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The macaroni of popular Italian film with Alberto Sordi, “Un American a Roma” and the spaghetti that Totò devours with his hands and stuffs in his pockets in “Miseria e Nobiltà” are the most iconic. But how about the mozzarella in carrozza in Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece, “The Bicycle Thief”? Or the Mont Blanc Nanni Moretti waxes poetic about in “Bianca”? Here are our favorite and most famous dishes portrayed in Italian films and television series.
Mozzarella in carrozza – The Bicycle Thief, 1948
The cult film The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio De Sica (1948) which marks the beginning of neo-realist cinema, is an important example of how the Italian family faces the difficult process of post WWII reconstruction of everyday life: father and son eat in a Roman trattoria. It’s a special occasion; they are not wealthy, and eating in a restaurant is a rare luxury. They are eating simple and inexpensive foods; the boy Bruno bites into a mozzarella in carrozza sandwich with stringy melted cheese. At the table next to them is instead a clearly wealthy family enjoying a lavish Christmas-like meal. The son of the rich family, surrounded by many heaped dishes, exchanges glances with Bruno, and the food the two boys eat becomes the status symbol of two different gateways to possible adult life. The rich child with an ostentatious and snobby attitude tastes the various dishes, but is surrounded by a family that is visibly distant and indifferent to him, no one speaks with him, no one is interested in him. The poor child instead, consumes his frugal meal by talking with his father, smiling, and sharing the economic value of the meal they’re eating. When the chilf realizes the cost of the meal, he reluctantly but consciously drops his modest sandwich on the plate, wishing to participate in the difficulties of his father’s and his family’s difficulties.
Maccheroni – Un Americano a Roma, 1954
Alberto Sordi wrangling with a plate of macaroni wearing a baseball cap is perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in Italian cinema. The film is Un americano a Roma, and Alberto Sordi, playing the part of boisterous Nando Mericoni––huge fan of American culture who has decided to convert to Coca-Cola, burgers and chewing gum, rejecting the banality and inadequacy of Italian habits––can’t however say no to his mama’s maccaroni. “Maccarone: tu m’hai provocato e io me te magno!” (Macaroni, you tempt me, so must I eat you) is the iconic sentence he utters before tucking in.
Spaghetti – Miseria e Nobiltà, 1954
Not lethal in any way were, ot the other hand, the spaghetti with tomato sauce that marquis Eugenio Favetti delivers to Felice Sciosciammocca’s home in the motion picture, Miseria e Nobiltà. Directed by Mario Mattoli, the film’s most memorable scene sees Felice Sciosciammocca (played by Neapolitan icon Totò) and his penniless family standing on the table, improvising a banquet. Caught by insatiable ecstasy, he devours the spaghetti with his hands, and puts them in his pockets for later.
Pasta e ceci – I soliti ignoti, 1959
Again directed by Mario Monicelli, in the film whose title was translated in English to, “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” a motely crew team of losers and wannabe thieves, played by among others, Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori and “Capannelle”, miscalculates and knocks down the wrong wall, ending up in a kitchen instead of the room with the safe. As a consolation, they only thing they manage to steal is a bowl of pasta and chickpeas.
Pasta and lentils – Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960
The peasant dishes portrayed by filmmaker Luchino Visconti in his masterpiece, Rocco and his brothers, communicate the everyday life of an Italian peasant family in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Among these dishes is pasta and lentils, prepared in the most classic of ways. The sorting of the lentils––later soaked in water and slowly cooked, then mixed with pasta––transforms into a sort of family ritual that unites the brothers, played by, among others, Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori and Spiros Fokas.
Bavarese alle fragole – La grande abbuffata, 1973
Director Marco Ferreri created an entire film, La grande abbuffata, on man’s uncontrollable passion for food. Four wealthy men who are dissatisfied and tired of their existence decide to die together. To do it, they decide on an odd method: eating themselves to death by means of a gastronomic weekend, locking themselves in a farmhouse near Paris. The deadly gargantuan meal ends with a coup de grace: a strawberry Bavarian cream pudding. In the film Marcello Mastroianni plays an Alitalia pilot and Ugo Tognazzi plays a chef. The film was criticized for the excessive presence of sex and profanity.
Picchiapò – C’eravamo tanto amati, 1974
This comedy-drama directed by Ettore Scola stars Stefania Sandrelli, Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Stefano Satta Flores and Aldo Fabrizi, among others. “We wanted to change the world, but the world changed us”. This bitter phrase represents the path that the three main characters face in this film. The friendship is the background for a merciless portrait spanning post-war Italy to the mid-Seventies. Maliconic and funny, the motion picture is the story of three friends who were partisans during WWII and then occasionally bump into each other in Rome at different times in their lives. Picchiapò, a traditional peasant dish from Rome, is one of the dishes that the three friends eat in the film at their local trattoria “Il Re della mezza”, where ‘mezza’ refers to half portion, the most value meal choice for the protagonists, who live in precarious economic conditions.
Frogs and Polenta – Novecento, 1976
The 1976 Italian epic and historical drama film directed by the late Bernardo Bertolucci and featuring an international ensemble cast that included Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Stefania Sandrelli, Donald Sutherland, and Burt Lancaster, food plays a prominent role. Set in Bertolucci’s native Emilia-Romagna region, the film chronicles the class struggle and political conflicts between fascism and communism in 20th century Italy, as seen through the eyes of two childhood friends on opposing sides––the landowning Alfredo Berlinghieri (De Niro) and the peasant Olmo Dalcò (Depardieu). The difference between the two characters starts in their childhood dinner tables: at the the aristocratic Berlinghieri table, Alfredo’s father force-feeds his son frogs, which the child spits out. Opposite is the collective table of peasant families, including Olmo’s, who eat humble and filling polenta like a religious ritual.
Rigatoni con la pajata – Il Marchese del Grillo, 1981
In the film directed by Mario Monicelli, the Roman Marquis del Grillo and his sophisticated date, Olimpia, enjoy a plate of typical cucina povera in a late nineteenth-century Rome tavern: pasta dressed with suckling veal intestines cooked in tomato. When she questions what the sauce is, the Marquis is careful not to explain to Olimpia what the dish is made of, “Mejo se non te lo dico, mangiali prima” – he chuckles in his heavy Romanesco accent, “Best if I don’t tell you, eat first.”
Nutella & Mont Blanc cake – Bianca, 1984
In the comedy-mystery “Bianca,” Michele Apicella (played by the director Nanni Moretti) is a young math teacher hired by a supposedly élite, grotesque, high school where he meets Bianca, a fellow teacher whom he falls in love with. Michele is characterized by a great number of food-related obsessions and manias. One is how to properly eat Mont Blanc cake, that is avoid digging a tunnel, rather portioning it so as not to disrupt the cake’s “delicate balance.” In another famous scene, he wakes up at night and starts eating Nutella from a 3-foot jar, a kind of Proustian madeleine that rekindles positive childhood memories of snacking on bread slices slathered with the famous chocolate spread.
Cakes, pies and tarts – La finestra di fronte, 2003
In the 2003 film by director Ferzan Özpetek, Giovanna (played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno) rediscovers the joy of life thanks to a former pastry chef (Massimo Girotti) who teaches her delicious recipes. Cooking and baking is a recurring theme in Özpetek’s films: the characters are often seen at the table or cooking in front of the stove; every dish prepared with care appears to ease life’s anxieties, dissolve inhibitions and remind the characters what really matters. All the cakes that appear in the film, including the famous citrus-chocolate cake Giovanna makes with her elderly mentor, were provided by the Rome pastry shop, Andreotti dal 1931.
Chocolate pralines – Lezioni di cioccolato, 2007
In the 2007 Italian rom-com “Lezioni di Cioccolato”, engineering surveyor Mattia Cavedoni, played by handsome Luca Argentero, is the unscrupulous manager of a construction site that employs migrants without regular residence permits and papers. In order to avoid trouble with the law after an accident with one of his workers, he’s forced to serve, despite himself, social service time: a pastry chef course in Perugia. Here, he meets Cecilia––played by Violante Placido––a woman disappointed by men and love. They will end up making the perfect chocolate praline, and other sweet things together.
Bucatini all’amatriciana – Il Divo, 2008
In the 2008 film Il Divo by Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino, senator Giulio Andreotti, seven-time prime minister of Italy notorious for his alleged ties to the Mafia––impeccably played by Italian actor Toni Servillo––enjoys a steaming plate of bucatini amatriciana prepared by his wife Livia.
Pizza & gelato – Eat, Pray, Love, 2010
In the 2010 film, “Eat, Pray, Love” Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) is a New Yorker with an apparently perfect existence, but who feels that something is missing in her life, that she no longer feels any joy in living. That’s when she decides to leave for a sabbatical year abroad, and live in Rome, India and finally close the year in Bali, to ultimately attempt making sense of her life. Throughout the year, she learns to find joy in three simple things: eating in Rome, praying in an ashram in India and finding love in Bali… In Rome Gilbert finds happiness and answers in abundant scoops of gelato, pizza slices, learning to speak with her hands, and other delectable healing practices.
Sicilian dishes loved by Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Montalbano, Italy’s most lved TV series directed by Elio Sironi in Sicily––with filming locations that include Ragusa, Scicli, Sampieri, Donnalucata, Monte Crasto and the Castle of Donnafugata––is the story of Inspector Montalbano who, between solving crimes, finds time to unwind at favourite trattorias, or enjoying the famous dishes prepared for him by his housekeeper Adelina. Montalbano prefers eating in silence, and solves his crime puzzles by swimming in the sea and pausing for coffee and cigarettes on his sea-facing veranda. The character invented by Andrea Camilleri is passionate about food, as clearly evident in all the novels that inspired the series. Among Montalbano’s favorite dishes are caponata, pasta ‘ncasciata a’ missinisi (Messina-style baked pasta with eggplant), pasta con le sarde, spaghetti with sea urchins, sarde a beccafico, crispelle c’angiova (crepes filled with ricotta anch anchovies), pasta alla Norma, pasta chi vrocculi arriminati (pasta with cauliflower, raisins and toasted breadcrumbs), anilletti ‘u furnu (ring-shaped pasta baked in a timballo), milinciani a’ la parmiciana (eggplant parmigiana), caciocavallo cheese, passuluna (black olives), purpitelli cu sugu (stewed baby octopus) and more…
“Deux fritures” and other Neapolitan dishes in Gomorrah
If you’ve seen the Netflix original series, “Gomorrah” inspired by the novel by Roberto Saviano, you will have noticed that the main characters, between shootouts, are often feasting at some sort of dinner table. Whether it be scialatielli with seafood so loved by Don Pietro Savastano, or parmigiana di melanzane, barbecued sausages or ziti alla genovese prepared by Salvatore Conte’s mother, the characters of Gomorrah are often doing criminal deeds on a ful stomach. Another emblematic dish of this series is the famous ‘deux fritures’ (two fried food platters) ordered in French by Salvatore Conte in a restaurant on the Côte d’Azur that have become a viral catchphrase on the web.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.