Why This Emotional Scene In Big Night Is So Important

Even if you've never had timpano before, there's no doubt that the 1996 movie "Big Night" will have you craving the eye-catching Italian dish by the end of the film. It's hard not to forget the iconic scene (via YouTube) where chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and his restaurant manager brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci), after hours of slaving in the kitchen, finally remove the timpano from its pot, revealing all the glorious layers of hand-rolled pasta. When the two of them cut the first slice, the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.

While the timpano reveal is certainly the most visually exciting moment in "Big Night," the scene in which Primo and Secondo get into a heated argument about risotto is just as meaningful (also via YouTube). According to a cultural study of the film published by the University of Toronto, it actually speaks volumes about the evolution of Italian cuisine in America.

Despite the fact that Primo prepares his risotto with great precision in accordance with Italian tradition, the customer he serves it to claims it's been made improperly. She then decides she'll be better off eating spaghetti and meatballs, an Americanized dish that's not even on the menu at their restaurant, much to Primo and Secondo's frustration. The reactions of both the customer and the brothers, as the University of Toronto study goes on to explain, is a reflection of the ongoing disconnect between Italian and Italian-American culture and cuisine.

Making food more palatable for American tastebuds was a conscious effort for Italian chefs

"Big Night" takes place in the 1950s, but the Americanization of Italian food began as early as the 1800s, notably with macaroni and cheese, National Geographic reports. It wasn't until the 1940s, however, that Italian food was able to shed its reputation as "poor people food." Thanks to the New Deal under the FDR administration, New York's restaurant industry experienced serious revitalization that resulted in the popularization of previously unknown Italian dishes.

Still, immigrant restaurateurs, much like Primo and Secondo, struggled to find a balance between tradition and Americanization. The snarky comment Primo makes about removing the risotto from the menu and replacing it with hotdogs was therefore hardly an exaggeration. Despite remaining hopeful that their customers would come to appreciate traditional Italian food, the priority at the end of the day was to keep their business running, and in most cases, that meant sacrificing authenticity. Over time, as National Geographic explains, a vastly different "American as apple pie" cuisine emerged. Though "Big Night" is technically a work of fiction, every menu-related decision made by Primo and Secondo offers a real glimpse into the history of how that happened. So if you've ever wondered why you would never find timpano at Olive Garden, that risotto scene from "Big Night" tells you all you need to know.