediocre fare of American Italian staples like spaghetti and meatballs), offers a solution — he will call his friend, big-time jazz musician Louis Prima, to play a special benefit at their restaurant. The meal, a feast of a lifetime includes spaghetti alla carbonara, orzo tre colore, timballa, pollo arrosto catanzaro and Italian pastries. A lavish buffet of appetizers was served before the family-style main meal, and the wine flowed.
There are some amazing scenes in this movie from the opening where Segundo refuses to serve a side of spaghetti with risotto, “perhaps she would like a side of potatoes?” or when Primo explains the timpana over the montage of them assembling it, to the final scene where Primo makes a simple frittata, a long, single shot that is a classic. Many of these dishes were served to us after the movie which made it one of the most memorable evenings of cinema and food I’ve ever experienced.
While “Goodfellas” was a far cry from a food movie, Martin Scorsese continued his tradition of sneaking in scenes that convey his love of food. The prison scene where some hungry wise guys with prison contraband pull together a meal is one of the tastiest meals ever played out on film. From Paulie slicing the garlic paper-thin with a razor to Vinnie overseasoning the sauce with three large onions, the crew whips up a meal that makes you ponder doing time in the joint just to get in on some smuggled bread, salami, and prosciutto.
Rats in the kitchen used to be a bad thing … and then came “Ratatouille.” The verve and efficiency of Remy’s pals in cooking his signature dish proves that every chef could use a few vermin as sous chefs, as long as they wash their hands. There are several amazing scenes in this movie but the one that brought a tear of happiness to my eye was the reaction of the critic Anton Ego taking that bite of ratatouille. It is probably one of the most touching character transformations I’ve ever seen. My critical mind tells me I don’t believe that a person could change so much from taking a single bite of a dish they ate as a child, but at the same time I so desperately want to believe it. It was just so magical as Ego was transported back to his youth in the French countryside. I love watching this movie again and again with kids who have not seen it as it not only entertains, but turns them on to food and cooking in ways they may not have been exposed to.
Damn, here I am again at the end of the column. I’ll quickly round it out with five more must see food movies. “Waitress,” “Chocolat,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” and of course this year’s favorite, “Julie & Julia.” Of course there are dozens more food movies and food scenes, so shoot me and e-mail describing your favorites and I’ll include them in an upcoming column.