Ever since James Cagney smashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy, food has been an integral part of mobster movies.
There are an estimated 60 eating references in The Godfather, including two of its iconic lines: “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city” and “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
In GoodFellas, the boys stop at Tommy’s mother’s house after midnight needing a knife, and end up staying for a full Italian feast. And, of course, Henry Hill learns to slice garlic with a razor in prison, where, “Dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course and then we had a meat or a fish.”
In Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson dines on spaghetti and espresso. In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent settle for Big Kahuna Burgers and $5 milkshakes. In dozens of other gangster flicks, the bad guys fill their guts before emptying their guns.
But no movie in the genre portrays food as lovingly as Dinner Rush, a story about a New York City restaurateur/bookmaker trying to protect his properties against rival gangsters. In truth, the film focuses more on the cuisine than the crimes. But don’t underestimate it; Dinner Rush is a solid mob movie.
The story is set in a trendy TriBeCa trattoria named Gigino, owned by patriarch Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello). He presides from a corner table and protests—unconvincingly—that he has nothing to do with the underworld. “I’ve never even held a gun,” he insists.
Perhaps, but he’s got problems with the wrong people. Louis’ bookmaking partner is gunned down by a pair of thugs from Queens known as Black and Blue (you may recognize Mike McGlone from The Brothers McMullen as one of them). Now those hoods are muscling for a “partnership” in his bookmaking operation and his beloved restaurant. He’s willing to give them the first—but never the second.
The hoods come to Gigino for their meals and their quarry. “We’re not leaving without our deal,” one threatens Louis over a plate of roasted artichokes. “You take it, or you leave.”
But on this, a typical Tuesday night, many other stories are unfolding at the restaurant. And we, as viewers, get to sample a diverse menu of customers. There’s a snooty art dealer (Mark Margolis) and his table of acolytes; a mean-spirited restaurant critic (Sandra Bernhard); an enigmatic Wall Street yuppie (John Corbett); and a city police detective (Walt MacPherson) whose invitation to dine that night appears anything but coincidental. Each table features a story, loudly played out.
“When did eating out become a Broadway show?” wonders Corbett’s yuppie, who observes it all from the restaurant’s bar. As it turns out, his character has a surprise twist, just like the pisco sour he orders.
All are there to sample the nouvelle cuisine of Louis’ son Udo (Edoardo Ballerini), who has become a celebrity chef by concocting seemingly ridiculous dishes that combine elements like lobster, truffles, vanilla bean and wasabi. There is tremendous tension between Udo and his old man, who simply wants to run a traditional red-sauce joint. “There’s nothing left to eat here,” Louis moans in despair. “Can’t I just get some sausage and peppers?”
All of the action in the dining room is matched by what’s going on in the kitchen downstairs. Udo is trying to take over the restaurant from his dad. Each server has his or her own story. And sous chef Duncan (Kirk Acevedo) has a compulsive gambling problem that Louis is trying to cure. Yes, Louis is a bookmaker, but he’s that rare one with a heart.
Duncan, like any problem gambler, goes elsewhere for his fix, making a bad bet on St. John’s basketball. And by the end of the night, he owes those Queens mobsters $13,000. Lucky them, now they’ve got two scores to settle.
There’s a whole lot going on in Dinner Rush and director Bob Giraldi (best known for directing videos such as Michael Jackson’s Beat It) does a deft job of juggling the interlocking plotlines. Aiello serves as the center of gravity, stepping into each of the stories with a weighty nobility. His character, Louis, is not daunted, even as his livelihood—and perhaps his life—gets threatened.
Before dessert is served, you assume Louis has a plan to stave off the bad guys. Will he handle it himself? Is he going to call on that detective at Table 33 enjoying a complimentary bottle of champagne?
The act of vengeance arrives before the check. And you probably won’t see it coming.
HIT: The portrayal of life behind the scenes in a bustling restaurant is terrific. In the kitchen, the chef acts as a tyrant and the workers as his slaves. The speed and detail of the prep work, the cooking, the plating and the serving are more impressive than anything seen on a Food Network reality show. It should be no surprise that director Giraldi is actually a New York restaurateur and owns the eatery where Dinner Rush was filmed.
MISS: While the movie enjoyably washes over you for 99 minutes, you may find yourself asking questions at the end. There are a few plot holes and things wrap up a bit too tidily.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Effortlessly graceful and burnished to a glow, Dinner Rush is surely as satisfying as any of the delicious-looking food served at Louis’ restaurant—and is as full of surprises as any dish Udo ever concocted.”—Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times
REALITY CHECK: Bernhard’s critic character, Jennifer Freely, demands a better table, insists on comped wine and announces, “I don’t like waiting.” Any legitimate food reviewer we’ve ever met is adamant about going undercover to restaurants and keeping a low profile.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Complex and rewarding enough for multiple viewings. Just be sure to have dinner plans afterward. This movie will make you hungry.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Louis’ doomed partner, Enrico, laughingly announces his plan to open a website called BookmakersAreUs.com. In 2000, that might have sounded like a joke. These days, a British site called Bookies.com lets you compare odds on thousands of events.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: This is one of at least four movies in which Aiello had a close relationship with Italian food. In Do the Right Thing, he owns Sal’s Famous Pizza. In 2 Days in the Valley, he’s a down-on-his-luck hit man working in a pizza parlor. And in The Professional, he is a Mafia don operating behind a front called The Supreme Macaroni Company.
BEST LINE: Food critic Freely: “Only in New York will a double murder triple your business.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The maître d’ at Gigino Trattoria is played by Ajay Naidu. You may recognize him as Samir Nagheenanajar, the fidgety computer programmer who gets laid off and then plots revenge in Office Space.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Big Night, the story of two Italian immigrant brothers who strive to keep their underdog Jersey Shore restaurant afloat by having singer Louis Prima come to eat there to generate publicity. Like Dinner Rush, that movie will prompt you to raid the fridge.
BODY COUNT: Three—one at the beginning, two at the end.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”