Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Note about Italian Food from "Goodfellas"

Italian Food and Family Life in Film

As with many films about Italian families, Goodfellas relies heavily upon food preparation and meals to further the storyline.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows Paulie Cicero slicing garlic transparently thin with a razor blade for the pasta dinner the characters are preparing while in prison. And it’s quite a dinner: in addition to the garlic, the tomato sauce includes veal, beef, pork, peppers, and onions; there is salami, prosciutto, cheese, and Italian bread; red and white wine and J&B Scotch is plentiful; the men have even arranged to have fresh lobster smuggled in!

Another scene that many viewers recall so vividly is the midnight pasta dinner served by Mrs. DeVito to Tommy, Jimmy, and Henry. It’s not the food itself that makes the scene (it’s standard pasta with gravy and bread) but rather the dialogue: having just beaten (and presumably killed) Billy Batts, Tommy stops at home for a shovel on his way upstate to bury the body, but surprising him as he enters the house, his mother asks him when he’s going to find “a nice girl”—and Tommy replies, “I get a nice one almost every night, Ma.” When Mrs. DeVito wonders how Tommy got his shirt so bloody, he stutters, “We took a ride out to the country and we hit one of those deers….” As the three men are leaving, Tommy grabs his mother’s butcher knife and explains, “Ma, I need this knife…I just need it for a little while…. We hit the deer and his paw—what do you call it?—the hoof got caught in that grill. I got to, I got to hack it off.”

Toward the end of the film, Scorsese recreates Henry Hill’s final day before he is arrested for dealing cocaine, and much of that day centers on Henry’s preparation of a special meal for his brother Michael, whom Henry has picked up from the hospital for the day. In his own words, “I had to start braising the beef, pork butt, and veal shanks for the tomato sauce. It was Michael’s favorite. I was making ziti with the meat gravy, and I’m planning to roast some peppers over the flames, and I was gonna put on some string beans with some olive oil and garlic, and I had some beautiful cutlets that were cut just right, that I was going to fry up before dinner just as an appetizer. … Now my plan was to start the dinner early so Karen and I could unload the guns that Jimmy didn’t want, and then get the package [the drugs] for Lois to take to Atlanta for her trip later that night.” Again, the food serves as a reminder that for this family, selling contraband weapons and dealing drugs is all in a day’s work.

Other meals underscore the typicalness of this extended family: a barbecue of sausages during an office picnic, a table spread with sandwiches during a poker game, a dinner of lasagna and sausages and peppers to welcome the men home after an extended absence, a restaurant dinner with the wives. Yet it is a typicalness that is more than slightly atypical: the business discussed at the picnic or the poker game might include plans for a major heist or a murder; the dinner was to welcome the men back after they had completed their prison terms; the men spent Saturday evenings with their wives but Friday nights with their girlfriends. It’s not exactly the usual lifestyle of the American family in the ‘60s and ‘70s—but then, who’s to say?

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