Whenever someone asks me what it was like growing up in my house, my response is always the same: Dreamer, without infidelity. My mother is Italian from Brooklyn, and although my father is Scottish, he ate enough broccoli rabe and fagioli pasta to count as an honorary member of the club.
Dreamer, which was recently re-released by Criterion, is the quintessential Italian film – not quite a love story, not quite a comedy – which makes perfect sense. Italians are cynical, neurotic, and catastrophic by nature, and rarely indulge in the shameless sap, absurd comedy, or vulnerability that goes with foolishly and openly falling in love. But it’s this ironic restraint that makes the love felt even more strongly in this film: the moments of pure passion and tenderness make my dark Sicilian heart weep every time I watch, even though I know the dialogues so well that I can anticipate almost every line.
On paper, the film sounds like pure madness: a love story between Nicholas Cage and Cher.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a young widow, about to marry the reliable and annoying Johnny Camareri (Danny Aiello). When Johnny’s mother in Palermo falls ill, he leaves it up to Loretta to invite his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) to the wedding. What ensues is a steamy, white-hot, darkly comic romance between Loretta and Ronny.
The attention to detail and the precision with which Dreamer portrays Italian culture are a big part of what makes it such a joy to watch; for Italians there is a comforting sense of realism – a reminder that yes, your Italian family is like all other Italian families in one way or another. For non-Italians, it serves as a window inside the culture without cartoonish exaggerations and rote innuendos about the crowd or other Italian stereotypes. There are many overt signifiers of Italian culture in the film: the opera, the tone with which the Castarini family communicates with each other. There are also a number of more subtle nods to Italian life; the muumuu Loretta’s mother wears to breakfast, the ceramics that adorn the kitchen walls, the neutral tablecloth on their table that seems to come off only to be replaced by a slightly more ornate tablecloth for the holidays.
Then there’s the meal Loretta cooks for Ronny when she visits his apartment for the first time. It ranks among other iconic representations of Italian cuisine, from Paulie’s razor-thin garlic to Freedmen to Carmela Soprano’s ubiquitous baked ziti, taken out of the fridge in a clear dish. Right now, there’s an obvious tension between them; you can almost start to feel it turning into passion, but not quite yet. Like every Italian woman I’ve met in my entire life, including my mother and me, Loretta knows that cooking is the quickest way to avoid this kind of emotional tension.
“What is that smell?” Ronny asks. “I’m cooking you a steak,” she yells from the other room. “I don’t want it,” he replies. “You’re going to eat it,” she returns. “I want it done right,” he agrees. “You’re going to eat this blood to feed your blood,” she said, forcing a steak onto a fork and onto a glass plate. The next plan is Ronny’s meal plan: plain spaghetti and steak; Lorretta’s is simply a bowl of plain spaghetti.
It may seem like a pedestrian, simplistic meal to the outsider, but there’s a deeper story here for those of us who grew up with an Italian family in the house. Plain butter pasta is a staple for Italians; to soothe an aching stomach, to calm nervous nerves, to have late at night when you want a hot meal but not too many dishes. It is essential to get the right ratios of butter and salt; you want enough butter to make the pasta slippery but not so much that it becomes runny; you want enough salt to give the pasta a lively flavor, but not so much that tastes too salty. The pepper and parmesan are optional and obviously add something to the dish – but the simplicity of the butter and salt evokes a level of safety and comfort that you can’t quite fathom until you try it.
Entrecôte is an easy protein: pan-fried with olive oil, butter, salt, pepper and nothing else. If you’re Italian, you’ve probably eaten a twist on this meal – the simple, soothing pasta, often with a no-fuss protein. You’ve probably eaten it on dishes with pictured fruits or vegetables or different shapes of pasta adorning ceramics; you certainly ate it off a tablecloth or placemat – probably one at some point that was laminated canvas – because eating anything straight off a bare table would be a infamy. For you, it might have been steak and spaghetti, maybe yesterday’s cold chicken cutlet and buttered penne; maybe it was pastina with scrambled eggs.
It’s not just about the actual contents of the meal. When I mentioned that I was writing this article to my mother, she reminded me that it was not only What Loretta cooks, but How? ‘Or’ What she cooks it. “She’s never been to his house before and she walks in and she can create a meal out of whatever’s available,” she says. “That’s what the Italians do. She reminded me of all the late nights we came home from shopping or a trip to town to make aglio e olio, a simple olive oil and garlic pasta dish that, when cooked tastes like a five star restaurant. . Italians are resourceful and instinctive in the kitchen, and just as the presentation requires no extra skill, the preparation is also unfussy. At our core, we’re peasants turning simple ingredients into an impromptu meal that satisfies your belly and your soul.
Above all, what is this scene in Dreamer is right, Italian cuisine is made to nourish. It’s not meant to be steeped in pretentiousness or modernity, nor served on square plates in small portions. It’s meant to be tossed from a serving fork, straight from a hot pan by an angry woman who fed you despite your strong protests. And by the time you finish it, you should be so satisfied that a passion overwhelms you, and you take this angry woman to bed for what will inevitably be a night to remember.
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