Given all the time we’ve been spending at home recently, I’ve been catching up on some movies, leaning toward those with a culinary angle, and reflecting on some that have had a lasting memory on me. I should say up front that some of these movies do not have a culinary focus at all, yet the food scenes in them are some of the more memorable moments in the movie.
I’ll start with just about any Martin Scorsese movie, or at least those with an Italian mob element, as he always seems to include a very detailed meal preparation that is shot beautifully. “Goodfellas” is one of those movies that I can watch over and over and it never gets old, and there are three culinary-related scenes in it that are simply beautiful.
The first is when Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, is taking his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) out on a date to a local supper club. Given his connections at the club, he of course bypasses the pedestrian entrance, instead going downstairs and winding, in a beautiful one-shot scene, through the bowels of the kitchen, past chefs, waiters, busboys and various toughs who he tips along the way as part of the privilege.
When he enters the dining room, a table and bottle of champagne are delivered to an empty spot in the crowded dining room and they are seated like royalty. One of the best lines in the movie follows when Karen asks, “What do you do for a living?” and Henry replies, “I’m in construction.” On a side note, “Family Guy” does a great spoof on this scene that involves Chris and a trade school. Google “Family Guy Goodfellas” for a good laugh.
Two more notable food scenes from “Goodfellas” include the relatively cushy prison conditions afforded the jailed mobsters who are having the best steaks, lobsters, bread and wine smuggled in regularly. The close-up of Pauly (Paul Sorvino) slicing garlic with a razor blade is a thing of beauty. In one of the final scenes that is a masterful display of sound and visual editing, Henry Hill is preparing for a drug shipment while overseeing the preparation of the “gravy,” as he calls the red sauce, veal cutlets and meatballs. Making sure the food is done right is as important to him as the details of the drug deal. All I know is that every time I watch that movie, I am left craving Italian food.
On the topic of movies that whet an appetite for Italian food, “Big Night” is right up there and probably my favorite culinary-themed movie ever. Released in 1996, it was on the forefront of the culinary revolution and before the term “foodie” existed. It’s a beautiful film starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Marc Anthony and Allison Janney. You have to just trust me on this one if you have not seen it.
It took me a hot second to see that the culinary star of the movie “Ratatouille” is indeed a rat, but after that I was sold and do not hesitate to name this as my favorite animated movie of all time and top five culinary movie. The great thing is it’s one you can enjoy with your kids and love it just as much.
Other foodie-focused movies I’ve enjoyed and would endorse without hesitation include “Julie & Julia,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” “Chef” and “Babette’s Feast.”
I’m going to end this column revisiting a couple scenes in non-foodie movies that, like in “Goodfellas,” are essential to the movie. The first comes from “The Godfather” and is a classic scene that proves instructional as well. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film has a sauce recipe written in the script, as Vito Corleone’s close associate, Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), offers his version of the perfect sauce. He explains: “You start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; you make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. Add a little bit of wine, and a little bit of sugar —that’s my trick.” I so love that.
And OK, this scene from “This Is Spinal Tap” is not really essential in a foodie kind of way, but it makes me laugh very hard every time and does involve food. Nigel (Christopher Guest), one of the members of Spinal Tap, is backstage in his dressing room and having a bit of a meltdown over the catering, the mini bread in particular. “I don’t want this, I want large bread… but I can rise above it, I’m a professional,” he says as part of a two-minute rant. The miniature bread catastrophe is a beauty of a parody of every egomaniac rock star throwing a temper tantrum.