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A Review of ‘Little Italy,’ the Movie That Spawned a Day of Ringer Content

This pizza-centric rom-com starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen will likely be forgotten to the dustbin of cinematic history, but not before we slice it up, garnish it with red pepper, and use it to think about the role of pizza in the movies (seriously)

Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

We hereby declare Tuesday, August 28 to be Pizza Day, a day to celebrate all the magic (and marinara) of one of earth’s greatest foods. To be completely honest, Pizza Day was originally meant to be timed to the release of the pizza-themed romantic comedy Little Italy, starring Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen; when we realized that Little Italy hits theaters this week only in Canada, we said, “Eh, let’s celebrate pizza in August anyway.” Who needs an excuse to honor pizza, right? So without further ado, here is a review of the movie that inspired this day, from someone lucky enough to live in Canada.

What is the most pizza-centric movie ever made? I was wondering this on my way to see Little Italy, a movie about former childhood sweethearts played by Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen, whose families run competing pizzerias. There are great movie pizza moments, of course, like Tony Manero going to town on two pepperoni slices in Saturday Night Fever or Spicoli ordering a pie to his homeroom in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As an ’80s kid who prefers Spaceballs to Star Wars, I bow to nobody in my love of Pizza the Hutt. Throw in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and—obviously—Mystic Pizza and the canon is set, with a shout-out to Ti West’s awesome shlock homage The House of the Devil and the immortal line “I know you college kids love pizza,” which is great because it’s said by Tom Noonan, playing a closet satanist, and also because it’s true.

Little Italy features enough scenes of people making, ordering, delivering, and eating pizza that it’s as much a pizza-slinging documentary as it is a romantic comedy. Actually, a documentary about pizza would have probably been better; with its slumming stars battling script clichés and their own diction while trying to seem credibly paisan-ish (Christensen delivered pizzas in Toronto to prep for the part), Little Italy obviously isn’t very good, and opening in the shadow of a successfully broad, demographically-diverse crowd-pleaser like Crazy Rich Asians only makes it look worse.

I’ll never know how good it is, though, because somebody pulled the fire alarm midway through at the screening I went to in Toronto on the weekend (maybe it was somebody involved in the production). I’m guessing that Roberts and Christensen end up together, though. Little Italy is such a brazenly, desperately conventional ’90s-style romantic comedy that it could almost be a parody of the genre: They Came Together, except the joke is on the audience.

Actually, if I may quote David Wain’s satirical masterpiece, it’s almost like Toronto is another character in Little Italy, which was filmed in one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods (that’d be, um, Little Italy). Unlike most American movies that touch down in Hollywood North, Little Italy doesn’t try to disguise this fact: Toronto gets to play itself for a change. When Leo (Hayden Christensen) shows up for work at his father’s pizzeria, he’s rocking a mid-’90s vintage Blue Jays jacket, and the plot—such as it is—depends on Roberts’s aspiring chef Nikki, traveling from London (England, not Ontario, complete with Jane Seymour playing Gordon Ramsay) back to Toronto for work-related reasons. Her homecoming is soured by the family feud between the two clans, which is expressed, naturally, through the metaphor of pizza. Leo’s dad is famous for his pizza’s crust but his sauce is mediocre; Nikki’s pops makes good sauce but the dough is mediocre. At its best, pizza is about the harmony between ingredients, but until the two men put aside their differences, they’re doomed to equally slumping business.

The presence of Danny Aiello as a wise patriarch is a callback to his Oscar-nominated role as Sal in Do the Right Thing, which I didn’t mention earlier as pizza-movie canon because Spike Lee’s masterpiece is obviously about a couple of other things before it’s about food. But there’s also something to be said for how Lee uses Sal’s Pizzeria and its clientele as ground zero for the film’s examination of social, cultural, and racial tensions, starting with the in-store hierarchy that lets the owner’s racist son Pino (John Turturro) antagonize delivery guy Mookie (Lee). (Sal’s is also located directly opposite a Korean grocery store, physicalizing the diversity of the Bed-Stuy backdrop.) What begins as a symbol of its owner’s hard-driving immigrant ambitions and pride—the latter consolidated by the pictures of Italian celebrities on the wall—ends up being destroyed as collateral damage in a conflict that’s both connected to and larger than its history of selling slices and ice cream.

Because Do the Right Thing contains volumes, it’s possible to debate whether or not Mookie’s decision to throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria—in effect breaking the peaceful facade of neighborhood camaraderie and coexistence—was, in fact, the right thing. Or even if it was, whether it’s fair for a businessman to lose everything on the basis of his prejudices (a complexity created largely by Aiello’s wonderfully soulful performance).

Unless they show up after the halfway point, Little Italy does not contain volumes. Nor is it interestingly or provocatively ambivalent about traditions, unless you count criticisms of sauce-free pizza as a sociological line in the sand. Between the satire of Nikki’s upscale cooking ambitions and the romanticization of a neighborhood whose inhabitants are made to look and act like it’s the 1950s instead of the 21st century, it’s a backward looking-movie—Make Pizza Great Again—marinating its jokes in what is supposed to be sweetly inoffensive ethnic humor, a la My Big Fat Greek Wedding (although the presence of an Indian Canadian delivery boy who’s referred to affectionately as “Slumdog” is pushing it).

This isn’t the sort of movie in which somebody throws a trash can through a pizzeria window. It’s the kind of movie where Nikki gets home, goes right to the bar where Leo works on College Street, gets drunk, challenges him to an intoxicated soccer game in the pouring rain in front of all their friends (a little-known Canadian tradition) and then passes out, waking up in his apartment the next day wondering if anything happened (of course it didn’t, Leo’s a good boy).

Sadly, this is about when the fire alarm went off, robbing me of my much-needed closure—not just about Nikki and Leo but about whether or not their fathers’ feud would be reconciled, flooding the streets of Toronto with top-quality pizza again. (I’d list the best pizza places in the city but what’s the point; if there’s a Raptors championship parade in June maybe I can suggest who should cater it.) Filing out through the emergency exit, I did wonder what it would mean if the fire was serious and Little Italy was the last movie I ever saw in my life. Luckily Die Hard 2 was on TV when I got home.