Tony Shalhoub Affectionately Recalls His BIG NIGHT
Seeing a pristine print of a favorite film on the big screen—and then listening to one of the stars reminisce about it afterward? Now that’s a Big Night.
Last night, RogerEbert.com editor-at-large Matt Zoller Seitz presented the 1996 classic as part of his fabulous “Movies with MZS series” at the IFC Center in New York’s West Village. Normally after seeing this film, audience members scramble into the streets, starving and salivating, to the nearest Italian restaurant, or even a pizzeria if that’s the only thing handy. But this time, as the closing credits rolled, Tony Shalhoub and Seitz took the stage. And a great conversation made us forget how hungry we were.
Here are some of the many highlights:
- In the original run-throughs, with just a script at hand but no financing, Shalhoub played Pascal. But by the time they were ready to roll, they decided he and Tucci—who were good friends and close in age—should play the brothers, Primo and Secondo. Then Giancarlo Giannini was slated to play Pascal, but backed out at the last minute. (Kind of making him the real-life Louis Prima.) Far from having to settle, though, they snagged Ian Holm for the role. “I idolized him from the time I was an acting student,” Shalhoub recalled, his voice breaking up. “He was just… so great.” And now, could you picture anyone else playing Pascal?
- How did Big Night end up with two directors, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott (who also played Bob, the cheerfully relentless car salesman)? Shalhoub explained that because Tucci is in almost every shot, he wanted a second pair of eyes, and he and Scott had known each other since high school and had a great rhythm together. What was it like with two men behind the lens? “It was great,” said Shalhoub. “I felt like I had twice the help, twice the input.”
- Asked if it feels different to be guided by actors as opposed to full-time directors, Shalhoub smiled and put his hands over his heart. “Oh yes. Oh yes. They know what you’re going through. You feel safe.” But, he added, they also nudge you to get out of your comfort zone, even as they protect you. Tucci and Scott also helped him work out Primo’s feelings toward Ann (Allison Janney): Did he really have a crush on her, or was he just doing what others expected of him? Turns out yeah, he was kinda crazy about her, as was Shalhoub about his co-star: “Allison, she’s so open, she has such a big heart.”
- Shalhoub was surprised that a couple of bits of business he added on his own were kept in by Tucci, including one where the shy Primo—who, he said, “would really rather just stay in the kitchen”—climbs into the display case while picking out flowers with Ann. “Stanley said ‘That was a little cheap!’” he laughed. “But then used it!”
- You know that awkward pause in the scene where Primo can’t understand why Secondo laughs when he says “It’s raining outside”? It was genuinely awkward. One of the actors—Shalhoub couldn’t recall which—went up on his line, and you can actually see the discomfort on Tucci’s face as his eyes dart from one co-star to the other. Holm finally broke the silence with “What the fuck?”
- When it came time to master his Italian accent, Shalhoub reminded Tucci that he had a bit of a head start after playing Antonio Scarpacci on Wings for five years. “No,” Tucci drolly shot back. “Not that accent.” He ultimately had two dialogue coaches to help him nail it. Tucci, on the other hand, speaks fluent Italian. “Sometimes [when we were going back and forth] he’d start to improvise,” Shalhoub laughed. “And I’d be there like… I got nothin’.”
- Shalhoub also got some coaching with the cooking, working in restaurants on both coasts (and for years after, scoring scads of free meals from chefs who adored the film). Tucci, who wrote a family cookbook in 2012, already knew his way around the kitchen—as is clear in the film’s final, extraordinary scene, where the camera is a still, silent witness as Secondo, Cristiano (Marc Anthony) and Primo recover from the night before, and the brothers literally fall back on one another as the screen goes black. Because it’s all shot in one long take, the slightest misstep would have shattered everything. “I think we ended up getting it in about six takes,” said Shalhoub. “And Stanley, flipping those eggs, got it right every time.”
Oh and no mention of Big Night would be complete without talking about the timpano.
In the New York Times review of the film, the dish got its own sidebar, with Frank Bruni calling it “an impressive, delectable mountain of perfectly cooked pasta, tender meatballs, egg and salami, swathed in a rich ragu and folded all together in a lissome dough. It is an excavation to eat this, and one to be undertaken slowly, carefully, so as to catch every prism of flavor. The vivid compliments given to this in the film Big Night are unrepeatable here, but we are sure you’ll find some choice adjectives of your own.”
We’ll leave you here with the recipe, which includes links to the meatballs and sauce in Tucci’s cookbook. Hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else this holiday season. Mangia!
FOR THE DOUGH
- 4 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing pan
FOR THE FILLING
- 4 cups 1/4-inch by 1/2-inch Genoa salami pieces, cut 1/4-inch thick
- 4 cups sharp provolone cheese chunks, about 1/4 by 1/2 inch
- 12 hard-cooked eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
- 4 cups small meatballs
- 7 ½ cups Tucci ragù sauce, meat removed and reserved for another use
- 3 pounds ziti, cooked very al dente (about half the time recommended on the package) and drained
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
- 6 large eggs, beaten
- Prepare the dough: Place flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (A large-capacity food processor may also be used.) Add 3 tablespoons water and process. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together and forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes. (The dough may be made in advance and refrigerated overnight; return to room temperature before rolling out.)
- Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust top with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is about 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter. (To calculate the diameter for the dough round, add the diameter of the bottom of a heavy 6-quart baking pan, the diameter of the top of the pan and twice the height of the pan.) Grease the baking pan generously with butter and olive oil. Fold dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place in pan. Open dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping extra dough over the sides. Set aside.
- Prepare the filling: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Have salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and ragù sauce at room temperature. Stir 1/2 cup water into sauce to thin it. Toss pasta with olive oil and allow to cool slightly before tossing with 2 cups sauce. Distribute 4 generous cups of pasta on bottom of timpano. Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, 3 eggs, 1 cup meatballs and 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Pour 2 cups sauce over ingredients. Repeat process to create additional layers until filling comes within 1 inch of the top of the pan, ending with 2 cups sauce. Pour beaten eggs over the filling. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough. Make sure timpano is tightly sealed. If you notice any small openings cut a piece of trimmed dough to fit over opening. Use a small amount of water to moisten these scraps of dough to ensure that a tight seal has been made.
- Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Cover with aluminum foil and continue baking until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees), about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 30 or more minutes to allow timpano to cool and contract before attempting to remove from pan. The baked timpano should not adhere to the pan. To test, gently shake pan to the left and then to the right. It should slightly spin in the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife.
- To remove timpano from pan, place a baking sheet or thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert timpano. Remove pan and allow timpano to cool for 30 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. The cut pieces should hold together, revealing built-up layers of great stuff.
You may assemble the timpano in the pan it will be baked in and freeze it. It will take three days to fully defrost in the refrigerator before it can be baked as directed.