Big Night, the 1996 movie directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, is the story of two Italian brothers, Primo and Secondo, and their love/hate struggle to make a success of Paradise, their restaurant on the New Jersey coast, in the late 1950s.
Primo is the purist cook. At one point in the movie he refuses to prepare an order of spaghetti for a customer who already has been served a beautifully prepared risotto. She already has "a starch," he says with contempt to his brother.
Secondo, the maitre d' and certainly the more flexible of the two, begs him to reconsider and give the customer what she wants, but Primo refuses. The restaurant often closes early due to a lack of customers while the Italian restaurant across the street serving dishes more familiar to the American palate like spaghetti and meatballs thrives.
The film is really a love story about the two brothers, who argue and fight and hug. They think their entrepreneurial struggle is ended when Pascal, owner of the rival restaurant and a fan of Primo's authentic Italian cooking, offers to invite jazz musician Louis Prima to their place for a special meal. That sets the stage for the Big Night and production begins on the ultimate dinner.
To eat good food is to be close to God.
PRIMO, OLDER BROTHER IN BIG NIGHT
The movie was never No. 1 at the box office.
"It didn't play well (meaning large audiences), but it certainly had a following," said David Phillips, co-owner of Broadway Cinema 8 in Eureka. "It was more of a cult movie for food people."
The film moved to video in April 1997 and took on a second life.
"It rents very well," said Jeannie Fuller, store manager for Figueiredo's on Harris in Eureka. "We only have one copy but it's consistently rented out."
The attraction is not so much the plot of the movie, (Louis Prima never shows up), but the meal course after course of magnificant dishes interspersed with wine, music, dancing and merriment.
Eureka's version of Big Night took place May 1 at Roy's Club, on D Street in Old Town. The dinner, which lasted three times as long as the 107-minute movie, was produced by two local chefs of Italian descent, Cyndie Heaslet, owner of Savory Thyme Catering Co., and John Salizzoni, manager of Roy's. Forty guests paid $65 each to enjoy the production.
Salizzoni, a Pennsylvania native who was raised in Eureka, got the idea for the dinner from Michael Hayes, husband of Jolene Hayes, who sang opera and show tunes for the diners, and brother of Heaslet. Hayes and Heaslet had seen the movie and thought Roy's would be a good setting for the recreation.
"After I saw it, I realized it was my life," said Salizzoni.
Sometimes spaghetti just to be alone.
SECONDO, THE YOUNGER BROTHER
Before the diners, who consumed 46 bottles of wine, were treated to six hours of gustatorial pleasure, Salizzoni, Heaslet and a staff of three had spent about 30 hours in the kitchen preparing the food.
The nine-course menu, based mostly on a Northern Italian cuisine, features timpano (see cover photo) as its centerpiece. The Calabrian dish was "the most fun, the best part of the day for us," Salizzoni said. "It's all hand made."
Timpano in Italian means kettledrum and the preparation is basically a casserole filled with sausage, pasta, meatballs, hard boiled eggs, cheese and sauteéd vegetables wrapped in pastry dough, shaped like a drum, and drizzled with tomato sauce.
Catherine Fanucchi, co-owner of Roy's, made pasta sheets for the crust that morning while ingredients for the filling were assembled.
"The pasta was still warm to work with. It was beautiful," Heaslet said.
Before the timpano was presented to the diners, there were four courses not counting the roasted garlic, fresh bread and fruit appetizer. The first course, true to the movie, was a clear broth soup with orzo, pearl onions and roasted red peppers. Next came three types of risotto, a creamy rice dish that was served in stripes to represent the Italian flag.
To a cheering audience, Heaslet and Salizzoni circled the room serving the tri-colored creation a red stripe flavored with tomato, a white one with shrimp and tiny scallops, and a pesto-flavored green.
Then came a Caesar salad followed by a cooling grappa sorbet to clear palates for the timpano.
Many courses throughout the evening were followed by either a song from Jolene Hayes or music from the Big Night CD. Guests danced cheek-to-cheek to the Louie Prima tunes or formed a Conga line, snaking around chairs to "Mambo Italiano" by Rosemary Clooney.
Following the timpano served about four hours into the evening came the fish course, a salt-baked perch on a bed of ink-squid pasta, served with fresh asparagus. Somewhere in between was an artichoke heart dish with seafood and mozzarella. And then the roast suckling pig was wheeled out, accompanied by roasted baby red potatoes and carrots. The audience groaned and then applauded.
"John sauteéd grapes and pearl onions with wine, just like in the movie," Heaslet said. "I don't know where he got the pig."
For dessert? Homemade vanilla ice cream with reduced port sauce sprinkled with sweetened walnuts and gorgonzola cheese.
Give people time; they will learn.
This is a restaurant!
This is not a f _____ school!
Salizzoni gives much of the credit for the success of the evening to Heaslet, a food purist who, he said, earned the title of Primo.
"Cyndie has the eye, the ability to put things together. She's simply the best."
Heaslet, Italian on her mother's side, was born and raised in Rio Dell.
"I come from a family of cooks," she said. Her grandmother, Carrie Molinaro, 90, of the Bay Area, is "an incredible cook."
Salizzoni, a second-generation Italian whose family has been in the restaurant business since 1956, clearly enjoyed himself and was a natural for the part of Secondo.
"It's show business. I don't even know I'm doing it. It's a different persona."
Among the guests at Big Night were Catherine and Evo Fanucchi, owners of Roy's, which was founded as a speakeasy by Angelo Fanucchi, Evo's father, in 1920. It became Roy's 218 Club after World War II, named for Evo's brother who died in 1993.
Will there be an encore for Big Night?
Yes, Salizzoni said, but not this week.
What would he do differently next time?
Two things. Cut down on prep time, he said. And, "I wouldn't fight with Cyndie as much in the kitchen. By the end of the night, Cyndie didn't really like me."
(In the movie the two brothers get into a tussle on the beach only to go back to the restaurant and, in the emotional highlight of the film, end up hugging each other the next morning.)
Asked later about Salizzoni's comment, Heaslet smiled and said, "I would have loved to have gone to the beach with John after dinner."
And the conflict?
"We just have different styles of cooking," she said. "It's more of a difference in philosophy of what we expect out of each event."
Heaslet's catering business does about 20 weddings a year plus smaller dinner parties and receptions.
She said she does plan to do a Big Night encore, a "celebration of food," in October, again limiting the seating to about 40 guests to encourage the intimacy that develops when a small crowd enjoys a first-rate dinner.
Eureka's Big Night, she said, "was really a lot of fun to do with John.
"He's a great cook. We love each other. Really."
PHOTOS by Mark Lufkin:
1. Local Chefs, Cyndie Heaslet, owner of savory Thyme Catering co., and John Salizzoni, manager of Roy's, prepare for Eureka's Big Night.
2. Owners of Roy's, Catherine and Evo Fanucchi, await the first course.
3. Hayes (standing, with husband Michael, seated) receives a congratulatory toast after serenading the guests of Big Night.
4. Cyndie Heaslet and John Salizzoni serve asparagus.
5. Salizzoni and Heaslet re-enact the final scene from the movie.
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