Whenever anyone asks me what it was like growing up in my house, my answer is always the same: Moonstruck, without the infidelity. My mother is Italian from Brooklyn, and while my dad is Scottish, he’s eaten enough broccoli rabe and pasta fagioli to count as an honorary member of the club.
Moonstruck, 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 cynics, neurotics and catastrophizers by nature, and rarely indulge in unabashed sappiness, absurd comedy or the vulnerability that goes hand in hand with falling stupidly and openly in love. But it’s that ironic restraint that makes the love in this film even more felt: the moments of pure passion and tenderness bring tears to my dark Sicilian heart every time I watch, despite knowing the dialogue so well I can anticipate almost every line.
On paper, the film sounds like pure folly: a love story between Nicholas Cage and Cher.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a young widow, set to marry the safe, boring Johnny Camareri (Danny Aiello). When Johnny’s mother in Palermo falls ill, he leaves it to Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), to the wedding. What ensues is a torrid, white hot and darkly comedic love affair between Loretta and Ronny.
The attention to detail and the accuracy with which Moonstruck depicts Italian culture are in large part what make it such a joy to watch; for Italians, there’s a sense of comforting realism — a reminder that yes, your Italian family is like every other Italian family in one way or another. For non-Italians, it serves as a window inside the culture without cartoonish exaggerations and rote innuendoes about the mob 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 subtler nods to Italian life; the muumuu Loretta’s mother wears at breakfast, the ceramics that adorn the kitchen walls, the neutral tablecloth on their table that looks like it only comes off to be replaced with a slightly more ornate one for holidays.
Then there’s the meal that Loretta cooks for Ronny when she first visits his apartment. It ranks among other iconic depictions of Italian food cooking, from Paulie’s razor-thin garlic in Goodfellas to Carmela Soprano’s ubiquitous baked ziti, pulled cold from the fridge in a clear corning dish. In the moment, there’s obvious tension between them; you can almost start to feel it boil over into passion, but not quite yet. Like any Italian woman I have ever met in my entire life, my mother and myself included, Loretta knows that preparing food is the fastest way to obviate this kind of emotional tension.
“What’s that smell?” Ronny asks. “I’m making you a steak,” she yells from the other room. “I don’t want it,” he replies. “You’ll eat it,” she comes back with. “I want it well done,” he acquiesces. “You’ll eat this bloody to feed your blood,” she says, forcing a steak off a fork and onto a glass plate. The next shot is of Ronny’s meal: plain spaghetti and steak; Lorretta’s is simply a bowl of plain spaghetti.
It might seem like a pedestrian and simplistic meal to the outsider, but there’s a deeper story here for those of us who grew up with Italian family in the house. Plain buttered pasta is a staple for Italians; to soothe an aching stomach, to calm jittery nerves, to make late at night when you want a hot meal but not too many dishes. It’s critical to get the butter and salt ratios correct; you want enough butter that the pasta is slippery but not so much that it becomes liquid-y; you want enough salt to give the pasta a bright flavor but not so much that tastes, well, over-salted. Pepper and parmesan cheese are optional, and obviously add something to the dish — but the simplicity of the butter and salt evokes a level of safety and comfort you can’t really understand until you’ve tried it.
The steak on the side is an easy protein: pan-fried with olive oil, butter, salt, pepper and nothing else. If you’re Italian you’ve likely been fed some variation of this meal — the simple and soothing pasta, often accompanied by a no-fuss protein. You’ve probably eaten it on dishes with illustrated fruits or vegetable or different pasta shapes adorning the ceramic; you’ve definitely eaten it on a table cloth or a placemat — probably one at some point that was plastic-coated canvas — because to eat anything directly on a bare table would be an infamia. Maybe for you it was steak and spaghetti, maybe it was a cold chicken cutlet from the night before and some buttered penne; maybe it was pastina with scrambled egg.
It’s about more than just the actual contents of the meal. When I mentioned I was writing this piece to my mother, she reminded me it’s not just what Loretta cooks, but how she cooks it. “She’s never been in his home before and she walks in and she can create a meal from whatever is available,” she says. “That’s what Italians do.” She reminded me of all the late nights we’ve come home from shopping or a trip into the city to make aglio e olio, a simple pasta dish with olive oil and garlic that when cooked right tastes like it came from a five-star restaurant. Italians are resourceful and instinctive in the kitchen, and just as the presentation requires no added flair, the preparation is likewise without fuss. At our core, we’re peasants who turn simple ingredients into an impromptu meal that satisfies your belly and your soul.
Above all, what that scene in Moonstruck gets right is that Italian food is built to nourish. It’s not supposed to be infused with pretense or modernity, or served on square plates in diminutive portions. It’s meant to be foisted off a serving fork, straight from a hot pan by an angry woman who has fed you despite significant protest on your part. And by the time you finish it, you should be so satisfied that a passion overcomes you, and you whisk said angry woman off to bed for what will inevitably be a night to remember.