Smile Politely

Dinner + a movie: Biaggi’s + Goodfellas

“In prison, dinner was always a big thing,” says Ray Liotta in the infamous scene from Goodfellas (1990) as Paul Sorvino cuts fresh garlic with a razor blade. “He had a wonderful system for doing the garlic,” continues Ray’s voiceover. “He would slice it so thin it would liquify in the pan with just a little oil. It was a very good system.”

A close up photo shoes a white man's hands slicing garlic very thin with a razor blade on a wooden cutting board. Photo by Warner Bros.

Photo by Warner Bros.

When I tried this at home, the garlic would always burn. However, this doesn’t mean the classic Goodfellas razor blade scene isn’t a great scene. In Martin Scorsese’s films, little details like this is what makes his movies feel authentic and personal. One of the greatest living American auteurs, Scorsese’s name is often mentioned in the same breath as Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen.

One of the great joys of movie watching is finding a director whose work you love and then going backwards in time to explore their creative output. This is much easier done today than during any other time in history as online streaming continues to expand and older libraries become available online. 

Themes Scorsese likes to explore include crime (especially the organized kind), his Italian heritage, sudden brutal violence, morality and greed. He likes to set his films in New York City (or nearby New Jersey), and he likes re-using his favorite actors (especially Robert DeNiro). His films tend to feature male protagonists who are trapped in dangerous situations where they have little or no control over their circumstances and Goodfellas fits this niche very nicely.

When it comes to Italian/American mob films, there are always plenty of food scenes. How many times have you seen a scene where the godfather figure is eating while some poor soul meekly approaches asking for a favor. The patron may be sitting down, but the underling is never invited to lower himself to the same level. This ironic imbalance cleverly illustrates who really has the power.

In the world of Goodfellas, tradition is everything and rules can not be broken: when wiseguys are “made,” they are untouchable; Fridays are for girlfriends, Saturdays are for wives; absolute loyalty is demanded, betrayal means death. This true story based on the life of Henry Hill is set mostly in the 1970s when the golden age of the mafia era is about to come to an end. One by one, the rules are broken, and old traditions are thrown out. As Scorsese sees it, this is a bitter end to an honorable era and a nostalgic sadness hangs in the air.

After the movie, dinner would have to be Italian. I wanted to revisit one of my old favorite haunts, so I chose Biaggi’s. I still have fond memories of way back in 2000 when there were only two Biaggi’s, and Champaign’s restaurant was only the second to open (Bloomington was the first).

On a large square plate, there is a smaller square bowl with a dark brown cloudy minestrone soup. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

We wanted to start with a classic, so we ordered the minestrone soup ($6). This was a subtle starter, a delicate veggie broth with kale, cabbage, a few white beans, and other vegetables that come alive after topping it off with a couple spoonfuls of grated parmesan cheese. Although there was no pasta in this version, I did not miss it.

On a large white plate, a ton of ravioli with a white pesto sauce sits. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

I ordered the ravioli quattro formaggi ($16) for dinner. The raviolis were cooked perfectly al dente, still chewy on the outside but soft and oozy inside. I could only guess what the four cheeses they used to stuff the raviolis are, but I would bet it was probably Mozzarella, Gorgonzola, Ricotta and Parmesan. With this entree, I got all the elements of a classic Italian dish: pasta, marinara sauce and plenty of cheese, but what elevated this dish to another level was the rich pine-nut pesto cream sauce generously ladled on top.

On an oval white plate, there are three mini portions of Italian pasta. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

My companion went for the chicken Parmesan ($14), another classic delight with pasta, marinara sauce, and more cheese. In this version, the pasta was rigatini tossed in a garlicky Parmesan alfredo sauce. The breaded fried chicken breast was almost an afterthought as the dish was smothered with delightful marinara sauce and topped with a blend of cheeses.

On a rectangular white plate, there are three apps: beets, avocado, and greens. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

We wanted to balance out our meal with some veggies, so we shared an order of the honey roasted beet and arugula salad ($11). As promised, we got a healthy portion of diced beets, lots of field greens, and a generous serving of goat cheese on an extra long plate with all the elements nicely separated. There was a sprinkling of fresh ripe avocado on top of the undressed arugula and greens. The diced beets were marinated with a light honey balsamic dressing, and the goat cheese was garnished with some roasted spicy walnuts. It was tempting to mix it all together, but we opted to take little bites of each and let the mixing happen in our mouths.

Although Biaggi’s is now a regional restaurant chain with 17 locations in nine states, I still think of our Champaign location as one of my favorite local joints. Their tight menu selection includes all the Italian classics plus some innovative gourmet dishes like sea scallop risotto and chicken and sausage Vesuvio. Every dish is presented beautifully including all the desserts. Like any good fine dining establishment, Biaggi’s also has an extensive wine list and specials that change monthly.

2235 S Neil
Su-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Goodfellas is streaming on HBO Max, currently my favorite streaming platform. Whereas Netflix has the most popular titles (Black Mirror, Squid Game) and Prime Video has the edgier titles (Annette, Utopia), HBO Max has consistently offered the best overall streaming fare under one roof. No other platform offers same day premieres of new Warner Bros releases, one of the best online documentary libraries available (Q Into the Storm), a library of culture shifting original series (Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Veep) and a vast rotating hub of Turner Classics Movies (North by Northwest, Meet Me In St. Louis, Battleship Potemkin). Best of all, the HBO Max app appears to be curated by real human film aficionados instead of algorithms. This is just my personal opinion, but if you’re interested in my tastes, here’s a list of movies and shows I’ve watched or rewatched since 2015 (sorted by rating).

If you’ve got other interesting dinner/movie combo suggestions, please let me know.

Top image by Paul Young.

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