Italy Magazine Team Members Share Their Favorite Italian-American Films

| Thu, 10/26/2023 - 04:30
Mulberry Street in New York City in the early 20th century

As Italian-American Heritage Month draws to a close, some members of our Italy-based American staff (and one Italian living in the United States) shared their favorite feature films that showcase elements of the esperienza italo-americana.

From first-generation Italians living the “American dream” to a struggling single father attempting to protect his son from negative influences to a pair of brothers desperate to save their business, you’ll find quite a range of Italian-American lifestyles and stories even in just this short roundup.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface; feel free to share your own picks with us by emailing Your comments might be featured in a future roundup of reader favorites.

Moonstruck (1987)

Our staff writer Toni DeBella, an Italian-American originally from California, is a fan of this Cher classic. Directed by Norman Jewison, Moonstruck is an Oscar-nominated film about a family of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn Heights, New York. It tells the moving tale of the Castroni clan — patriarch Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), his wife Rose (Olympia Dukakis) and their only daughter Loretta (Cher), a first-generation American. Loretta, a young widow, falls in love with hot-headed Johnny (Nicolas Cage), the brother of her buffoonish fiancé (Danny Aiello). 

According to Toni, the entire film can be summed up in the final scene, where everyone is gathered around the kitchen table as Cosmo raises his glass and makes a toast “Alla famiglia” (to the family). “It’s the perfect representation of how many Italians (and Italian-Americans) value family above all else,” Toni says.

But one of the most pivotal characters isn’t actually part of the Castroni family, Toni points out: “La bella luna (the beautiful moon) is a symbolic thread that runs through this sweet and romantic story.”

Big Night (1996)

Two team members, our accountant Laura Bonato and editor Mary Gray, tussled over this one; ultimately, they decided to give charming Big Night its due and list it as both of their favorites. Immigrant brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are partners in a flailing Italian restaurant where chef Primo’s commitments to culinary integrity are falling short with the “spaghetti, meatballs and substitutions” crowd. The pair has just one shot to keep the bank from foreclosing on their dream by getting a visit — and, naturally, a glowing endorsement — from the famous Italian-American bandleader Louis Prima. Big Night (1996) takes place in New Jersey in the 1950s and is a delicious romp — a feast for the food lover’s soul. 

Laura, a Sicilian who lives in the United States, says Big Night depicts culture-clash scenarios that are still common to many Italian restaurants stateside. “Even in 2023, [Italian restaurants in the US] open with the same intentions of one of the two brothers in the movie: trying to be authentic, but then, one to two months later, to survive, they have to adapt their dishes, the serving size and so forth to the tastes and culture of Americans,” she shares. “We will often go to try out new Italian restaurants, but by the third time we go to the same one, we realize that it is no longer authentic.” 

Mary, who counts Italy as her adopted home but not her heritage, admits to only having watched Big Night after its star Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy struck a chord (or a nerve) with so many Italy Magazine readers a quarter of a century later. Big Night, which Tucci co-directed with Campbell Scott, “did help persuade me, a skeptic, that he really loves food and always has,” she says. 

A Bronx Tale (1993)

The pick of our social media and visual editor Gabriela Proietti (an Italian-American originally from Philadelphia), A Bronx Tale is a bit grittier than the other favorites on this list. Robert DeNiro both starred and made his directorial debut in this 1993 film after seeing the original play by Chazz Palmenteri (who co-stars in the film as the neighborhood mobster).

A Bronx Tale tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy, Cologero, played by first-time actor Lillo Brancato. Cologero’s bus driver father Lorenzo (DeNiro) is a working-class man who disapproves of the friendship between his son and Palmenteri’s “Sonny.”

Set in the 1960s, the film touches on a range of sensitive subjects including organized crime, family loyalty, machismo and race.

Gabriela notes that her pick “could be controversial” for its depictions of Italian-American involvement in organized crime and the stereotypes that this can feed, but she appreciates the film’s realistic reflections of difficult choices that many Italian immigrants had to face. “My grandfather was a hairdresser and lived in an Italian-only neighborhood, and [shared some things in common] with these characters,” Gabriela says.